EXTRA: The Anti-Blockbusters

Nobody saw “Nobody.” Almost.

With an unwhopping $488 take (less than the price of a big-screen TV), the Phaedra Cinema release was 1999’s lowest-grossing feature on record through Dec. 30, industry statistics show.

The film, a Japanese import, represents the flip side of Hollywood’s chest-thumping and box-office boasting. For each blockbuster that pulled in $100 million-plus last year (there were 18 in all), there were at least 20 that grossed less than $2,000.

Directed by first-timer Toshimichi Ohkawa, “Nobody” was an action thriller about three friends whose lives changed when a bar fight became something far, far beyond their control. In a review for @NZone Magazine, writer Dustin Putman awarded the film a passing two-and-a-half (out of five) stars, calling it a “tautly filmed and tightly developed” flick that ultimately fell apart.

So, “Nobody,” at least according to one reviewer, wasn’t terrible. Was it worthy of something bigger than the three-figure gross it pulled in last June?

Sometimes victories aren’t measured in dollars and cents.

“Just the fact that you are able to shatter the barrier of getting into a theater is victory enough,” says Adam Jahnke, assistant director of Los Angeles operations for Troma Entertainment. “You have to first narrow your vision to the very few independent theaters operating, and then actually get your film booked. It is not an easy process.”

Troma – home to low-budget legends such as “The Toxic Avenger” — knows of where it speaks. The company released the 14th-lowest-grossing flick of ’99, “Terror Firmer.” The horror flick, a wildly comic tale of carnage, sex and bloodshed on the set of a low-budget movie, earned $1,434 the hard way on just two screens, according to box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations.

“It is an uphill battle all the way,” Janhke says. “If you make any money after all that, that’s a bonus.”

Of course, not all low-grossing films are the products of scrappy filmmakers devoid of big-time studio bucks. Five of 1999’s bottom 20 were released by major distributors. Miramax (“Heaven”), Strand Releasing (“Pink Narcissus“), Gramercy (“I Want You”), Lion’s Gate (“Elvis Gratton 2”) and MGM (“Tinseltown“) all issued titles that wound up in the under-$2,000 gross category.

These flicks didn’t necessarily want for star power, either. Tony Spiridakis’ “Tinseltown,” a black comedy about two homeless screenwriters who befriend a possible serial killer with hopes of selling a movie based on the would-be sicko’s exploits, featured familiar faces like Kristy Swanson (“Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”) and Ron Perlman (“Beauty and the Beast”). The crime drama “I Want You” starred Rachel Weisz, who made 1999’s top-grosser list as Brendan Fraser‘s love interest in “The Mummy.” Name talent or no, “Tinseltown” and “I Want You” earned less than $1,800 – combined.

And while 19 of the bottom 20 features played at no more than two theaters, Lion’s Gate opened the French-language Canadian comedy “Elvis Gratton 2” on a not-too-shabby 91 screens. But with just under $1,200 at the domestic box office through Dec. 30, “Elvis” actually performed worse (per-screen-average-wise) than any other film on the low-grossers list.

In some cases, last year’s bottom feeders are still in release and may well end up making more cash before calling it quits and praying for video pay dirt. Troma’s “Terror Firmer,” for instance, continues its Los Angeles run — moving from the USC-area University Cinema to the midnight confines of the New Beverly Theater.

Ultimately, the fate of a very small film — like a “Nobody” — is traditionally grim. Without money to promote and little incentive for theaters to book, these features are rarely given the exposure they need — regardless of quality and content.

“Many times you simply can’t put together the marketing campaign that will shout loud enough to get above the Hollywood films that command the market’s attention,” says Sam L. Grogg, dean of the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Film and Television Studies. “What is important is the critical play and getting the attention of the film intelligentsia.”

But Grogg says realists understand that even that kind of breakthrough is rare.

“You have to understand what the limitations are and use them accordingly,” Grogg says. “I’ve always thought of the theatrical release as a launching pad for other release mediums – whether home video or cable TV. A theatrical release is still sought after, however. If you have a movie, you want to have it shown in front of people.”

And not “Nobody.”

Here’s a complete look at the 20 lowest-grossing films of 1999, according to Exhibitor Relations:

1. “Nobody” (Phaedra) — $488 2. “Bastards” (Margin) — $503 3. “Tinseltown” (MGM) — $517 4. “Summerspell” (Margin) — $603 5. “Olympia” (King) — $640 6. “Port Djema” (Shadow) — $783 7. “The Underground Comedy Movie” (Phaedra) — $856 8. “Flushed” (1st Look) — $935 9. “The Milky Way” (Kino) — $1,098 10. “Wallowitch & Ross: This Moment” (1st Run) — $1,145 11. “Elvis Gratton 2” (Lion’s Gate) — $1,156 12. “Lilian’s Story” (Phaedra) — $1,220 13. “I Want You” (Gramercy) — $1,242 14. “Terror Firmer” (Troma) — $1,434 15. “Sixth Happiness” (Regent) — $1,540 16. “Virtue” (Margin) — $1,565 17. “Young and Dangerous” (Margin) — $1,624 18. “The Pusher” (1st Run) – $1,656 19. “Pink Narcissus” (Strand) — $1,724 20. “Heaven” (Miramax) — $1,983