“Diva,” The Unexpected Hit

When people in the movie business talk about unexpected results, they are usually talking about sure-fire hits that ended up not working. Every once in a while the opposite is true. Such was the case with “Diva.”

The first time I saw “Diva” was in a small screening room in the United Artists building at 729 Seventh Ave. It had been brought to the U.A. Classics team by Norbert Auerbach, who was running U.A.’s international division at the time, and if I’m remembering correctly, it was his wife who had recommended the film. While we found it enjoyable, we passed on it. It just seemed too pop and too mainstream for the art film audience we were used to catering to. It had already opened and flopped in France.

Several months later, I was at the Toronto Film Festival. The moment I arrived I was accosted by David Overbey, a prominent film critic and programmer for the festival, who tried to convince me to see “Diva,” which was emerging as the hit of the festival. I told him we’d seen it and already passed. At that point, the film’s director, Jean-Jacques Beineix, began to stalk me. Every party I went to, he was there and in my face. He told me of the incredible reaction the film was getting, the fact that the festival had already scheduled additional screenings, pleading with me to see it again with an audience. So finally, I gave in and went to a screening. And yes, the audience response was electric.

We ended up making a deal to acquire the film for a $30,000 advance.

The distribution strategy was built around having the U.S. Premiere at Filmex, which was Los Angeles’s only film festival at that time. The film seemed to play well, but clearly the critics were less than enthralled: at a festival lunch following the screening, L.A. Times film critic Sheila Benson proceeded to trash it. And Kevin Thomas, who ultimately reviewed the film for the L.A. Times, was positive, but not all that enthusiastic or quotable. No surprise that the film opened in L.A. with less than stellar results.

Meanwhile, we were proceeding with the planned opening in New York, which was to be one week later.  We were intent on making the point to the press that this was no ordinary French Film.

We scheduled a premiere screening, followed by a party at a bowling alley–taking our cue from a chase scene in the film. The party invitation prompted the classic question from Catherine Veret of the French Film office, “Darling, what does one wear to a bowling alley?”

The ad campaign for the film was a collage of disparate images from the film, that was inspired by a Chevrolet commercial. The copy line, “A new kind of French New Wave,” was a cheeky reference to new wave music, which was becoming popular at the time and which we played at the premiere party.

With the exception of Vincent Canby’s New York Times review, which was a pan, all the other New York reviews were stellar, with the most influential ones being Pauline Kael’s in the New Yorker and David Denby’s in New York Magazine. On opening day, there were lines around the block. The film was a genuine hit. Interestingly, the grosses immediately picked up in Los Angeles, as well.

Due to incredible word-of-mouth, the grosses for “Diva” stayed steady for months. Ultimately the film crossed the $6 million mark, which was a huge win. The American results led to a re-release in France, and it became a hit there as well. Oh, and at the end of the year, it was on Sheila Benson’s 10 best list. 

You’ve never seen “Diva” until you’ve seen it on a big screen with an audience; it really makes a difference. Come see it at Columbia’s Lenfest Center for the Arts on Sunday September 16th. The screening will be introduced by Columbia Professor Annette Insdorf. Tickets are available, along with the rest of the series at nyindieguy.com.

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