How One American Cinema Turned Four Weddings and a Funeral Into a Hit
by Simon Brew
With four BAFTAs, two Oscar nominations (including one for Best Picture), and nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in the bank, the 1994 British romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral more than rewarded its $4.5 million investment. And yet the fortunes of the low-budget film—which effectively launched Hugh Grant's career as a leading man—may just have hinged on a single cinema in New York City.
While the film proved to be a hit in the U.K., it was arguably its breakthrough at the U.S. box office that turned it into a bigger event. And yet its American distributor, Gramercy Pictures, barely had the promotional budget to put the film out.
As such, instead of paying for hundreds of prints up front and a big advertising campaign, it gambled on an initial release on just five American screens: two in New York, three in Los Angeles. If the film could sell those screenings out, then the figure for the average amount of money taken per individual screen would be high. As such, Gramercy figured, it would persuade more exhibitors to book the film, and Four Weddings and a Funeral could build toward a wider release.
The problem, as producer/distributor Michael Kuhn recounted in his book One Hundred Films and a Funeral, was that the early projections on the film's opening weekend in America were "soft." Kuhn and his team had only hours to turn these numbers around before the weekend was over, because by Saturday lunchtime, the movie was looking dead and buried.
Gramercy worked out that the problem centered on just one of the New York City cinemas: It was a multiplex that had programmed Four Weddings and a Funeral on its smallest screen. Showings of the film were sold out, but because there were no more seats available, the box office wasn't at the level that Kuhn and his team needed.
In spite of the fact that said multiplex's larger screen was booked to a rival film, the manager of the cinema agreed to move Four Weddings and a Funeral to the bigger auditorium. Which was a gamble on the manager's part, particularly if the studio behind the rival film found out.
It never did.
"On that single initiative hinged much of the subsequent history of Four Weddings and a Funeral," Kuhn wrote. A weekend gross that was set to be $18,566 across five screens was suddenly boosted to $176,000, "way ahead what we had hoped for." When the box office chart for the weekend came in, exhibitors took note, and Four Weddings and a Funeral secured the extra bookings it needed.
Gramercy Pictures had its first major hit.
Four Weddings and a Funeral would go on to earn more than $52 million at the U.S. box office, which, at the time, was an unheard of number for an independent British romantic comedy. Yet had one theater manager in New York made a different decision, the history of Four Weddings and a Funeral (and Hugh Grant's career) would likely be very, very different.