'Murderball,' Taking an Unfair Hit

The tale of quadriplegic rugby players drew rave reviews but limited audiences.
The tale of quadriplegic rugby players drew rave reviews but limited audiences. (Thinkfilm Via Associated Press)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 31, 2005

The movie "Murderball" is one of the year's bona fide festival circuit hits, a hugely entertaining story about a group of charismatic athletes playing a particularly high-stakes game of rugby. Before it opened in New York and Los Angeles on July 8, it seemed you couldn't open a major newspaper, turn on a radio or watch Jay Leno, Regis and Kelly or the "Today" show without hearing or seeing the film's co-director, Henry Alex Rubin, and one of its most colorful stars, a tough rugby champion named Mark Zupan.

Since opening nationwide, "Murderball" has attracted virtually unanimous rave reviews, including a ringing endorsement from The Post's own Stephen Hunter, who called it the best sports documentary since "Hoop Dreams." "I was struck," Hunter wrote, "by how well [the filmmakers] manipulate the elements of plot and character, back story, culture, narrative tension, comic relief and climax."

It looked like the film would be a slam-dunk when it hit theaters, just the kind of lively, fun, can-do movie that becomes a textbook example of savvy summer counterprogramming.

But it hasn't worked out that way. And the reason, its distributors say, is as disheartening as "Murderball" is inspiring: The rugby players in the film happen to be in wheelchairs.

"Critical acclaim was both over the moon and virtually unanimous," says Mark Urman, head of ThinkFilm's domestic theatrical division. "The media exposure was sort of unprecedented for a low-budget documentary, [with] commitments being made by outlets that by definition will usually not devote the time or space to this sort of film unless they think it will be mainstream and big and hot." MTV even signed on to co-present "Murderball," based on its strong debut at the Sundance Film Festival.

"It was like, 'Okay, we've got absolutely everything that any movie would ever require to be a smashing success,' " Urman says.

But three weeks after opening, "Murderball" had grossed only $264,000, a paltry sum compared with, say, the documentary "March of the Penguins" (which has grossed more than $10 million). At first, Urman says, he thought that maybe the title wasn't working, or that word of mouth about "Murderball" simply wasn't as good as the company predicted. After ThinkFilm hired a market research firm to test audiences' reactions, they found that response to the movie was overwhelmingly positive.

Their conclusion? The wheelchairs are scaring filmgoers off. "We have a film that is about men who've had either terrible injuries or illnesses," Urman says. "I think people assume -- incorrectly -- that it will be emotionally draining as opposed to emotionally uplifting. I've heard people say, 'Oh, I've heard good things about it, I just don't know if I'm ready for it,' or 'I don't know if I'm in the mood.' " (Coincidentally, the Screen Actors Guild last week released a study concluding that actors with disabilities are routinely discriminated against in Hollywood.)

The good news is that once viewers have seen "Murderball," they love it and can't wait to tell their friends to see it. So ThinkFilm has reduced the number of theaters at which it is playing, allowing it to find an audience more slowly. The strategy is already paying off, with box office grosses increasing day-to-day and week-to-week, a sign that a picture is doing well. "Murderball" is playing in Washington at Landmark's E Street and Bethesda Row, as well as Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax.

Meanwhile, ThinkFilm is keeping up the marketing momentum: Co-presenter MTV will air a special episode of "Jackass" tomorrow night on MTV2 with Johnny Knoxville and Stev-O facing off against the "Murderball" stars, and Larry King will interview the filmmakers later this week.

Ironically, the company just started rolling out a movie Urman thought would be far more controversial, "The Aristocrats," in which dozens of comedians tell the same vulgar joke over and over. " 'The Aristocrats' was going to be my taboo movie and 'Murderball' was going to be my warm and fuzzy movie," Urman says. Instead, "Murderball" has apparently run up against the same kind of prejudice and resistance that the filmmakers were hoping to help break down. "It's occurred to us that this is what these men go through every day of their lives," Urman says. "It's what these guys are used to and what we've had to learn."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company