SPOKANE, Wash.—The Basket could be the next Blair Witch Project phenomenon.

And a wholesome one at that.

Even though its release is limited to one screen in Spokane, Wash., The Basket, an independent film, is astonishing industry watchers at the drawing power of wholesome entertainment.

“The film has had audiences in Spokane applauding after every showing,” said Patrick Ryan, film buyer for AMC's (American Multi Cinema) west division.

The Basket, starring Peter Coyote (Patch Adams, ET) and Karen Allen (Animal House, Raiders of the Lost Ark), opened Aug. 20 in conjunction with the grand opening of the AMC River Park Square Theater in downtown Spokane. Originally scheduled for a six-day run, theater manager Carrie Pretz said, “Based on the business the film is doing I don't expect it to be leaving anytime soon.”

According to AMC Theaters, typical box office receipts drop 30% from the first to second weekend, and then drop further as the weeks continue. The Basket not only posted a 10% increase over the second weekend, but went on to nearly double the increase over the third weekend.

Based on the per-screen average, The Basket is the No. 1 film in Spokane beating out even the national hit The Sixth Sense which is showing on two screens.

AMC box office figures show that the film has grossed $66,000 in three weeks showing on only one screen. Compared to films listed in the online edition of the entertainment-industry magazine Variety, The Basket had a higher per-screen weekend average than any theatrical film in the country. At this point AMC plans to hold the film out for yet another two weeks.

The Story's the Thing

Set during the closing stages of World War I, The Basket is a fictional story about the triumph over the bitterness brought on by war. Three newcomers arrive in small-town Waterville, Wash.: German war orphans Helmut and Brigitta Brink and Eastern schoolteacher Martin Conlon (Peter Coyote).

Conlon teaches the children about tolerance through the unlikely subjects of basketball and opera. Karen Allen plays Bessie Emery, the mother of a wounded American soldier, and wife to a man harboring deep prejudices against the Germans and consequently Helmut and Brigitta. In addition, the film features an original musical score composed by Don Caron and performed by the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra and local musicians and singers.

Produced by North by Northwest Productions in Spokane, at a cost of $3.3 million, the idea for the film was born through the creative talents of writers Caron, Frank and Tessa Swoboda, and Rich Cowan.

“The writing team began working on the project nearly four years ago,” explained Marc Dahlstrom, executive producer. Once the idea was born the team committed to regular evening and weekend meetings to see the project through. The film itself was shot last year. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and at that time a dozen foreign countries purchased the rights to the film, including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany.

North by Northwest enlisted a great deal of local talent in the production of the film. Several of the individuals, such as writer and musician Caron, writer and producer Frank Swoboda, baritone singer Jim Swoboda, and art director Vincent De Felice are alumni of Spokane's Catholic elementary schools and Gonzaga Catholic Preparatory school.

“It's the kind of film that people want Hollywood to make, but Hollywood doesn't,” said Frank Swoboda. “The audience response has been wonderful.”

Families in a Theater

Moviegoers such as Cindy Omlin, of Mead, are describing the film as true family entertainment. A stay-at-home mother, Omlin, who has seen the film twice, said that because of low expectations her 13-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son tried all day to get the family not to go to the film.

“After seeing it, however, they both said they enjoyed it and were glad we went,” said Omlin. “The film shows that once we break through our bigotry and assumptions we can see the benefit of others.”

Omlin said she believed that supporting the film is a terrific way for people to encourage the movie industry to produce additional highquality family fare. To this end she has launched an e-mail campaign to convince others to support the film. Omlin is not alone.

Having lost hope in the film industry, Diane Nebel of Rosalia, Wash., went to see the film. So moved by the picture and its message, she recently wrote to President Clinton, holding the film up as the kind of motion picture that is needed to pull Hollywood out of the “dirt.”

According to Frank Swoboda, a teacher from All Saints Elementary School in Spokane was so impressed by the film that she arranged for an 11 a.m. matinee and brought the school's fifth- through eighth-graders. “That's an audience, and revenue, we never expected,” admitted Swoboda.

Mary Pollard of Greenacres wrote in the Spokesman-Review that the film was one of the most “memorable and heartwarming” she had seen in years and especially enjoyed that it was a film that the entire family could see together. “Hollywood could rediscover a way to make money,” Frank Swoboda said. “Parents are bringing not only their children, but also their grandparents. Many have said they've never been able to do that with a film before.”

He explained that the film has grown from a grass-roots marketing effort: “We used the Internet, knocked on a lot of doors, talked with churches, and hung flyers. Aside from that we are doing nothing … and the film is living!”

“The film is appealing to a wide range of people primarily by word of mouth,” said theater manager Carrie Pretz. “It's a film that everyone is talking about. It would be nice to see this film go elsewhere.”

Plans to Go National

In fact, AMC, which owns more than 234 theaters worldwide, has plans to test the film in another market in October.

“AMC is fully behind this film,” said Patrick Ryan, the AMC film buyer.” The Basket has been accepted as part of the Denver International Film Festival on Wednesday, Oct. 13. We have offered to open the film to the public at AMC's five Denver theaters on Oct. 15. Denver's second highest grossing theater, the Highlands Ranch Theater in Littleton, Colo., will definitely be one of them.”

Ryan admitted that there were several things working to The Basket's advantage: “First, it is playing in its hometown. Second, AMC owns larger screen complexes and therefore has the screen space to show the film. Finally, it is a time of the year when there aren't a lot of strong films in the market or pressure from the major studios to show other films.”

Ryan stated that based upon the availability of additional prints AMC is prepared to open the film in other markets beyond Denver over the next couple of months. He cited Phoenix and Oklahoma City as possibilities.

Hopefully the film will strike a chord with viewers nationwide and continue to do well outside of Spokane,” Frank Swoboda said. “A distribution company, or an additional $25,000 investment by Northwest could give The Basket wider distribution.

Of the response to the film, Dahlstrom said, “After the movie people are stopping to thank us for making a film that isn't centered around gratuitous sex or violence. We are hearing over and over that people want movies like this.”

Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minn., and can be reached at tdrake@gw.stcdio.org.