With sullen teen protagonists, a 1920s blues soundtrack and a kid-unfriendly R rating, ''Ghost World'' isn't an obvious choice for blockbuster-hungry audiences. But the wry comedy about post-high school angst may be this summer's most surprising sleeper hit. Though it's earned only $3.2 million, ''Ghost World'' has defied the ''chew 'em up and spit 'em out'' pattern of multiplex booking: It continues to play to sold-out crowds almost eight weeks after its initial release. Last weekend, ''Ghost World'''s per-screen average surpassed that of the No. 1 movie, ''Jeepers Creepers.''
So how is ''Ghost World'' scaring up an audience? Critical raves have been a major boost (EW gave the movie a glowing A- and put it on the ''10 Summer Movies Worth Seeing'' list). The film's gradual release pattern (from five theaters when it opened July 20 to 81 venues last weekend) has allowed good buzz to spread. Plus, this summer's deadening slate of box office fluff has left some audiences craving something a little tart. ''This movie is anti- everything you've been seeing,'' says movie analyst Robert Bucksbaum of Reel Source. ''The people who complain they don't like commercial stuff are the ones creating these sold-out shows. It speaks to them, because it's reality.'' Even so, studio execs, stars, and even ''Ghost World'' creator Daniel Clowes questioned whether his cult comic was really movie material. ''I'd had many, many offers over the years, and I'd always envision myself down the road in a cocaine stupor with a gun at my head, saying, why did I let them do that?'' Clowes tells EW.com.
Clowes credits director Terry Zwigoff, who helmed the biodocumentary ''Crumb,'' with showing him the project's potential. The two spent 18 months collaborating on a script about two post-high school best friends -- Enid (played by ''American Beauty'''s Thora Birch) and Rebecca (''The Horse Whisperer'''s Scarlett Johansson) -- who bond over their mutual contempt for mainstream music and mini-mall culture. There's also a borderline creepy subplot in which Enid develops a relationship with antisocial fortysomething record collector Seymour (''The Big Lebowski'''s Steve Buscemi).
Try pitching THAT to studios looking for the next ''American Pie.'' Not surprisingly, the project scared off most studio execs. ''The first question was always, 'What's the soundtrack?' Because a teen movie soundtrack is a huge profit item for studios,'' says Zwigoff, who selected rare 1920s blues and jazz tracks for Seymour's collection. ''I told them it's gotta have this old music, and any modern music we have will be treated with complete contempt. And with that you're out the [studio exec's] door.''