In the race to sell tickets each summer, studios routinely throw bazillions of dollars into star salaries and CGI hocus-pocus. But sometimes all it takes to pack theaters is two strangers who fall in love and make beautiful music together. Introducing Once, the scruffy indie-rock musical that earned a massive per-screen average of nearly $31,000 in two theaters during its opening weekend and has earned $1.7 million to date thanks to strong word of mouth, wet kisses from critics, and an Oscar-worthy album of love songs that hit No. 1 on the iTunes 100 soundtrack chart. Not bad for a movie whose $175,000 budget wouldn't even cover Johnny Depp's Pirates of the Caribbean mascara bill.
It's not like small movies can't break through in blockbuster season think My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Napoleon Dynamite but Once is doing it without the typical tropes (dysfunctional families, nerdy-cool catchphrases) that often fuel art-house phenoms. ''We were so haunted by the music, and audiences are too,'' says Fox Searchlight COO Nancy Utley, who bought the film at Sundance and has expanded it to 120 theaters so far. ''It's a discovery for people who want something different.''
That ''something'' is a sweet romance, reminiscent of the 1995 Ethan Hawke-Julie Delpy tearjerker Before Sunrise, that John Carney wrote and directed to appeal to his ''16-year-old niece with a nose ring.'' The chemistry between his two leads Glen Hansard, frontman for the Irish rock band the Frames, and Markéta Irglová, a Czech musician and acting novice was easy to produce during the January 2006 shoot in Dublin. ''I had been falling in love with her for a long time, but I kept telling myself she's just a kid,'' says Hansard, 37, who has known his 19-year-old costar for the past six years. (The two are now dating.) ''There was definitely the feeling we were documenting something precious and private.'' As it turns out, that's the one special effect money can't buy.