How Roadshow has cultivated a big home-grown hit with the story of a kelpie and a bus driver.

Australian film Red Dog has moved Roadshow Films into unchartered waters — but Managing Director Joel Pearlman isn’t complaining.

The film opened on Aug 4 and grossed US$1.87 (A$1.78m) in its opening weekend from a blockbuster-sized 245-print release, took five percent more in the following weekend, then rose again by 19 percent in its third weekend.

It is now listed as grossing US$8 (A$7.6m), already making it the fifth biggest local film in the last five years after Australia, Happy Feet, Mao’s Last Dancer and Tomorrow When the War Began.

In its opening week, Red Dog was in fourth position in the charts but, unlike most films, it’s gone up the ladder instead of down: in week two it was third, and in week three it was second despite several big US summer releases dropping in around it including Cowboys And Aliens. Last Sunday it was the most popular film in the country.

“We had very big plans for this film and it was a blockbuster campaign but there is no question that what has transpired is beyond our expectations,” said Pearlman.

Red Dog tells the true story of a kelpie that adopts a bus driver (Josh Lucas) and unites a mining community in Western Australia. It is both playful and fable-like. Its production budget is understood to be about A$8m-A$9m.

Roadshow saw its primary market as women aged 25 to 34 but they hoped those women would take their husbands, boyfriends and families. Clearly they did – and the film is also doing remarkable repeat business.

“Usually films have a very fast pay-off: within two, three or four weeks,” Pearlman told Screen. “What is happening here is extremely rare. Broad word of mouth means it is now crossing into all quadrants. It is hard to get a film that will play in multiplexes for a long time and we will keep pouring fuel on Red Dog (in terms of marketing spend) for as long as it takes.”

The aim of the marketing materials was to reinforce the biggest strengths of the film: the dog and the humour. But it was the film itself that was the best selling tool and many previews were held. With Lucas and the other lead, Rachael Taylor, having overseas filming commitments, it was Kojo, the dog that principally played the titular lead, and producer Nelson Woss, who adopted him after filming was completed, that toured with the film rather than any human stars.

“Ultimately people of all ages are identifying with the film and their response is emotional,” said Pearlman. “This dog is bringing people together to laugh and cry. It is a film that belongs to the people.”

Roadshow also used a clip that went viral on YouTube before the film was financed, as a teaser trailer.

“It was made to show the investors that an ordinary dog could entertain and deliver an excellent performance and to show that Kriv Stenders, who had only directed dark films, had the talent and sense of humour to direct Red Dog,” said Woss.

The script by Daniel Taplitz was based on a book by UK writer Louis de Bernieres. Julie Ryan produced alongside Woss.

Sales agent Essential Entertainment has sold multiple international territories including to G2 Pictures in the UK and to Degeto for TV in Germany and Ascot Elite for all other rights. Essential is handling international sales and domestic alongside International Creative Management (ICM) who says it has multiple offers on the table.

As with many Australian films, Screen Australia was the principal investor, and state government agencies were also involved, in this case ScreenWest and the South Australia Film Corporation. Other investors included Woss Group Film Productions, Rio Tinto, Woodside Petroleum, WesTrack, the Pilbara Development Commission and Royalties For Regions.

September is school holiday time in Australia which is good news for Roadshow and exhibitors: during his presentation to the Australian International Movie Convention on Monday, Pearlman told delegates that Red Dog would be “the one school holiday film you will be able to book at 25%,” a reference to the fact that the distributor will only be claiming back one-quarter of box office takings.

Pearlman would not make predictions on how much Red Dog would eventually gross but there is little doubt it will reach the local all-time top 10 list and all those films have done more than US$17.3 (A$16.5m).

Will there be a sequel? “Hopefully” he said, after a long pause.