The New Ishtar

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Leo Grillo in Zyzzyx Road.

This weekend's Best Picture contender Little Miss Sunshine was the indie miracle of 2006, the quirky, come-from-nowhere comedy that became one of the biggest hits of the year and a possible Oscar champ. Too bad you can't say the same for Zyzzyx Road, another small 2006 indie that hit the record books for another reason entirely — after a single week's showing in a quiet Dallas movie house, it became the lowest-grossing film ever released, at least since modern record-keeping began.

The movie, starring Grey's Anatomy co-star Katherine Heigle and troubled Saving Private Ryan vet Tom Sizemore, sold six tickets and made $30.

Daily Variety mentioned the dismal box-office in a story last month, and since then the web has been abuzz with news, gossip and (mostly) bad jokes about the film. Produced for an estimated $1.2 million — about one-eighth the budget of Little Miss SunshineZyzzyx Road played in a single, solitary Texas theater late last year. What happened? The answer is actually simple: the brief release in an inaccessible spot was deliberately chosen by the filmmakers to validate the Screen Actors Guild pay scales for films under $2.5 million.

The picture needed to be shown in at least one theater for at least one week to qualify for the special wages paid to actors who are involved with a low-budget film. This is to ensure that producers don't fast-talk eager actors into accepting lower pay for what they are told is a legitimate feature, but is actually a direct-to-video project. Although Zyzzyx's filmmakers had always planned to seek a distributor for a large, domestic release, they first rented out the small Texas theater in order to fulfill the SAG requirements.

"Somehow it became lodged as an official box-office gross, and that's when all hell broke loose," says Zyzzyx director/writer John Penney. Movie fan sites, major publications and even National Public Radio have been chiming in. Now, oddly enough, the movie is enjoying a flurry of press and attention as the latest successor to historic turkeys such as Heaven's Gate, Ishtar and Plan 9 From Outer Space.

"What happened to John is the ultimate experience of life in Hollywood," says friend and screenwriter Scott Alexander, who co-wrote Ed Wood, The People Vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon. "It's all quicksand. Fantastic success and absolute failure hover at all times. John finally got to direct his first movie: Success! But it's the lowest grosser in history, putting him in the Guinness Book of World Records: Failure! But now everybody wants to see the movie and meet him, and so he'll get more opportunities to make more movies: Success! Success! Success!"

Penney, who's keeping a good sense of humor about the whole fiasco, says, "It's not how I imagined launching my directing career." Still, he's since directed a second feature and plans to shoot his third this spring. "I guess you could say I'm failing upward."

Zyzzyx Road has been sold internationally, playing more expansive dates in Australia, Spain and 21 other countries, earning nearly $400,000. The film, which aspires to a noirish road picture in the vein of Red Rock West or U-Turn, isn't truly a historic stinker — it's super-low box office has just given it a bad rap. It hasn't been picked up by a U.S. distributor for a wider release in the states, but there has been interest from DVD companies and others who want to capitalize on the weird press.

Penney is undaunted. "Folks in the film industry know why these screenings are held for SAG, and they laugh about it," he says. "But people who aren't in the business look at me like I've had a death in the family."