By ELEANOR BLACK

We know it will be a hit at home, but the million-dollar question is: how will Niki Caro's Whale Rider fare overseas, especially in the lucrative North American and European markets?

There has been considerable interest at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival this week, where Whale Rider has had five screenings. The film has been picked up for US distribution by New Market, the company which distributed the sleeper hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding and is responsible for North American promotion for the critically acclaimed British comedy Bend It Like Beckham.

Whale Rider producer John Barnett expects the film to perform well in the United States, where it opens in June, because of the universality of its themes and the high calibre of the acting and cinematography.

"I don't think [with] the money [distributors] have paid for it, they are planning on small arthouse releases," says Barnett, who optioned the rights to Witi Ihimaera's novel 10 years ago, thinking it would "translate well internationally".

"It's a film that challenges you to think and ... in today's world there's almost a search for this sort of thing in cinema."

In Australia, where Buena Vista International (also the New Zealand distributor) is releasing the movie, it is seen as a potential arthouse hit. No one knows what to expect at the suburban cineplex.

"It's going to be interesting," says Buena Vista International marketing manager Bede Stevens. "I don't think [mass appeal is] going to be an issue [in New Zealand]. It's the first New Zealand film we've ever picked up on and we think it's the best New Zealand film ever made."

The company's Australian promoters will be taking clues from the film's performance in New Zealand. Initially, the film will open in smaller cinemas and gradually be introduced to mainstream theatres. The cast and film-makers will tour Australia.

The film has also been sold to distributors in the UK, Europe, South America, Africa and Asia.

Herald feature: Whale Rider