If you’re looking for this summer’s indie hit, you’ll have better luck checking the megaplex than the arthouse.
Emboldened by the recent success of specialty fare in the summer, distribs are launching indie films on more screens, more quickly, with more marketing.
“Overall, a lot of these films are getting more aggressive releases,” says Bob Berney, chief of newly formed Picturehouse. “There’s not a lot in the middle. Either it’s a small boutique release or it’s getting this pretty wide release.”
Usually at this time of the summer, there are a couple specialty films that have managed to transform themselves from cognoscenti darlings to mainstream success stories.
Think “Napoleon Dynamite,” which last year brought in $44.5 million over a 35-week run, or 2003’s “Bend It Like Beckham,” which kicked in $33.5 million in 32 weeks.
But with most of the limited release films failing to catch broad traction this year, the specialty world’s best hope seems to be a nature doc, Warner Independent Pictures’ “The March of the Penguins,” which kept its per screen average over $20,000 for its first two weeks.
Ironically, however, the dearth of slow-build hits this year is largely a consequence of how successful specialty films, like “Memento,” “Y tu mama tambien,” and “Super Size Me,” have been in recent years
Instead of typical platform releases — where films are first released in a handful of high-grossing New York and L.A. theaters, then gradually expanded over months — specialty labels have been releasing their most promising titles in patterns more akin to big studio fare
“The past four or five years has shown, especially as these films have played in the smaller markets and the multiplexes, the audience and the screen are available,” Berney says.
“There have been a few singles and doubles,” Samuel Goldwyn Films prexy Meyer Gottlieb says, “but only one home run and that’s ‘Crash.’ ”
While the ensemble drama, which has made more than $50 million, may have been a likely candidate for a platform strategy just a few years ago, Lions Gate decided to go wide with 1,864 playdates on opening weekend.
“It’s played more like a commercial film than an independent one,” Gottlieb says.
Sony Pictures Classics used a similar strategy with “Kung Fu Hustle,” playing seven screens for two weeks, and then expanding to 2,503 theaters. The strategy ultimately netted the martial-arts pic $16.8 million.
Likewise, when Paramount Classics releases Sundance-darling “Hustle & Flow” on July 22, it will also look more like a commercial release than a specialty roll-out, with an initial run topping 1,000 theaters and even sneak previews the previous weekend.
Co-prexy Ruth Vitale says the limited strategy had become more difficult in the summer because of the crowding from studio films.
“More movies are making more noise,” she says. “With movies that you think you can get across to a broad audience, I think in the summer you’ve got to go for the gold.”
The advantage, says Roadside Attractions co-prexy Howard Cohen, is similar to the major studio strategy: get as much money out of the marketplace as quickly as possible.
“If the movies have the wide potential, you don’t want to risk it getting killed on its platform if it doesn’t get great reviews,” he says.
The disadvantage is also familiar: without time for word-of-mouth to spread gradually, distribs are spending more and more on their marketing campaigns.
“You’re making something marketing-driven that wasn’t supposed to be marketing-driven,” Cohen says.
The notion of the summer specialty hit is a fairly recent one. Just a few years ago, prestige pics were almost exclusively reserved for the fall season, where they’d be more likely to coast off awards buzz, while summer was seen as a time for blockbusters.
“Five years ago,” says Warner Independent distrib chief Steven Friedlander, “the question would have been why do you go with an arthouse film in the summer?”
In summer 2000, for instance, the highest-grossing limited release picture from the first half of the year was “Croupier” which brought in $6.2 million over a 28-week run that started in April.
The following year, though, Newmarket demonstrated that there was big money in specialty fare with the success of “Memento,” which managed to reach $25.5 million over 35 weeks.
In 2002, the home runs included Focus Features’ “Monsoon Wedding” ($13.9 million) and Newmarket’s “Y tu mama tambien” ($13.6 million), but the stakes were raised to the stratosphere with “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
The family comedy started on 108 screens on April 19. Though it would go on to gross $241 million, the pic didn’t gross more than $2 million in a weekend until its 11th frame, the last weekend in June, when it was playing 493 screens.
In 2003, Searchlight had good luck with “Bend It Like Beckham” (which grossed $32.5 million) and Newmarket scored with “Whale Rider” ($20.8 million).
And of course, the biggest demonstration of how big indie can be came last year with both the spring’s “The Passion of the Christ” ($371 million) and then the summer’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” ($119 million), both of which went out wide rather than limited.
Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Tom Bernard says these “Sundance-hybrid films” propel distribs to swing for the fences every time they get up to the plate with one of their hot fest acquisitions.
“I look at what’s coming up and I think there will be a surprise hit as there is every summer, but Fox Searchlight and Focus and Miramax — those companies that seemed to deal in those kind of pictures — they’re not subscribing to that anymore. They’re looking to compete with the studios,” he says.
Indeed, Focus, which had summer success with “Swimming Pool” in 2003, has spent most of the first half of the year on wide releases like “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Unleashed,” both of which went out through its genre arm Rogue Pictures. Neither of its limited entries this year, “My Summer of Love” and “Rory O’Shea Was Here” gained traction.
And before the Weinstein brothers depart Miramax at the end of September, that company has been primarily occupied with its big titles like “Sin City” and “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl.”
Specialty labels have often sought to balance their slates of arthouse titles with low-budget genre material. But it is becoming harder to distinguish between the two, especially as marketing costs skyrocket.
ThinkFilm spent heavily on TV ads before the release of its quadriplegic rugby doc “Murderball.”
And industry execs accuse their rivals (if not owning up to it themselves) of doling out millions on blurbs for their specialty titles.
“The downside of the blow-it-out strategy is you’re spending all this money before you know what you have,” Roadside’s Cohen says.
The other downside is that a marketing blitz isn’t always an adequate substitute for the slow-building buzz of a hit that takes a few weeks to find its niche.
When “Napoleon Dynamite” opened last summer, it looked like a dud. Expansion had brought it to 423 runs in its eighth week, but the pic was grossing a weak $3,315 per screen. Searchlight continued to support the film though, with marketing help from MTV and the pic started to take off in August.
Steve Gilula, distrib chief for Searchlight, says, ” ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ is that unusual situation where time really benefited the movie.”
With no stars or high concepts, he says, it would have been tough to launch into immediate wide release.
But with so much potential box office out there, it is becoming harder for distribs to resist the urge and do just that.