IFC's release one of summer's niche successes

Opening a made-for-TV movie starring two resolutely British comedians in the heat of summer tentpole season might not seem like a surefire recipe for box office success.

But IFC’s release of “The Trip,” directed by Michael Winterbottom, has become one of the summer’s niche successes, with $1.84 million in theatrical B.O. and another healthy chunk from VOD. Those aren’t Woody Allen-sized numbers, but after a season when several festival pickups have struggled to find their aud, “The Trip” has become the prolific Winterbottom’s top U.S. limited release (“A Mighty Heart” went out wide).

The strategically planned rollout echoed the distrib’s summer 2009 release of “In the Loop,”another BBC telepic starring Steve Coogan.

Starting as a six-part BBC2 miniseries, “The Trip” is a sardonic travelogue of a freewheeling drive around the British countryside. Coogan plays a food writer on a magazine assignment to visit lavish restaurants who drags Rob Brydon along for company and carousing. Though huge in the U.K., the stars are little-known across the pond: Coogan appeared in “Tropic Thunder,” while Brydon is a longtime British TV actor.

When “The Trip” was recut as a feature and premiered in Toronto last year, IFC noticed a raucous aud reaction to the typically British humor, said IFC senior VP of marketing and publicity Ryan Werner.

The pic’s U.S. journey started with April’s preem at the Tribeca Film Fest, where Coogan and Brydon did well-received Q&As and plenty of U.S. promotion.

IFC brought in Mark Woollen, creator of trailers for pics including “The Social Network,” to cut trailers, including one featuring the memorable scene where Coogan and Brydon compete to pull off the best Michael Caine impression.

After Tribeca, IFC rolled out lots of word of mouth screenings and screened the pic at the San Francisco and Boston Film Fests. Advertising and publicity campaigns were a series of surgical strikes targeted at the right niches: IFC touted the foodie road trip angle to food bloggers (the L.A. Weekly’s Squid Ink blog called it “perhaps one of the funniest food-themed films ever”). Comedy fans were targeted by spots purchased on comedian Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast, bolstered by flyers at comedy clubs.

Werner pegs the humor as the main driver behind the pic’s success. “People want to feel good,” he said.

As the pic opened June 10, it racked up a startling 97% positive rating from Rotten Tomatoes’ top critics. Though it never played in more than 62 theaters at a time, “it should continue to play through the fall,” according to Werner.

In addition to sold-out shows in urban areas, a positive reception in places like Madison, Wis., and Orlando, Fla., demonstrates the pic’s appeal beyond the coasts.

Like most of IFC’s releases, “The Trip” also bowed on VOD around the same time as the theatrical opening — in this case, a week later, to allow it to qualify for possible awards consideration. VOD performance has been “really solid,” Werner said, approaching the boffo sales for “In the Loop.”

Though IFC also has rights to the original TV series, which may air sometime, “We wanted people to think of it as a film first,” Werner said.

IFC is having a strong summer, with even better results for docs “Buck” and “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.”

But in a tough season for specialty films, IFC’s release of “The Trip” shows the number of elements that must coalesce for an indie to have a fighting chance.

Werner emphasized that a key component is keeping the pic seem fresh to filmgoers by releasing new posters and trailers along the way.

“You have to find new ways to engage the audience,” he said.

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