“Whiplash” is a box office tortoise, not a hare.
The story of a promising young jazz drummer (Miles Teller) and his demanding mentor (J.K. Simmons) has earned some of the year’s best reviews and will likely factor into awards season races. But it lacks big name stars and an easily digestible premise, so distributor Sony Pictures Classics is plotting a slow expansion for the low-budget drama.
“We take our time,” said Michael Barker, Sony Pictures Classics co-president and co-founder. “These pictures tend to have great word-of-mouth. We release them like an accordion, where we go wider and wider, before eventually we contract a little.”
It’s a formula that Sony Pictures Classics previously applied to such Oscar contenders as “An Education” and “Capote.” In the case of “Whiplash,” it has meant opening the film in a half dozen theaters and slowly expanding it to just 61 locations over the course of a month where it’s picked up north of $1 million.
The studio will have “Whiplash” in 125 theaters this weekend, and plans to push it into 400 by Nov. 14. Barker said he expects “Whiplash” will remain at that level through Thanksgiving and may go wider at Christmas or January when major awards nominations are announced.
The film’s producer Jason Blum said he appreciates the methodical way Sony Pictures Classics is introducing the film to the wider world.
“It feels like a classic American indie movie,” said Blum. “There’s been a long tradition of those movies coming into the world slowly, and Sony Classics does that terrifically. We found the right home.”
To break out, “Whiplash” will be bucking the odds. This year has been a punishing one for indie films. With the exceptions of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Boyhood” and lately “Birdman,” art house and film festival favorites such as “Begin Again,” “Love Is Strange” and “I Origins” have barely made a blip at the multiplexes. Many have stalled out before getting into many theaters.
There’s one thing that could work in “Whiplash’s” favor, analysts say. Last year, Oscar contenders were dominated by major studio films such as “Gravity,” “American Hustle” and “Captain Philips.” This time around, independent companies such as Sony Pictures Classics, the Weinstein Co. and Fox Searchlight are expected to garner the bulk of the nominations.
“It gives smaller movies like ‘Whiplash’ more room to breathe,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “When you’ve got an Oscar contender, sometimes it’s better to hold your cards close to your chest as long as you can and wait for more buzz to kick in.”
For Blum, best known for fielding micro-budget horror hits such as “Paranormal Activity” and “Insidious,” being a critical darling is a new experience. He backed the $3.3 million production, and helped keep costs low by bringing in crew members who had worked on his horror films such as “The Purge.” Sony Pictures Classics nabbed distribution rights at the Sundance Film Festival.
“I don’t think you ever expect the kind of reaction this has received,” Blum said. “I’m used to reviewers not liking my films. Critics and horror don’t go together so well.”
Barker, whose company is a perennial awards contestant, distributing the likes of “Blue Jasmine,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Howards End,” has been on this particular train before.
“It’s a high-quality film that’s got great word-of-mouth,” he said. “It’s the little engine that could.”