‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ Hopes to Be ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ Style Summer Breakout

“Jurassic World” cast such a gargantuan shadow across the weekend box office that it was easy to overlook another promising new release, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”

The Sundance favorite didn’t set any records, but Fox Searchlight, the studio behind the tearjerker about a high school cinephile who befriends a cancer-stricken classmate, insists it is pleased with the film’s performance.

“We felt the film was strong enough to go in the summer,” said Frank Rodriguez, senior vice president of distribution at Searchlight. “There was no indication [‘Jurassic World’] would do $200 million, and that kind of sucked up all the air, but there was still space for us and we got the press and reviews we needed.”

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” debuted in six markets and 15 theaters to a respectable $210,000, representing a per-screen average of $14,000. Rodriguez likened those results to the $116,666 and $19,444 per-screen to which “Napoleon Dynamite” bowed  in 2004 before ending its run with $44.5 million in receipts. He also noted that the picture was the top-grossing release in three theaters in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Brooklyn, and was the second or third best performer in most of its other engagements.

Like “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Me and Earl” was a hit with festival crowds, but it enters multiplexes without an established star or director. The picture was directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, whose biggest previous credits were overseeing episodes of “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” and stars up-and-coming actors including Olivia Cooke (“Bates Motel”) and Thomas Mann (“Project X”).

At Sundance, “Me and Earl” set off a bidding war, with Fox Searchlight walking away with the prize after promising $6 million and a share of the profits. Yet, the road is littered with festival favorites such as “Hamlet 2” and “Happy, Texas” that landed big paydays only to receive a cold shoulder from the general public.

There’s a lot to like about “Me and Earl.” The film is warm and witty, with sly jokes about movie classics like “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Apocalypse Now.” However, terminal disease isn’t the most marketable story element in the world, nor are extended parodies of Criterion Collection staples.

“Jurassic World” wasn’t “Me and Earl’s” only obstacle. It also faced stiff competition for the arthouse dollar from the Brian Wilson biopic “Love and Mercy,” which racked up $1.8 million in its second weekend, albeit on hundreds more screens.

If the film is going to be the rare indie breakout, it will need a big lift from critics. They appear to have answered the call, handing the film an 82% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Variety‘s Peter Debruge went so far as to predict the dramedy “…has the potential to outperform last year’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars.‘”

On the strength of the notices and audience response, Fox Searchlight is plunging ahead with the picture’s rollout. Next week, the film will add 10 new markets Searchlight and expects to be in between 60 to 70 theaters. By July 1, it anticipates screening the picture in 600 to 700 locations.

Rodriguez thinks some teenagers that might have seen “Me and Earl” opted to check out “Jurassic World” instead, but he’s confident that will change.

“They’ll catch up to it,” said Rodriguez. “There’s a lot of time left. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

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