This is the time of year when filmgoers addicted to awards shows find themselves asking, “What happened to the movies I saw last year?” Box office hits like “Interstellar,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” or even “Gone Girl” were among the missing, for example, at the Golden Globes. This year’s Oscar show, on Feb. 22, also will focus mostly on movies hardly anyone in the TV audience has seen.
And here’s where indie films get the last laugh: While Hollywood’s slate of 2014 tentpoles sustained a more than 5% decline from the previous year, the undernourished specialty sector last year enjoyed an uptick of like proportions. And Globes winners like “Boyhood,” “The Theory of Everything” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” will likely fortify that gain.
“The indies are thriving for one simple reason — the films are interesting,” observes Ted Mundorff, CEO of the Landmark chain, whose 50 theaters and 229 screens enjoyed a 5% jump in box office last year thanks to indie fare. There’s also another reason for the gain: While the under-25-year-old demo is disappearing from megaplexes at a 15% rate, the over-45 set has remained faithful. One key underrated resource for indie films is the female market. The most successful chick pic of the year was “The Fault in Our Stars,” a $12 million film from Fox that grossed more than $300 million worldwide.
“We were all cramming too much product into the awards corridor, but most of us still had a damn good year compared with our studio big brothers,” reports the chief of one specialty unit who did not want to stir jealousy by being quoted.
The consistent absence of major studio releases from the awards race is a relatively new phenomenon. Two generations ago, wide Hollywood releases like “The Sting,” “The Godfather” or “ET” enjoyed critical as well as financial success (as did “Gravity” and “Argo” most recently). This year, however, the polarization of the majors vs. the indies is more dramatic than ever, as Hollywood increasingly obsesses on building overseas audiences. As Tom Bernard of Sony Classics said recently, “The studios do not want to be in the Oscar business.” In fact, the dominance of niche projects at the Golden Globes could help explain the 11% decline in last week’s TV ratings for the show.
Meanwhile the indies relish their award season boosts. Last year, “Dallas Buyers Club” didn’t win the big prize, but the film got a 30% jump in the period immediately after the Globes, adding theaters after stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto took home awards (the two added Oscars as well, and the movie ended up grossing about $27 million domestically). This year’s Globes winner, “Boyhood,” released by IFC, the most indie of the indies, could experience a substantial boost from its present $24 million domestic take, especially in the digital arena.
The marketing challenges in the indie sector pose a sharp contrast to those faced by the majors. The ad spend may be one-tenth that of a blockbuster. There are no franchises (the notion of a “Birdman” sequel is mind-numbing). Stars seem irrelevant — Eddie Redmayne doesn’t yet sell tickets, nor does Julianne Moore. Of all the indie pictures, “Foxcatcher” boasted the biggest names in the cast — Steve Carell and Channing Tatum — but it has yet to reach the $10 million mark. Such results are hardly surprising. The magic one-liner designed to propel TV spots can be near impossible to dream up for an original film with a complex theme; how do you reduce “The Grand Budapest Hotel” to a catchphrase?
Ultimately, the financial rewards in the indie sector can’t come close to matching those of a “Guardians” or an “Interstellar.” But clearly the career gains are bountiful, and the trophies glow proudly on mantels.