“Moonlight” is a film without any big stars. It’s a drama about a shy, gay kid growing up in the inner city, made by a director whose last credit was so long ago many cinephiles feared he’d hung up the camera and retired. It’s the kind of challenging, deeply personal, fiercely urgent look at black life in America that would be lucky to score a video-on-demand berth, let alone a major theatrical release.
And yet, the no-budget film isn’t just a hit with critics, it is poised to be the breakout indie film of the year. This weekend, “Moonlight” scored the highest per-screen average of 2016, debuting to a sizzling $414,740 in just four New York and Los Angeles theaters. There were sellouts and standing ovations, just as there had been when the film announced itself as a serious awards contender at festivals in Toronto and Telluride.
“This puts it on the Oscar map, big time,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with comScore. “They’ve got something really special here.”
The film’s per-screen average of $103,685 is one of the strongest of the decade. It’s the kind of commercial response usually reserved for A-list filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, Woody Allen, and Paul Thomas Anderson. But “Moonlight” doesn’t arrive courtesy of one of these masters. It marks Barry Jenkins’ return behind the camera after an eight-year absence. His previous effort, “Medicine for Melancholy,” earned Independent Spirit Award nominations and was a hit with reviewers when it came out in 2008, but in the ensuing years, Jenkins struggled to find the right vehicle for his talents. A film about Stevie Wonder failed to get off the ground, and Jenkins dabbled in advertising, carpentry, and had an artistically frustrating stint as a writer on HBO’s “The Leftovers.” His years in the Hollywood wilderness appeared to have come to an end.
“It’s an extremely special film that Barry made and we’re seeing that in the response,” said Heath Shapiro, distribution chief at A24, the indie distributor behind “Moonlight.”
In “Moonlight,” an adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” Jenkins appears to have found the perfect material for his humanistic approach to filmmaking. The picture unfolds in three acts, as it examines Chiron’s troubled childhood in a drug-addled section of Miami, and uses his coming-of-age to illuminate issues of addiction and urban violence. It’s a movie that is of the moment. Jenkins’ film hits theaters as the #BlackLivesMatter movement continues to gain momentum, fueled by a series of shootings of people of color by law enforcement officials.
In a glowing review for the New York Times, A.O. Scott placed the film in a pantheon of artistic meditations on race in America, writing, “Like James Baldwin’s ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’ — or, to take a more recent example, like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ‘Between the World and Me’ — ‘Moonlight’ dwells on the dignity, beauty and terrible vulnerability of black bodies, on the existential and physical matter of black lives.”
The film could also be a corrective to #OscarsSoWhite, the social media campaign that sprung up last spring over a failure by the Motion Picture Academy of America to nominate people of color in any of the major acting categories for two years running. That’s a role that Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” was widely expected to play after it debuted to standing ovations at Sundance. However, after a rape accusation from Parker’s college years re-surfaced, the film collapsed at the box office. It is not expected to be a major player in the awards race.
But “Moonlight” could take its place. It could potentially earn nods for Naomie Harris as Chiron’s crack-addicted mother, Mahershala Ali as a sensitive drug dealer, and Jenkins for writing and directing. Many Oscar prognosticators predict that the film is in the running for best picture, vying with the likes of “Manchester By the Sea” and “La La Land.”
Commercial success can often spur awards attention. To that end, “Moonlight’s” opening compares favorably to “Birdman,” which kicked off to $106,099 per-screen, before capturing a best picture Oscar and $42.4 million domestically, and “Brokeback Mountain,” which launched with $109,485 per-screen, ultimately making $83 million stateside and earning best director for Ang Lee. It’s too early to know if “Moonlight” will wind up with similar grosses even if Oscar voters embrace it. After all, many films sell out art house theaters, only to wither when mainstream audiences get a look at them. “The Master” and “Steve Jobs” both opened to higher per-screen averages than “Moonlight,” but were commercial failures when they expanded nationally.
In “Moonlight’s” case, patience will be key. Both “Birdman” and “Brokeback Mountain” were slow-and-steady earners, gradually expanding their theatrical footprints as critical acclaim gathered and word-of-mouth built. A24, which has successfully fielded past indie hits such as “Room” and “Ex Machina,” will be deliberate with “Moonlight.” Next weekend, the film will add five markets, expanding to Chicago, Washington D.C, Miami, San Francisco, and Atlanta. It will roll out in an undetermined number of theaters nationally by the first weekend in November.
A24’s Shapiro thinks that “Moonlight,” with its look at race and sexuality, has the potential to move beyond the older, white audiences that typically embrace art house films.
“We’re drawing from an art house audience, an African-American audience, an LGBT audience and the film is winning them over,” said Shapiro. “It has a universal appeal.”