Getting people to see a movie in a theater is a craft seemingly as mysterious as anything done to make the movie itself. It’s also one that is open to a wide degree of creativity, as proved by the degree of success Steven Lewis Simpson has achieved for his indie feature “Neither Wolf nor Dog.”
“I opened in certain theaters where I knew the film would do well,” says Simpson, who wrote, directed, produced, shot and edited the picture, and says it has had the longest first theatrical run of any film this decade. “Neither Wolf nor Dog” premiered Jan. 20, 2017, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and went on to play small towns across the northern United States. It’s played in theaters in a dozen states, and is still booking them. The movie comes for the first time to the Los Angeles area with a run that started Sept. 13 at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.
The meditative film is about a white writer, played by Christopher Sweeney, who is brought to a Dakota reservation to write the life story of a 95-year-old Lakota elder, played by the late Dave Bald Eagle (“Imprint,” “Into the West”). The film earned acclaim from audiences, who fell in love with and championed the story (adapted from the book by Kent Nerburn) and the acting of Bald Eagle.
The film was crowd-financed and shot in 18 days with only two crew members and hardly any equipment, but it has resonated with demographics across the spectrum. It’s been in more than 200 theaters in North America as well as 250 other screening venues, has been released in the U.K. and Bulgaria, and still has hardly covered 15% of the market.
Simpson says that in one opening week it was the top film in a 10-screen multiplex with nine other studio-financed films. “We did 1,600 admissions in Bemidji, Minn., a town of 15,000,” he says. “[When] you get into this position where people see that you’re doing so well, they start paying attention.”
The Comscore box office reporting service, which provides distributors box office figures for their films, costs $12,500 a year, so, understandably, Simpson has never subscribed. Instead, he gets his numbers from each cinema.
“I’m scratching my head, thinking, ‘We’ve done about 100,000 admissions, and I don’t for a second believe that I can outperform the experts,’” he says. “It wouldn’t surprise me if I’ve only managed to do 10% of what an expert could have done, and if that’s the case, then they would have gotten about 1 million admissions for this film in theaters, which is major for any independent film.” Simpson says that in small towns, where admission prices are lower, the picture has grossed $600,000 — or about $6 a pop.
It’s fair to say that the movie’s long run has benefited from a perfect storm: Audiences love it, it features the final performance of a beloved Native American actor and it took a grassroots approach to building a following. Simpson is obviously pleased with the success of his strategy, which he detailed in a TEDx Talk that has been viewed more than 1,500 times since its debut in March 2018.
“If we [went straight to VOD], it would have just been another small indie film,” he says.