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How ‘The Upside’ Beat the Box Office Bankruptcy Curse

The Upside,” a feel good film about the bond that forms between a wealthy quadriplegic and his caretaker, scored a surprising box office victory last weekend. The movie had to overcome a series of obstacles and setbacks before it topped charts.

In the weeks leading up to the drama’s release, star Kevin Hart had been the subject of countless headlines analyzing whether or not the comedian will host this year’s Oscars. The entertainer was offered the gig, but quickly stepped down after controversy sparked over homophobic jokes he made in the past. A little unwanted press, however, is nothing compared to the turmoil leading up to the movie’s theatrical debut.

Its rocky gestation to the big screen makes “The Upside,” which doubled industry expectations with a $19.5 million opening weekend, all the more impressive. An English-language remake of the French hit “Les Intouchables” was first announced in 2011, and it took around five years before Hart and his co-star Bryan Cranston were both officially attached to the project. The Weinstein Company was originally on board to distribute “The Upside.” It had its world premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, where it received indifferent reviews, but the movie was shelved after sexual assault allegations came to light against Harvey Weinstein. After the Weinstein Company went under, STX Entertainment and Lantern Entertainment saved the movie that was almost orphaned in bankruptcy.

Not all fledging films saved from abandonment fare as well. Take “Blue Sky” for example. Tony Richardson’s acclaimed drama won Jessica Lange an Oscar in 1994, but after it was postponed for three years when Orion Pictures filed for bankruptcy, the movie wasn’t able to find an audience and ended its box office run with a meager $3 million. The failure of Orion left scores of stray and neglected films. Among them: “Love Field,” “The Favor,” “Car 54, Where Are You?,” and “Clifford.” Nearly every one of these pictures bombed at the box office when they finally saw the light of day.

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More recently, Halle Berry’s “Kidnap” had to find another home following the liquidation of Relativity Media. It was in limbo for years before Aviron Pictures purchased rights for the thriller. That one performed better, earning $34 million globally in 2017. But other films delayed or sold off in the wake of Relativity’s financial failure, such as “Masterminds” and “Hunter Killer,” collapsed at the box office. And while STX may have scored by rescuing “The Upside” out of bankruptcy, the studio fared poorly with “The Space Between Us,” a sci-fi romance that the company purchased during the waning days of Relativity. It eked out less than $15 million despite carrying a budget that was double that figure.

Another Weinstein casualty was “Fahrenheit 11/9,” Michael Moore’s followup to his acclaimed documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11.” The poor box office performance of that particular title can’t be tied to the distributor alone. Moore’s anti-Trump critique didn’t tap into the zeitgeist the same way he was able to do so with his scathing takedown of the Bush administration in “Fahrenheit 9/11.” But it’s a wonder what might have happened with a marketing push beyond the scope that a smaller company like Briarcliff Entertainment was able to provide. That’s not to say “Fahrenheit 11/9” would have broken any box office records, but perhaps it might have made back more in ticket sales than just its production budget.

For most movies, especially indie titles, most of the behind-the-scenes noise isn’t something that traditionally permeates beyond Hollywood. Audiences typically aren’t aware of any production chaos, and even if they are for some reason obsessive readers of the Hollywood trades, they aren’t likely making a decision based on a distributor’s financial headaches. It does, however, provide a bigger obstacle to the studio when it comes to marketing a film and choosing its release date.

“Frequently, Hollywood gets wrapped up in a lot of its own noise. That noise [doesn’t always] permeate the rest of popular culture,” said Adam Fogelson, STX’s Motion Picture Group chairman. “I think far fewer people knew about the inside baseball. Most moviegoers became aware of this movie when we started running trailers.”

Revamped trailers were just part of what STX and Lantern were able to nail with “The Upside.” A mid-January launch meant the movie didn’t have much direct competition. Moreover, the studio worked with director Neil Burger to recut the R-rated movie into a PG-13 title in hopes that it would be more accessible for a broader audience. That seemed to work, as audiences embraced the film that critics largely gave the cold shoulder.

“Hiccups along the way can lead to a poor performance [at the box office], and it’s not so much about the movie,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior box office analyst with Comscore. “It comes down to the marketing. Most people have not seen the movie, so the average moviegoer is relying on the consistency of that messaging. It’s entirely up to the acquirers to get a clear plan in place.”

There’s a lot to be learned for long-delayed movies that have still yet to debut in theaters. The collapse of Global Road Entertainment left Johnny Depp’s “City of Lies,” a police drama about the murder investigations of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., destitute. And the Weinstein Company’s demise resulted in a number of homeless high-profile projects. Among them is “Hotel Mumbai,” a thriller about the 2008 terrorist attacks at the Taj Mahal. Bleecker Street and ShivHans Pictures are teaming up to distribute the movie in North America. It has bankable stars with Dev Patel and Armie Hammer — and it’s even got solid reviews to match following its release at Toronto in 2018. Will the thriller beat the odds and break out at the box office? There could still be an upside for former Weinstein Company titles still hoping to hit the big screen.

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