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Film Festival Today

Founded by Jeremy Taylor

Indies Versus The Mega Blockbusters

Written by: FFT Webmaster | July 5th, 2011

It has never been a fair fight….particularly during the summer season. The Hollywood promotion machine is at its zenith in the summer period, still its most lucrative of the year. Like gold coins coming out of a slot machine, the studios release their biggest and most expensive films of the year (although generally not their best ones) with a marketing muscle and industry clout that is still quite astonishing. THOR, TRANSFORMERS, CARS, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, X-MEN…..these are the franchise giants that dominate the cinema landscape and that hog the lion’s share of multiplex theaters at this time of year. In the past, indie distributors would have to wait until August, when the behemoths had finally quieted down, in order to release their smaller and more fragile films into the marketplace. However, this formula has changed considerably, with some particularly brave (and savvy) distributors bringing out their specialty titles in the heat of the Hollywood hoopla to provide audiences with an alternative to the smash-crash genre that so dominates the landscape. And, guess what, the strategy seems to be working. Some of the titles listed below opened before the official start of summer, but parallel the increasingly earlier “summer season” for Hollywood too, that began this year in early May. So, here is a survey of what indie films have made a mark in the past few months.

The big indie hit of the summer could well be a film by a 72 year old, who has more than his fair share of box office bombs. Woody Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, has passed the $30 million gross mark in the United States and is still in very wide release. The film, a roundelay set in the city of lights, is well on its way to becoming the biggest grosser in the Woodman’s 40 year career, expected to surpass his previous biggest hit HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, which finished at $40 million in 1986. The film seems to be drawing from a wide mix of audiences…..seniors, baby boomers, Woodyphiles and twenty/thirtysomething hipsters. It may yet emerge as the most successful independent release of the year.

Focus Features, which had a lackluster 2010, is showing strong signs of a revival with two specialty films this season. The lush literary adaptation JANE EYRE overcame some ho-hum reviews to become one of the biggest specialty performers at nearly $12 million box office gross. The film, directed by SIN NOMBRE director Kari Fukanaga, also has heightened the box office appeal of the film’s two leads Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, who have become two of Hollywood’s hottest acting properties. There is talk that the film may get a re-release later in the year if it snags some awards season nominations. The other summer performer for Focus Features is BEGINNERS, the family dramedy by writer/director Mike Mills, that will soon cross the $3 million mark after one month in release and still widening its theatrical presence. Strong reviews and possible award nominations also make this a possible re-release later in the year.

Two comedy films from Fox Searchlight also found strong response from both critics and audiences. CEDAR RAPIDS, a buddy comedy by Miguel Arteta starring Ed Helms (one of the boys in THE HANGOVER series) and John C. Reilly, made nearly $7 million at the U.S. box office and now is bringing in very respectable revenues from the ancillary television and home entertainment markets. WIN WIN, one of the sleeper hits of the year with a winning performance by Paul Giamatti, is ending its several month run past the $12 million mark, making it Fox Searchlight’s biggest grosser since last year’s Oscar winner BLACK SWAN. Both films should turn up on critics “ten best lists”.

While it may not be the 3D film that will maximize the box office charts, CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, director Werner Herzog’s provocative and soul-stirring documentary that explores recently uncovered prehistoric cave paintings in Southern France has become the highest grossing documentary of the summer, expected to pass the $5 million mark this week. That is chump change compared to the summer blockbusters but represents a milestone for Sundance Selects, the specialty label collaboration between IFC Films and the Sundance Institute. It is the highest grossing film to have been released under the banner. The film also has been hailed for its imaginative use of 3D as a powerful (and non-gratuitous) visual element that illuminates rather than simply emphasizes as in the score of 3D action films that are to be released this season.

A second documentary to score well is BILL CUNNINGHAM, NEW YORK by Gotham director Richard Press. This portrait of one of the city’s fashion photography gurus has made more than $2 million in its release so far by micro distributor Zeitgeist Films and is still on screens around the country. The film is Zeitgeist’s third highest grosser ever and is destined to become an evergreen in its television and home entertainment cycles…..not to mention reviving the career of its veteran director.

In the foreign language arena, several films have also had very respectable releases this season (although none came close to THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO success story). Among the strongest films (in alphabetical order) were CERTIFIED COPY, THE DOUBLE HOUR, INCENDIES, OF GODS AND MEN and POTICHE. And in the hard to classify category, Terrence Malick’s singular THE TREE OF LIFE is still in strong release and is expected to break $10 million at the box office. This only represents a small percentage of the film’s budget, but the grosses for this film seem to be strongest overseas, where overall the film may make more than $50 million internationally.

Of course, there were also the box office losers that, due to timing, bad reviews or simple bad luck, just did not click with audiences and therefore suffered anemic box office returns. Count among the casualties such misfires as TRUST, SYMPATHY FOR DELICIOUS, THE BEAVER, SUPER, ATLAS SHRUGGED, THE ART OF GETTING BY,  PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES, CONAN O’BRIEN CAN’T STOP and all the here today/gone tomorrow indie titles that seem to just eke out one short week on New York screens and then die away only to emerge at 2am on some obscure cable movie channel a month or two later. Winners, losers, we toast you all for giving it the old college try………..

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