Exactly one year ago, Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” was the toast of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. These days, the filmmaker’s unprecedented 12-year portrait of a young man’s coming of age is so much more: A widely beloved hit with critics and audiences alike, it ranks among the very few experimental projects to cross over to mainstream awareness, with over $43 million in worldwide box office to its name; it was a favorite of President Barack Obama, gave Linklater his inaugural Best Director nomination after 20-plus years of cinematic innovation, and is quite possibly the first Sundance premiere with a real shot at winning Best Picture.
But last January, nobody knew quite what to expect — least of all the people invested in the unorthodox project.
A Hard Sell
Prior to the movie’s premiere January 19 at Sundance’s massive Eccles Theater, “Boyhood” didn’t even have distribution. In 2002, IFC Productions head Jonathan Sehring gave the greenlight to finance Linklater’s production of “Boyhood” each summer for the next 12 years. With time, IFC’s production arm wound down while Sehring shifted into a role as the head of distribution, with “Boyhood” being the company’s final effort. But he never committed to releasing the project — and in the months leading up to Sundance, at hush-hush screenings for other distributors, nobody else did, either.
“There were a few screenings before Sundance that did not necessarily fill us with a sense that we had we thought we could sell,” said Cinetic Media’s John Sloss, who was involved in the production from the beginning. “There was concern in the distribution community about the commerciality of the film.”
Sehring said he assumed a bigger company would want to take on the movie with resources beyond IFC’s ability. “We’d had this investment for 12 years,” he said. “We weren’t going to give it a small release, but we knew we had something when we saw it. We were just hoping that a studio or studio specialty division would have that same reaction.”
Instead, the general sense from buyers was that “Boyhood” operated on the same level of accessibility found in Linklater’s “Before” trilogy — a small arthouse movie about life philosophies and the passage of time that wasn’t destined for mass-market release.
“I wore two hats on this movie,” Sehring said. “One was as a producer. When we got into it, IFC Films never contemplated doing the movie in terms of distribution. Then there was my other responsibility and I wanted to distribute it. But I had a fiduciary responsibility for Rick to find the right home for it.”
Linklater’s used to dealing with mixed results at the box office and has seen all kinds of limited releases for his films, but he felt especially uncertain about the way things would go. “I just thought we were going to have to grind it out and not get much support from the big guys,” he said.
Sloss, however, said he felt more confident going into the festival. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” he said. “Whether it’s ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ or ‘Napoleon Dynamite,’ I’m trained to have a commercial instinct. My sense was that this film was very playable, more so than its components indicated.”
At the screening, everything changed: As “Boyhood” came to a close shortly after midnight, Linklater and the cast — including stars Ellar Coltrane and Lorelai Linklater, the director’s daughter — faced an astounding comment from the audience during the Q&A: A 19-year-old stood up and announced, “This is my life.”
Later, IFC parent company AMC Networks hosted a celebratory gathering at the Stein Eriksen Lodge. “We were stunned by the response that night,” Sehring said. “It was everything you could have hoped for.”
But Coltrane, still wearing the piercings and dazed expression of the evolving young man seen in the movie, said he had no hopes at all. “I didn’t have much expectations for it,” he said. “That’s the strange thing about it. More than anything, we were bracing ourselves for no one to care. It’s a weird movie.”
Instead, in less than 24 hours, he became one of the most recognizable young faces in Park City — and, over the next year, the rest of the country.
“It was so strange to be at Sundance after making this little indie movie in Austin for the last decade,” Coltrane recalled. “Sundance was hardly the most glamorous thing I’ve been to this past year, but it certainly was something else.”
Sealing the Deal
On the one hand, the raves for “Boyhood” arrived right on schedule. After the mixed responses to “Bad News Bears” and “Fast Food Nation,” Linklater had been on a roll in recent years. Despite the fumbled release of “Me and Orson Welles,” his portfolio continued to expand with formally daring works that managed to enthrall a wide variety of audiences: From the psychedelically inspired rotoscope animation of “A Scanner Darkly” to the tonally ambitious dark comedy “Bernie,” the laconic Texan never stopped challenging himself. That tendency seemingly reached its apex at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival with “Before Midnight,” the concluding entry to a romantic trilogy launched over 20 years earlier.
The director said he’s used to this cycle of being “discovered” for his different approaches rather than being seen as a surefire bet. “It’s always slightly different and slightly the same,” he said. “Breaking through the larger culture costs a lot — even when people know who you are.”
Even after the rapturous Sundance reception, buyers remained uncertain about “Boyhood.” Cinetic sold four foreign territories for the movie at the festival, the largest of which was Universal — but the studio’s domestic division showed far less interest. Sehring began to consider releasing the movie, but waited several weeks before closing the deal. “We had been partners all along from the day Rick conceived it,” Sehring said. “He has a lot of his own time and money in this. He wanted what was best for the film and we always said, ‘Yes, we’ll do right by it.’”
When the company finally secured U.S. rights, Linklater made his high hopes for the project clearer than ever. “Basically, Rick said, ‘Jon, I hold you in such high esteem for having backed me in this project for 12 years. Please don’t ruin my opinion of you,’” Sehring said.
Despite Linklater’s laid-back demeanor, he felt strongly that the potential for “Boyhood” had been validated by its rapturous Sundance landing. “Once it was clear we all sensed that people liked the movie — that everyone liked the movie — it was like, well, what would a bigger distributor do?” he said. “I’ve been there before where distributors don’t go there for you — they can be too conservative theatrically. I was like, ‘Hey, no guts, no glory.’” Partly as a result of his insistence, “Boyhood” ultimately opened on nearly 800 screens in the U.S.
“I said, ‘If you can’t go all in on this, what can you go in on?” Linklater said with a laugh. “It’s always a bummer when you make something that doesn’t reach its potential.”
A Welcome Reception
Unlike many would-be Oscar contenders, “Boyhood” opened over the summer. In advance of its July release, Sloss sent a tongue-in-cheek “time back” guarantee to friends and colleagues promising he would reimburse them if they saw the movie and felt they didn’t get their money’s worth. “Someone asked if they could get it in legal work, but apart from that, nobody called to collect it,” he said.
With the gimmick of its production reaching maximum visibility, “Boyhood” took off with extraordinary momentum and quickly became one of IFC’s biggest successes. Or, as Linklater puts it: “I was like, ‘Oh shit, there is some anticipation of this thing among some groups. I hoped the film delivered for them.”
Even Sloss said his gross estimate for the movie was off: He assumed it would make around $22 million domestically rather than the eventual $24 million gross. “As time went by, we gained confidence in terms of what their possibilities were,” he said.
But Sehring felt the movie’s immediate popularity fit the product. “Everybody identifies with something in it,” he said. “It’s touched everybody in a really unique way that a lot of movies don’t. This all sounds so canned or packaged, but it really is a movie that has touched everybody who’s seen it. You leave the movie, but it doesn’t leave you. We’ve all been kids, we’ve all had parents. Rick is the ultimate humanist. He celebrates ordinary life.”
As “Boyhood” continued its tour around the country through the end of the summer, Linklater quietly went into production of a new movie, a baseball comedy called “That’s What I’m Talking About,” backed by Paramount and Annapurna Pictures. Sloss was among the producers. “It was perfect timing,” Linklater said. “‘When I finished production, I could turn back to the reflective glow of ‘Boyhood.’”
IFC, on the other hand, never stopped celebrating its victory. In recent years, the company had stumbled with countless lukewarm theatrical releases and a daunting annual slate of titles, many of which shrank to obscurity on VOD. “Boyhood” was payback for the company in response to everyone who stopped believing in the company’s prospects. “God knows we’ve had a series of bad years,” Sehring admitted. “To keep going hasn’t been easy. But we said from the outset that we’d get this done. I’ve heard from a number of people that we’re looked at differently than we were a year ago.”
Despite all the accolades and financial rewards, “Boyhood” still faced another challenge: Maintaining its appeal in awards season. In addition to its release outside of the fall slot typical for Oscar hopefuls, “Boyhood” simply didn’t look like a standard contender: With its lack of a traditional three-act structure and a plot that essentially focused on the mysteries of life itself, no single tagline could easily nail it. But that argument felt moot once it turned out that everyone, Hollywood and the leader of the free world included, loved it.
“We don’t play in the awards game a lot,” Sehring said. “We’d never be able to outspend the other companies, but we decided to see how it went.” He added that Strategy PR, which took on the movie in advance of Sundance, expressed its awards potential early on.
“From Sundance, we felt that it was really possible,” said Strategy’s Cynthia Schwartz. “I was never concerned about the film being unconventional for the Academy. That was more of a pundit thing.”
Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of “Boyhood” is the impact of its success on its star. Coltrane, who makes his acting debut, has appeared at dozens of awards season events over the past several months looking, well, dazed and confused. Talking to him during any of these moments can feel like interacting with the movie’s sequel. Soft-spoken and introspective, Coltrane punctuates his thoughts with lengthy pauses and a gentle half-grin, like a curious animal stolen from its native habitat and struggling to get a grip. At the SXSW Film Festival where the movie received a homecoming welcome, Coltrane still looked like an ordinary kid: He had a day job, a girlfriend, normal routines. Since then, he has signed with acting agency UTA, traveled around the globe promoting the movie, and appeared on national television, turning him into an unwitting celebrity in his hometown and beyond.
Coltrane said he still hasn’t figured out how to handle fame. “I’ll go home and have a couple weeks and I don’t have to do anything,” he said, “All of a sudden I go to a movie and that’s where it usually happens. People say different things. Sometimes they express how they connected with it, which is more meaningful than, ‘Oh my god, I saw you on TV.’”
You didn’t have to know the guy to recognize his palpable discomfort during the Golden Globes ceremony earlier this month, where he appeared under layers of makeup and hair spray; the eyebrow piercings he had worn since the world first saw him at Sundance had vanished. The startling realism that defined his allure in “Boyhood” was buried beneath the glint of showbiz.
Coltrane said his appearance reflected the disconnect he experienced in the room, recalling how Matthew McConaughey and Adrien Brody shook his hand after “Boyhood” won best drama. “It’s weird being around all these people I’ve seen in so many movies and the varying degrees that they have these weird mythos around them,” he said, speaking with far more clarity on the matter than he could bring 12 months ago. “They’re treated so strangely by the rest of the world. Inevitably you just find they’re people like the rest of us. It’s all smoke and mirrors.”
Considering the actor’s developing intellect, Linklater said he could now appreciate Coltrane’s process of maturation from a different standpoint. “I can feel Ellar and Lorelai”—Linklater’s daughter—”slowly aging away from the movie,” he said. “They have a little more perspective on it. I always anticipated what time would do the movie itself, and now it’s happened.”
While Coltrane may have adapted to the idea of success, it hasn’t changed his mindset. “I feel like an alien here crashing the party,” he said. “I don’t really belong. But it’s also really inspiring to me. I don’t necessarily think ‘Boyhood’ is the greatest movie, but it’s definitely a different kind of movie. Hopefully that makes it easier for people to make more of them.”
All of which is to say that, like his director, Coltrane doesn’t obsess over the awards-season mayhem. Neither Linklater or Coltrane woke early to watch the nominations. Of course, Sehring and Sloss did the heavy lifting in that department, even though the Academy—like the Producers Guild of America weeks earlier—ruled that neither qualified as producers on the movie. The snub may have come as an unwelcome surprise, but both men treated the situation with diplomacy and tact.
“I would have preferred it had gone a different way, but this is really about the film,” Sloss said.
Linklater added, “You just have to respect these jurisdictions. I think we all made our peace with it.” If “Boyhood” wins Best Picture, only Linklater and Cathleen Sutherland—who joined the project a few years into production—will officially accept. But Linklater hasn’t been shy about spreading the love: Onstage at the Globes, he ceded control to Sehring at the end of the night. The IFC fixture still hasn’t watched his performance.
“I have no idea what I said,” Sehring confessed with a chuckle. “Rick warned me that it would go by fast.”
As for Linklater himself, the director remains characteristically levelheaded about reaching the finish line of the “Boyhood” story with next month’s Oscar telecast. “I really just want to be in the editing room,” he sighed, “but I can’t complain about picking up awards.”
He expressed confidence about “That’s What I’m Talking About,” and added that he saw no reason to slow down. “I have some things in the pipeline that aren’t ambitious like ‘Boyhood,’ but are really huge challenges,” he said. “I’ll make them work. I haven’t quite cracked the code on everything yet.”