There are no recognizable stars in Ceyda Torun’s “Kedi,” no marquee names, no box office heavy hitters. There aren’t even that many humans – instead, the documentary focuses on a cross-section of feral cats that roam Istanbul, where they are lovingly looked after by various members of the community, a unique bond that Torun’s film charmingly portrays.
Now in its ninth week in release, “Kedi” has made over $2.2 million at the box office, making it Oscilloscope’s second highest-grossing film of all-time (and coming up close on the heels of their number one, the 2012 doc “Samsara,” which made $2.67 million during its own run). It’s also the third highest-grossing foreign-language documentary of all time (behind “Babies” and “Pina”). Not bad for an indie doc about feral felines.
Bolstered by stellar reviews – the film currently holds a 97% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes – and strong word of mouth, the film has become an unexpected box office hit, and shows little sign of slowing down as it trots into its third month in release.
Torun’s film premiered in February of last year at the Istanbul Independent Film Festival, before going on to screen at a slew of smaller festivals, including Seattle, Melbourne, Vancouver and Palm Springs. Oscilloscope was tipped off to the film after its Seattle debut in May.
“Once we watched the film, we fell in love with it and saw it as more than a cute cat documentary,” Oscilloscope’s head of acquisitions, Aaron Katz, recently told IndieWire. “The film explores human interest, compassion, and even touches on mental health, all through the exploration of these cats in Istanbul.”
Staffers took to calling the film “The Sleeping Giant” in the months leading up to its release. “We always felt that the film had the potential to be a juggernaut,” Oscilloscope president Dan Berger said. “The response wasn’t the slightest bit surprising – the film is fucking good.”
After acquiring U.S. rights to the documentary in September, Oscilloscope opted to skip the major fall festivals, as most of them had already set their slates. Although Torun had other interested buyers, Oscilloscope made it clear that it anticipated “Kedi” to be a box office player, and Berger believes that the company’s promise to “give the release our creative input and full attention was more alluring for them” than other offers.
The company held off on a release until early February 2017, an uncrowded time at the box office for documentaries and one just itching for some serious counter-programming (the film opened against “Fifty Shades Darker,” “John Wick: Chapter Two” and “The LEGO Batman Movie”).
“Kedi” bowed in a single theater on February 10 – New York City’s Metrograph, a two-screen indie outfit with some serious street cred amongst the city’s cinephiles – before expanding to Los Angeles’ similarly-skewed Royal Theater the following week. The film continued to steadily expand over the following weeks, and while Oscilloscope was heartened by early positive response, they eschewed rapid expansion.
“The release certainly grew once we had tangible evidence that there was a robust audience to the film,” Berger said. “The plan itself didn’t change much – we were booked on approximately 75 screens prior to opening our first – but it did definitely widen its footprint as a result of the success.”
Early audiences were partially lured by clever marketing that played up the film’s strengths – cats, naturally – and targeted cat lovers and fans of quality cinema alike.
“The consideration was always making sure we’re putting quality stuff out there first, and advertising a film second,” Berger said. “That was always the case, whether it was a physical item like a bag of branded catnip or a 60-second video that lived on Facebook.”
Oscilloscope created and posted over 75 snappy Facebook videos, some of which played up the film’s positive reception and critical success using quotes from sterling reviews, others which served as mini-introductions to the various cats who populate the film (“Meet Aslan – the hunter. Under the cloak of night he defends the restaurant that keeps him fed during the day”).
They also publicized the #thingsilearnedfrommycat hashtag, which appeared on videos that shared advice that tied neatly back to some of the film’s most fortifying lessons (lots of stuff about the value of sleeping and solitude, naturally), another targeted social media move that spoke to the spirit of the film.
Promotional catnip was sent to the press, but Oscilloscope also offered up 50 bags to Facebook users who shared one of their posts. “We’re not generally ones to embrace useless crap to push a film,” Berger said. “Things should serve a purpose or have a means to an end. The promotional catnip we made is good swag because it has a function.” (Read: Cats love catnip.)
Oscilloscope’s cute, cat-branded marketing didn’t stop with promo catnip and Facebook videos, however, and an April Fools’ Day gag that promised to give away cats to Facebook users who commented on a post changed direction after receiving an overwhelming response. Oscilloscope is now working to cover the cost of cat adoptions around the country for interested adoptees.
At its height, “Kedi” played at 130 theaters across the country, but Berger promises that it will continue to expand to other new markets over the coming weeks. A number of major cities – including New York, Los Angeles, DC and Boston – are cruising into their third month of release.
“The one thing that was a bit surprising, and very welcome, is the proliferation of encore engagements,” Berger said. “Many theaters that the film opened at operate on calendars or otherwise very rigid schedules that locked us into limited engagements. We are now coming back consistently and successfully to many of these places.” Katz also expects to take the film to other, smaller festivals, particularly in areas that have not yet gotten a theatrical release as of yet.
Oscilliscope is also hopeful that strong word of mouth will continue to push the film in both new and returning markets. They’ve already seen evidence of just that.
“We’ve already seen countless anecdotes of people going to the theater multiple times,” Berger said. “We think ‘Kedi’ is a film that will both reach new audiences when readily accessible to so many more people, but also be visited by the same people over and over again. It doesn’t get old.”
“Kedi” is currently in limited release.
Additional reporting by Tom Brueggemann.