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After Soderbergh: See the Top 10 Box Office Track Records of Classic Indie Filmmakers

From Quentin Tarantino to Jim Jarmusch, a look at the box-office careers of the top 10 original indie filmmakers.

Director Steven Soderbergh and Daniel Craig on the set of "Logan Lucky"

Director Steven Soderbergh and Daniel Craig on the set of “Logan Lucky”

Claudette Barius

In a career that began with “sex lies and videotape” in 1989, “Logan Lucky” is Steven Soderbergh’s 26th theatrical release. It will extend his record as the top-grossing American director to come out of the independent scene in its formative years — a period we’ll define as 1975 (Joan Micklin Silver’s “Hester Street”) through 1992 (Quentin Tarantino’s debut, “Reservoir Dogs”).

To be clear, Soderbergh’s an outlier; his billion-dollar box office dwarfs every other indie filmmaker. However, looking at the performance of his contemporaries who got their start in that indie film movement, you may be surprised at who’s on the list. (Note: “Outside wide release” means less than 1,000 screens. Also, the list doesn’t include directors like Sam Raimi and Abel Ferrara, who have independent roots but were not discovered via the film festival/arthouse pathway, or Alan Rudolph, another significant ’80s figure; he started in horror films in the early ’70s. as well as only narrative feature directors. Ang Lee debuted in 1992 but with a Taiwanese film.)

The first five are the top total grossers (in adjusted 2017 numbers). Five other significant pioneers of the era are added, with some of their numbers less reliable and overall ranking beyond the five biggest tricky.

1. Steven Soderbergh

Total gross (adjusted): $1.039 billion

# of releases: 25

First film (year): sex, lies and videotape (1989)

Biggest film outside wide release (adjusted gross): sex, lies and videoptape ($55.5 million)

Films over $100 million: 6 (“Ocean’s Eleven”/$285.1 million, “Erin Brockovich”/$207.2 million, “Traffic”/$195 million, “Ocean’s Twelve”/$178.5 million, “Ocean’s Thirteen”/$151.4 million, “Magic Mike”/$129.9 million)

The “Ocean’s” trio accounts for about 60 percent of his box office, but even without them he’d still have built a successful career. He’s won the top prize at Sundance, a Palme d’or at Cannes, and an Oscar for Best Director. He made a film almost every year since his debut, including two Oscar Best Picture nominees and a combined $400 million total in 2000 for “Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic.” He’s kept his budgets lower than the studio norm to sustain his independence.

However, he’s never really had a “brand” or niche; he’s more a throwback to genre masters such as Howard Hawks. His first two films were at Miramax, returning once with “Full Frontal,” but his biggest loyalty has been to Warner Bros., with seven films; its former head of distribution, Dan Fellman, now oversees the release of “Logan Lucky” as distributed by Bleecker Street in a service deal.

His career includes a rare franchise involvement and four remakes. He also has an Emmy for directing (HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra.”)

"Reservoir Dogs"

“Reservoir Dogs”

Sundance Institute

2. Quentin Tarantino

Total gross (adjusted): $918.6 million

# of releases: 9

First film (year): “Reservoir Dogs” (1992)

Biggest film outside wide release (adjusted gross): “Reservoir Dogs” ($6.1 million)

Films over $100 million (adjusted): 4 (“Pulp Fiction”/$225.7 million, “Django Unchained”/$181.7 million, “Inglorious Basterds”/$181.7 million, “Kill Bill Part 1″/$103.3 million)

Even though the lower film count is a factor, a per-film average of $103 million is a huge achievement for the most identifiable of American independent directors. He’s won two screenplay Oscars and a Palme d’or, and accomplished this with the Weinsteins as his sole distributor (initially Miramax, and now The Weinstein Co.). Though still economical for the scale of his productions, his budgets have climbed throughout his career.

Joel and Ethan Coen

Joel and Ethan Coen

IPA/REX/Shutterstock

3. Joel and Ethan Coen

Total gross (adjusted): $782.4 million

# of releases: 17

First film (year): “Blood Simple” (1984)

Biggest film outside wide release (adjusted gross): “O Brother Where Art Thou?” ($71.5 million)

Films over $100 million (adjusted): 1 (“True Grit”/$192.3)

It was 33 years ago that the Coens (Ethan began taking co-director only with “The Ladykillers”) premiered their first film in Toronto, prior to Soderbergh and Tarantino. They share with Soderbergh a broader genre interest, particularly caper and crime stories.

Despite early studio interest (three films at 20th Century Fox and one at Warner Bros. between “Blood Simple” and “Fargo”), it took them longer to truly break out: “Fargo” did well, but adjusted is still under $50 million.

They’ve gone back and forth from studio and wide releases to more limited play in recent years, with varied success. They’ve never worked with the Weinsteins (“No Country for Old Men” was release by the Disney-owned Miramax post-Weinstein, and remains the sole Best Picture winner from a Disney company). In recent years, their limited films (“A Serious Man,” “Inside Llewellyn Davis”) have fallen far short of earlier success.

Their awards include two writing Oscars in addition to Best Picture and Directing for “No Country” and a Palme d’or.

She's Gotta Have It

“She’s Gotta Have It”

Island Pictures

4. Spike Lee

Total gross (adjusted): $689.8

# of releases: 21

First film (year): “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986)

Biggest film outside wide release (adjusted gross): “Jungle Fever” ($32.5 million)

Films over $100 million (adjusted): 2 (“Inside Man”/$120.1 million, “Malcolm X”/$103.2 million)

Lee started as a true independent, with a black-and-white film and a $175,000 budget (about $400,000 in 2017 dollars). Quickly in demand as an acclaimed African-American director, studios backed 15 of his films. Two starring Denzel Washington have been his biggest successes.

He has an honorary Oscar among his awards (the lack of recognition from the Academy has not gone unnoticed.) His two most recent releases, “Old Boy” (2013) and “Chi-Raq” (2015), each grossed less than $3 million.

Gus Van SantGagosian Gallery opening, Los Angeles, USA - 23 Feb 2017

Gus Van Sant

Farrell/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

5. Gus Van Sant

Total gross (adjusted): $505.9 million

# of releases: 16

First film (year): “Mala Noche” (1986)

Biggest film outside wide release (adjusted gross): “Milk” ($38.5 million)

Films over $100 million (adjusted): 1/ “Good Will Hunting” ($262.4 million)

His Oscar-winning “Good Will Hunting” accounts for slightly more than half of his total domestic gross. Three more studio wide releases account for another third, with most of his other films remaining totally independent, low-cost, and low grossing. His ability to span mainstream with experimental even exceeds Soderbergh’s (“Good Will” grossed only slightly less than “Ocean’s Eleven,” making it the second-biggest hit from an independent director).

A series of digitally shot features last decade had festival notice and strong critical attention, but did not do well theatrically. Van Sant hasn’t had a real success since “Milk,” with his most recent Cannes competition film. “The Sea of Trees,” didn’t receive a U.S. release for a year, and then primarily on VOD — despite having Matthew McConaughey as the lead.

Boyhood Ellar Coltrane and Richard Linklater

“Boyhood” star Ellar Coltrane and Richard Linklater

Daniel Bergeron

Richard Linklater

Total gross (adjusted): $291 million

# of releases: 17

First film (year): “Slacker” (1991)

Biggest film outside wide release (adjusted gross): “Boyhood” ($27.8 million)

Films over $100 million (adjusted): 1/ “School of Rock” ($120 million)

Linklater has had a far more consistent career, though “School of Rock” and his “Bad News Bears” remake ($45 million) make up the majority of his gross. He’s received five Oscar nominations (three for “Boyhood,” two for writing installments of his “Before” franchise).

 

 

“Eraserhead”

David Lynch

Total gross (adjusted): $250 million

# of releases: 9

First film (year): “Eraserhead” (1977)

Biggest film outside wide release (adjusted gross): “Wild At Heart” ($30.6 million)

Films over $100 million (adjusted): None

Lynch made “Eraserhead” during his time at AFI. It became an early cult success and midnight film presence, and led to Mel Brooks hiring him to direct a version of “The Elephant Man.” It remains his biggest success (adjusted $86 million), just ahead of his next and much more expensive “Dune” (compared to budget, a flop at $79.6 million adjusted). Since then, his films have been specialized and quirky with varying results, with his only major creative effort in the last decade being Showtime’s “Twin Peaks” reboot.

John Sayles'Great Directors' film photocall at the 66th Venice International Film Festival, Venice, Italy - 03 Sep 2009

John Sayles at the ‘Great Directors’ photocall at the 66th Venice International Film Festival, 2009

IPA/REX/Shutterstock

John Sayles

Total gross (adjusted): $108 million

# of releases: 18

First film (year): “Return of the Secaucus Seven” (1979)

Biggest film outside wide release (adjusted gross): “Lone Star” ($25 million)

Films over $100 million (adjusted): None

Although Sayles began as a Roger Corman screenwriter (“Piranha,” 1978), he’s been an indie throughout his career with one exception: “Baby It’s You,” in 1983. “Lone Star” did the best, around $25 million. None of his films has surpassed $4 million since 2002.

Jim Jarmusch on “Dead Man”

Jim Jarmusch

Total gross (adjusted): $52.5 million

# of releases: 14

First film (year): “Stranger Than Paradise” (1986)

Biggest film outside wide release (adjusted gross): “Broken Flowers” ($19 million)

Films over $100 million (adjusted): None

“Stranger Than Paradise” was an art-house success and critics’ group winner. It remains his second biggest grossing film, with “Broken Flowers” with Bill Murray at three times its total (just under $20 million). His 12 films combined have grossed a little over $50 million, with last year’s acclaimed “Paterson” only managed a little over $2 million.

Joan Micklin Silver

Total gross (adjusted): (est.) $50 million +

# of releases: 7

First film (year): “Hester Street” (1975)

Biggest film outside wide release (adjusted gross): “Hester Street” (est.) $5 million

Films over $100 million (adjusted): None

Not only a groundbreaking female director (among other things, the first to direct an Oscar-nominated performance – Carol Kane in “Hester Street”) but also a groundbreaking independent director. “Hester Street” was self-distributed (picking up from Cassavetes’ efforts and using some of his team) and successful on the art house circuit. That was a rarity at a time when most of their films were foreign.

Her first studio film “Head Over Heels” was not a success, but a re-edited version, returning to the original novel title “Chilly Scenes of Winter” was an early release from United Artists Classics in its early days. “Crossing Delancey” later with Amy Irving was a decent success, grossing about $40 million in adjusted totals.

Susan Seidelman and Donna Deitch were among the few female American independent directors of the era, with Kathryn Bigelow and Penelope Spheeris (the former more studio oriented early on, the latter initial documentaries) of course significantly successful later. But it took until the mid-1990s before women directors in the independent world became less a rarity.

 

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