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Why ‘The Big Sick’ Was the Indie Winner at the Summer Box Office

Specialized titles had great reviews, but there were too many of them.

“The Big Sick”

Summer box office was dismal, with totals down more than 15 percent from last year. Or was it? In the specialized realm, things are looking up. Last year, limited releases grossed less than $90 million; this year, it will be over $100 million.

That’s good news — but careful analysis still shows a troubled season riddled with issues and failures that should make top distributors take great care when bidding at the festivals this fall.

Some observations of the mixed-bag results:

There’s Only One Real Winner

Amazon’s “The Big Sick” grossed about $40 million. That’s the top performance of the year among independent/platform release titles, and a decent showing for the reported $12 million Sundance acquisition.

It also looks good compared to last summer, when the biggest successes were $14 million for “Love and Friendship” and $27 million for “Hell or High Water” (released in mid August, it earned most of its gross after Labor Day). This year, the Weinstein Company’s “Wind River” will end up at number two as it continues its expansion; already, it is at $10 million.

That’s good news for their distributors — but, those two films account for about half of the sector’s $100 million. These skew the results and distort the appearance of success across the board.

Less Bang for the Buck, Part 1

Until recently, it was common for specialized distributors to hold back top releases, particularly those acquired at Sundance, until fall or Christmas. This made sense to maximize awards placement as prime time for adult audiences, and more summer releases has been a boon for exhibitors.

However, this summer may gave had the priciest group of specialized releases ever. Apart from the $12 million for “The Big Sick,” Fox Searchlight reportedly shelled out more than $9 million for “Patti Cake$” and $4 million for the documentary “Step” (including remake rights). Over $1 million were “Ingrid Goes West” (Neon), “Good Time” (A24), “A Ghost Story” (A24), “The Hero” (The Orchard), “The Little Hours” (Gunpowder & Sky), “Beatriz at Dinner” (Roadside Attractions).

In-house films or pre-production acquisitions like “The Beguiled” (Focus), “The Lovers” (A24) and “Wind River” cost millions as well (Sofia Coppola’s film is reported to have cost $10 million).

Most of these films will struggle to turn a profit based on the summer’s returns, although other revenue sources will mitigate some losses. Even “The Big Sick” is less than a windfall;  acquisition costs, marketing expenses and Lionsgate’s distribution fee will cut into Amazon’s profit. (Of course, Amazon’s streaming rights enhance the draw for Amazon Prime.)

“Patti Cake$”

Fox Searchlight

Less Bang for the Buck, Part 2

A new trend among summer specialized titles has been wider release patterns. That helped create record-breaking grosses — but it also meant record-breaking expenses.

It looks like a smart strategy. Weaker studio grosses created opportunity, with more entree to top mainstream theaters nationwide. At least 10 specialized titles played in more than 500 theaters, with three over 900. (Last year, only four exceeded 500 and none went over 900.)

But there’s an opportunity cost: Marketing expenses can skyrocket, and each theater means $1,000 for a theft-proof digital “print.” At 500 theaters, that’s a half million spent; advertising often turns into millions of dollars.

“The Beguiled”

Case in point is “The Beguiled.” Its production cost is reported at $10 million; at its widest, it was in nearly 1,000 theaters. Marketing costs are uncertain, but the Universal-backed Focus Features gave the film considerable support.

All told, the film will make about $20 million worldwide, which is around and likely below its total expenses. It played wider than any of the director’s previous releases, and had a month of extensive publicity. (That included the benefit of “Wonder Woman;” its success spotlighted women directors.) No fault on Focus, but the interest ultimately didn’t match the hype or likely the effort involved.

The Season Began Better Than It Ended

Once upon a time, summer movies benefitted from the lack of fresh programming on network television. Now, we have “Game of Thrones” and “Twin Peaks,” and Netflix is Netflix. The number of significant specialized film titles also created cannibalization, making it very difficult to capture attention.

“Beatriz at Dinner”

So by the time we reached August, whatever summer-movie zeitgeist energy movies had went to “Wonder Woman,” with some to “The Big Sick.” “Beatriz at Dinner” benefited from an early release with less competition (and some crossover to Latino audiences) as did “The Hero,” which captured the reliable older crowd. “The Big Sick” and “The Beguiled” capped this period.

After that, there were a number of titles with excellent reviews including “A Ghost Story,” “Step,” “Good Time,” and “Lady Macbeth.” These fell outside the interests of the older-skewing indie movie lover, while the mainstream provided younger audiences plenty of well-received and more familiar titles. In any event, great reviews also failed to boost wide-release titles like “War for the Planet of the Apes” and, particularly, “Detroit.” 

“Wind River” is a solid release to end the summer, but most of the season’s heft came early. 

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