With screens at a premium, the holiday zone is a hostile climate even for the most-established film distributors. To successfully release an animated biopic funded by the Polish Film Institute — with only modest reviews, via virtually unknown distributor Good Deed Entertainment — the odds were, to be generous, unkind.
“Loving Vincent” outsmarted all of us. With $20 million worldwide since its September 22 bow, it’s the highest gross in years for a film that’s never seen more than 250 theaters. On Saturday it won a European Film Award, today a Golden Globe nomination for Best Animated Feature; an Oscar nomination could follow.
Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, “Loving Vincent” used 125 painters to reimagine much of Van Gogh’s work and to retrace the final days of his life. The artists created some 65,000 frames as individual oil-on-canvas paintings, giving the illusion of the painter’s work coming to life.
It’s an amazing achievement, although some critics weren’t entirely moved. IndieWire’s David Ehrlich called the film an “extraordinary (and entirely demented) labor of love that makes for a wan and uneven viewing experience,” while Variety said the film’s rotoscoping meant the paintings act “as a kind of high-end PhotoShop filter.”
Courtesy of the filmmakers
Founded by producer Scott Donley in Los Angeles, GDE has a track record of little-known productions and entered distribution in 2017, to scant notice. GDE acquired “Loving Vincent” at the Cannes Market this spring in what looked like a coup, considering the number of players trawling the territory for would-be surprise hits.
If acquisitions executives recommend a film, they also have to defend it against the costs of buying and marketing. And to judge by the comps, “Loving Vincent” wasn’t a sure thing. It’s an animated film that’s not for kids, and a foreign production with English-language voices. While Oscar nominations often find these films (animation distributor GKids turned this sector into a cottage industry), they don’t often find money. Many fail to gross even $1 million, including Sony Pictures Classics’ “The Red Turtle.”
In mid-July, GDE hired veteran distribution exec Michael Silberman to oversee theater sales. GDE initially planned an October release, after a summer festival season that began with Annecy International Animation Film Festival in June and included the very selective Telluride Film Festival. (Toronto passed.) However, when GDE realized New York’s Lincoln Plaza had a slot in mid-Sepember, it grabbed the opportunity.
That meant a hustle to assemble the marketing plan, but it was a bet that paid off. Despite lukewarm reviews (its ultimate Metacritic score was 62, barely qualifying for “generally favorable reviews”), the initial single-theater take was $23,180 — one of the year’s best openings at that theater. “Loving Vincent” was clearly a film that found an audience that immediately responded to its concept.
The second weekend saw an additional Manhattan theater and two prime dates in Los Angeles, including a last-minute addition at Arclight Hollywood, for a per-theater average of almost $14,000. Those initial figures were critical for the nascent Good Deed to gain a foothold in theaters.
“Loving Vincent” far outgrossed its competitors this fall, including Fox Searchlight’s “Goodbye, Christopher Robin,” Amazon movies “Brad’s Status” and “Wonderstuck,”Sony Pictures Classics’ “Noviatiate,” and A24′ “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” The last film to do this well in fewer than 250 theaters was The Weinstein Company’s “Intouchables,” which made $10 million domestic across its 34-week release.
For a specialized-release film to make $3 million-$5 million usually requires between 300-500 theaters. Ultimately, this is a film that was best served by staying small. Many specialized titles are pressured to capitalize on early appeal by playing in major-chain multiplexes, the better to access upscale moviegoers. With grosses divided among too many theaters, that can dissipate a film’s trajectory. Playing fewer theaters means sustaining longer runs — and a higher total.
Of course, Christmas will be tricky. The number of strong titles available to play over the next few weeks is at record levels. That could keep the film’s total domestic gross for its theatrical run to a little over $6 million. In any event, when Oscar nominations are announced, it will hit home video — a prime opportunity to capitalize on that attention.
“Loving Vincent” has been a lesson for GDE’s more-established competitors: Comps can mislead. Good Deed played the hand it had, with the ability to adjust to market realities and, once it had the opportunity, having the capacity to deliver a fully realized release.
GDE’s next major release will be the British World War I story “Journey’s End,” which premiered at Toronto 2017. When that comes, exhibitors will trust them; so will producers and sales agents at next month’s Sundance Film Festival.