"Before Midnight"
Sony Pictures Classics "Before Midnight"

Long before its impressive opening weekend put its predecessors to shame, Richard Linklater's long-awaited third part of the "Before" franchise screened on March 9 at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, TX. After the film, the director took the stage to answer audience questions and eventually got around to discussing the trilogy’s evolution.

“No one wanted a sequel. No one ever asked about it,” Linklater said, referencing the response he got when he first floated the idea of making “Before Sunset.” “We always joked this is the lowest grossing film to spawn a sequel, and I can confidently say these are the lowest grossing films to ever be a trilogy, or whatever we are now. It makes no sense, but three people wanted a sequel and we did it.”

Though his last comment could be seen as an inspirational statement perfectly encapsulating the independent filmmaker’s spirit, most people focused on the joke. The quote made the rounds online and gained the film some notoriety. A few months later at a screening of “Before Midnight” in Los Angeles, event host Elvis Mitchell went so far as to introduce the film as "the lowest-grossing trilogy in the history of motion pictures." In later interviews, Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy all joked about the label their director had “confidently” (if also jokingly) saddled them with months earlier.

Before Sunset

Linklater shouldn’t have been so confident. Thankfully, and somewhat shockingly, “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” and “Before Midnight” do not constitute the lowest-grossing trilogy of all time, and not only that, they won’t even be No. 2 for very long.

First of all, Linklater’s romantic trilogy wasn’t even the lowest-grossing English-language franchise prior to the release of “Before Midnight.” That undesirable distinction goes to “The Work and the Glory,” a three-part series that ran in limited release from 2004 to 2006 with a new entry every year. The films were based on a nine-part book series that traced the birth of Mormonism through the lives of a fictional family. The first film was the most successful, grossing just over $3 million in its 25-week run that reached 112 theaters. “Part II: American Zion” barely broke $2 million despite a wider initial release, and its predecessor -- “Part III: A House Divided” — only managed to break the $1 million mark.

If Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy were surprised to be back for more after their initial film, imagine the surprise of “The Work and Glory” star Sam Hennings when he kept getting called back to reprise his role as Benjamin Steed. After all, the first film reportedly cost $7.5 million against its $3 million gross, and the following two films only cut their budgets down to $6.5 million each despite decreased earnings at the box office. The original boasts at an extremely rotten 17 percent on RottenTomatoes.com, while the sequels did improve to 40 percent and then 80 percent, respectively (though only a handful of critics bothered seeing them).

There are still other franchises worse off than the “Before” trilogy — just in case you think “The Work and the Glory” should be disqualified because it’s targeting a very small demographic (Mormons and anyone curious about a fictionalized take on the founding of the Mormon faith).

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