The Thai imported “Ong Bak” trilogy managed a meager $4.6 million in America, making it the lowest-grossing trilogy to make a theatrical run in the States. “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” also outgrossed “Shiloh,” and its poorly-titled sequel, “Shiloh 2: Shiloh Season.” With or without inflation-adjusted ticket prices, the “Before” series is ahead of these unfortunate few.
More importantly for fans of Jesse and Celine is how well the couple’s latest venture, “Before Midnight,” does at the box office. Despite early assumptions this would be the couple’s last series of long walks and heated discussions, the three collaborators have gone on record saying they’re open to picking up the story nine years from now for a fourth film. Financially speaking, “After Midnight” is looking like a very solid investment. “Before Midnight” broke the bank with a whopping $246,000 opening weekend in just five theaters, followed by $404,000 in 31 theaters the next weekend. My calculations put it on track for around $13 million domestically. While that rough estimate will become more concrete once “Midnight” starts its national run June 14th, the third film is on pace to become the most successful entry in the series.
Each of the films took a very different path to theaters despite keeping the same core talent for each new venture. “Before Sunrise” kicked off the franchise as a joint production between Castle Rock Entertainment, Columbia Pictures, and a few smaller companies. It was released in January 1995 by Columbia Pictures to 363 theaters and grossed $1.4 million on its opening weekend before being pulled from theaters after only four weeks in theaters. After opening the Sundance film festival earlier in the year, it seems reasonable the film would have benefited from the independent distribution models of the aughts. Still, we’ll never know whether the series would even have existed without a major studio backing the original and pushing it into wide release.
Castle Rock Entertainment also produced “Before Sunset,” released the now requisite nine years later, but the now defunct distributor Warner Independent Pictures joined them this time. WIP wisely gave the sequel a limited summer release date to take advantage of the film’s romantic setting, but they may have mistimed their push by releasing it in 20 theaters on a crowded — and family-friendly — July 4th weekend. While it put up a solid per theater average of $10,971 its opening weekend, that figure was cut by more than half by week three and only 102 theaters had been added. Whether this was a result of less than primo positioning, rolling out the film in too many theaters too quickly, or it was simply the best the film could have done, “Before Sunset” ended its run with $5.8 million; almost $300,000 more than the original, but almost $3 million less when adjusted for inflation.
The sole financial bright spot for “Sunset” was its performance overseas. Though there’s no data readily available for the original’s foreign performance, Linklater has said it did very well. Foreign markets made more of an emergence, though, by the time “Sunset” hit screens in 2004, and Warner Independent took full advantage. “Before Sunset” racked up $10.1 million overseas, almost twice as much as it managed stateside. Linklater has cited these solid returns as one of the reasons he was able to get funding for the next feature.
“Before Midnight” was financed independently and then sold the distribution rights to Sony Pictures Classics after its premiere at Sundance earlier this year. For now, everyone involved with the production has got to be pretty pleased with “Midnight’s” first two weekends. If the film continues to play well, it should be looking at a long, successful summer both here and overseas. It’s even generated some Oscar buzz thanks to overwhelmingly positive reviews and a solid history with the Academy (“Before Sunset” was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay). If it can sneak out a Best Picture nomination, “Before Midnight” could make some serious money (“Midnight in Paris” kind-of money) — or if it makes some serious money, it might snag a Best Picture nomination.
Either way, everyone should be feeling particularly up about Jesse and Celine’s future. Though Linklater and Co. will have to wait another nine or so years before starting a new production, don’t be surprised if a fourth entry helps the “Before” series climb even further out of the “Lowest-Grossing Trilogy” cellar.