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"Cave" of Surprise Box Office: Why Werner Herzog Has a 3-D Indie Hit

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire June 17, 2011 at 5:13AM

While studios bemoan the fate of 3D, Sundance Selects and Werner Herzog are celebrating it. Now in its eighth weekend of release, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" -- an exploration of never-before-seen art in caves in Southern France -- has crossed the $4 million mark, making it Herzog's highest-grossing documentary ever and 2011's top grossing doc by far (it's also on track to become one of the 25 highest grossing docs ever).
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"Cave" of Surprise Box Office: Why Werner Herzog Has a 3-D Indie Hit
A scene from Werner Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." IFC Films.

While studios bemoan the fate of 3D, Sundance Selects and Werner Herzog are celebrating it. Now in its eighth weekend of release, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" -- an exploration of never-before-seen art in caves in Southern France -- has crossed the $4 million mark, making it Herzog's highest-grossing documentary ever and 2011's top grossing doc by far (it's also on track to become one of the 25 highest grossing docs ever).

Not bad for an arty 3-D indie documentary that, at the time of its conception, was unlike anything that's entered the U.S. marketplace. "Cave" producer Erik Nelson called it "a complete leap of faith." In fact, the movie was made without a business model since, not only was there no such thing as a 3-D indie art film documentary, but the U.S. also didn't have theaters that could show it.

"I basically gambled that we had created a product so potent that the market would follow, rather than it follow the market," he said. "It sounds sort of Hollywood-blowing-smoke-up-my-own-ass-pretentious, but I really did believe that."

Pretentious or not, he was right. "Cave" has crossed all sorts of milestones. At the IFC Center in New York, where the film has played for six weeks, it's broken every box office record. Other theaters around the country are doing similar levels of business. It's also the highest-grossing film ever for Sundance Selects, the recently formed sister company of IFC Films (and for a film they acquired in a reported mid-six figure deal, no less).

"What I think has happened is -- shockingly, from my perspective -- everything that I intended for the film to do, it's done," Nelson said. "As a result, I've made a solemn vow to never, ever, ever do this again. I feel like the guy who won big at a casino and I'm in the parking lot getting in the car. I don't care what they do to lure me back in the casino, my feeling is drive to the airport and get the hell out of Vegas. I'm not looking to make 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams 2: The Inner Sanctum.'"

But why did things work out so well? Nelson's characterization of the film as an "intellectual theme park ride" leads to one theory.

"This isn't just, 'Let's go see the film by the crazy German guy,'" he said. "This is really about wanting to sit and go on an experience. I think it is what one would call a category killer, and that's probably a reason it's so successful. It's not really a documentary. It's not really an art-house film because it's more universal. I think the idea of using 3-D to go to places you could never possibly go is an interesting use of the technology. But if you didn't have Werner as the tour guide, it would by no means be worth the trip. It just wouldn't work. So I guess it's just the perfect storm."

Nelson said he could easily see it staying on as a midnight show in urban markets, "moving into 'The Parrots of Telegraph Hill' market, where it becomes a perennial."

He also wanted to give a major shout out to The History Channel, a major funder of the film.

"We took the risk, IFC and Sundance Selects took the risk, but for an American commercial television network to do so... They are not in the business of taking chances. That's a very calculated, commercial enterprise, but for whatever reason, they put a lot of their money into the project. And thankfully it worked."

Nelson is currently working on Herzog's follow up to "Dreams," the as-yet-officially-untitled "Death Row Project." He said they're currently speaking to IFC/Sundance Selects about it and that they "are his first and only choice as distributors."

"When I said I wasn't going to do this again, I meant we're absolutely going to do it again," he said. "We're just certainly not going to do a film with technology that's never been used before," Nelson said.

Meanwhile, Sundance Selects is going to take another stab at 3D this fall with the release of Wim Wenders' "Pina," which has already been a huge arthouse hit in Europe. "Dreams" has only opened in one market there so far (the UK, where it's done exceptionally well for distributor Picturehouse), but one suspects its success should easily cross over given the film's setting and director.

"The only market that I was honestly very nervous about was the United States," Nelson laughed. "An indie film by a German director about a French cave filled with French people. Don't you think that's kind of a broad stretch?"

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit, Distribution