Take Oscar-nominated animated film "Chico & Rita." Earlier this year, it debuted on one screen in New York to a $20,654 gross -- giving it one of the 5 best limited debuts of the year in terms of per-theater-average. But in expansion, the film failed to live up to that potential. By the time it was on 15 screens in its fourth week, it was averaging only $1,899 per theater. The end result? A $292,444 final gross.
On the opposite end of that spectrum, look at Wim Wenders 3-D dance doc "Pina." It averaged $22,671 from 3 theaters in its first weekend. Four weekends later, it was still averaging above $20,000 (in six theaters) -- a remarkably impressive feat. Even this past weekend -- in its whopping 15th weekend of release -- the film averaged $1,308 from 33 theaters. For a film to have an average above $1,000 in its 15th weekend (or even still be in theaters in its 15th weekend) is what indie distributors dream about.
4. The Hype and Marketability: The terms "indie" or "specialty" represent a large group of films with drastically varied things going for them. From films with name stars and a lot of potential (like Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt in "Salmon Fishing," for example) to tiny foreign films with limited market appeal ("Chico & Rita," for example), expectations clearly need to given on a film-by-film basis.
A $292,444 final gross for "Chico" is actually not that bad for a foreign-language animated film geared at adults (though it definitely could have been better). Had "Salmon Fishing" finished its run at that gross, it would have been a full-on disaster.
"Bully" is an interesting example to watch in this regard. Small documentaries generally are big successes if they simply cross the $1 million mark. But given the fact that "Bully" is taking on a hot button social issue, and has received a huge amount of publicity due to the controversial "R" rating it received from the MPAA, expectations are considerably higher than they are for, say, another small doc like "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." As "Bully" expands it the coming weeks, it will be very interesting to see how much the numbers live up to the hype.
5. The Distributor and the Dollars They Have: Having hype and marketability is one thing, but if a film doesn't have a distributor with the money and reputation to back it up, it faces a much steeper uphill battle.
Films released by "big indie" distributors like The Weinstein Company, Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics or Focus Features can benefit from bigger marketing campaigns and simply the prestige that comes with being released by a distributor of higher stature. But with this, again, comes expectations.
While films released by small distributors like Paladin, Strand or Zeitgeist can be full-fledged hits with $500,000 final grosses, it takes a few more million than that to appease what comes with a release from a bigger distributor. The $480,025 that recent Focus Features release "Being Flynn" has pulled in so far would make it one of the 10 highest grossing films in Strand Releasing's history. For Focus, it's a huge disappointment.