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Summer Box Office Preview: 10 Indie Films With Breakout Potential

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire May 7, 2014 at 12:10PM

What might be this summer's "Blue Jasmine"? There's certainly a lot to choose from, though it's notably much harder to predict what indies might break out as opposed to say, how much a superhero film will gross.
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"The Amazing Spider-Man 2" kicked the summer movie season off to a lucrative start this past weekend, grossing north of $90 million in three days to improve on its "Spider-Man" predecessor (though it fell quite short of the $175 million "Iron Man 3" kicked last summer off with). Comparatively, the first weekend of the indie box office's summer didn't have much on "Iron Man" (though two very deserving films -- "Belle" and "Ida" -- had strong debuts). But that's clearly not the expectation. Grossing $10 million for an indie is essentially like grossing $100 million for a studio tentpole. Or maybe even more

Last summer, "Blue Jasmine" was a big breakout, grossing north of $30 million. For a specialty summer release, that's a huge number. Over the past ten years, the summer season has usually managed just one breakout $20 million-plus specialty hit. Seventeen summer specialty releases have hit that mark since 2003, and two of those came from last summer: "Blue Jasmine" and the coming of age dramedy "The Way, Way Back" (which made just over $21 million).

So what might be this summer's "Blue Jasmine"? There's certainly a lot to choose from (check out Indiewire's list of the 40 summer indies we're looking forward to). Though it's notably much harder to predict what indies might break out as opposed to say, how much a superhero film will gross. And it's also important not to set expectations too high for little engines that potentially could. So our suggestions for the 10 indie films that could break out beyond expectation are cautiously optimistic. We don't predict any "Jasmine"-sized hits, though it's quite likely one will happen anyway. Here's some possibilities, starting with a film that has one man very much in common with that film:

1. Magic in the Moonlight (July 25)
Director: Woody Allen
Cast:  Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Jacki Weaver, Eileen Atkins
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Box Office Potential:  The past decade or so of Woody Allen’s long and storied career have been spotty when it comes to the box office, but lately he's been on quite the roll. Sony Pictures Classics seems to have mastered the art of releasing Allen with three straight summer platform releases that have resulted in strong grosses, including the mighty likes of "Midnight in Paris" ($56.8 million) and "Blue Jasmine" ($33.4 million) and the very respectable "To Rome With Love" ($16.7 million ain't bad for a film as poorly reviewed as it was). So to come into this summer with a new Allen film starring the incredibly marketable Emma Stone and Colin Firth? It seems pretty unbeatable, but then again, who knows how much Allen's recent personal drama will play into the film's box office.

Our bet? No "Jasmine," but a solid $23 million would still make "Moonlight" a very profitable venture (and in our predictions the third time in four years that Allen had the summer's top grossing indie).

2. Begin Again (July 4)
Director: John Carney
Cast: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Hailee Steinfeld
Distributor: The Weinstein Company

Box Office Potential:
The film formerly known as "Can a Song Save a Life?" made its breakout potential known when it premiered back in Toronto. The Weinstein Company picked it up, and smartly sat on it until a prime summer berth where it could really soar as an alternative to blockbuster fare. Directed by John Carney (who gave us indie breakout "Once" in 2006), the film -- like "Once" -- centers around music with Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo playing a musician and record company exec working on a new album, and recording everywhere except inside an actual studio.

Our bet? A gross north of $20 million. This will be the feel-good indie hit of the summer, and probably the one with the most potential to go well beyond the $20 million arena. But we don't want to overshoot things, and $20 million would still make this a very sizeable hit.

3. Chef (May 9th)
Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey, Jr.
Distributor: Open Road Films

Box Office Potential: Director Jon Favreau is usually responsible for the kind of films his latest is trying to counter at the box office ("Iron Man," "Cowboys & Aliens"), so it's nice to see him at bat with the much smaller-scale "Chef," which also places him in front of the camera an embittered chef struggling to figure out how to progress with his cooking career. It came out of a SXSW premiere with good reviews, and is the first film on this list to make it to theaters (it comes out this Friday). But will Favreau's ability to make studio blockbusters (sometimes, at least -- "Cowboys" doesn't quite count) translate into an indie hit? Having Robert Downey Jr., Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Vergara on board probably does hurt.

Our bet? A very respectable gross around $12 million, which yes, is probably what "Iron Man" made in its first 30 seconds.

4. A Most Wanted Man (July 25th)
Director: Anton Corbijn
Cast: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Daniel Bruhl, Nina Hoss
Distributor: Roadside Attractions 

Box Office Potential: John le Carré adaptations have resulted in recent specialty hits "The Constant Gardener" and "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," and "A Most Wanted Man" is certainly hoping to follow in its footsteps. And it has a lot going for it. It got strong reviews out of Sundance, is one of the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman's last roles, and has an amazing supporting cast in Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe and Robin Wright. Based on the 2008 best-seller by Jle Carré, the film details a collection of small mysteries involving a German spy, a half-dead Russian, a CIA operative, and a Muslim community leader begin to intersect with each other and wrap themselves up in a deeper and darker plot.

Our bet? Complicated thrillers like this can be tough sells, but we think smart audiences exhausted from dumb movies by late July will push this to $10 million.

5. Life After Beth (August 15)
Director: Jeff Baena
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Dane DeHaan, Anna Kendrick, Molly Shannon Distributor: A24

Box Office Potential: If anyone knows how to market a zombie rom-com, it's A24. Coming off a year where the upstart distributor took youth-oriented fare like "Spring Breakers" and "The Spectacular Know" and turned them into box office hits, this is probably their most-likely-to-succeed this summer (though we also hope that the absolutely lovely "Obvious Child" -- which is not on this list -- breaks out while beyond expectation). Directed by first-timer Jeff Baena (who co-wrote David O. Russell's "I Heart Huckabees"), "Life After Beth" centers on a mild mannered guy (Dane DeHaan) who discovers that his dead girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza) has come back from the dead. With a supporting cast including John C. Reilly, Anna Kendrick and Molly Shannon, it definitely has the potential to continue A24's winning streak.

Our bet? A "Spectacular Now"-esque $8 million. Both films are August releases, which is often the perfect time to push indie films aiming towards young demographics.

6. Boyhood (July 11)
Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelai Linklater
Distributor: IFC Films

Box Office Potential: If one thing is certainly, Richard Linklater's 12 years in the making "Boyhood" will be the critical darling of the summer. Truly remarkable reviews met it when it screened at Sundance, Berlin and SXSW and curiosity is certainly sky high among cinephiles. But how will that translate at the box office? It's very tough to say. The film's near three hour length won't help, and distributor IFC Films hasn't had a $10 million+ film since "Y Tu Mama Tambien" (which was made before "Boyhood" even started production). But there's going to be a serious "must-see" vibe to this film, which is likely to help it overcome that in some regard (and it will also probably do quite well on VOD).

Our bet? $7 million or so. But we certainly hope it deservedly exceeds that predictions (and we'll still love it even if it doesn't).

Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson in "The Rover."

7. The Rover (June 20th)
Director: David Michôd
Cast: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy
Distributor: A24

Box Office Potential: You have to hand it to Robert Pattinson. Post-"Twilight," he's lined up roles working for directors like David Cronenberg (twice!), Werner Herzog, Anton Corbijn and, this summer, "Animal Kingdom" helmer David Michôd. It's the second example of him working with those noted filmmakers to meet release, and the first -- last summer's Cronenberg offering "Cosmopolis" -- tanked. So who knows whether having Pattinson's name on the poster really helps much outside the vampire series that made him famous. But if "The Rover" -- which premieres at Cannes next week -- is as good as Michôd's "Animal Kingdom," it might not even matter. Though that film grossed only $1 million, it's gained a following since. And "The Rover" -- a near-futuristic tale set in the Australian desert -- also has the marketing minds at aforementioned A24 behind it.

Our bet? Somewhere in and around $6 million.

8. What If (August 1)
Director: Michael Dowse
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver
Distributor: CBS Films

Box Office Potential:  Like Pattinson, Daniel Radcliffe has been doing everything in his power to no longer be known as Harry Potter, though even when its worked critically ("Kill Your Darlings"), audiences didn't quite follow. So it will be interesting to see what happens to "What If," an very well-reviewed pick-up from Toronto (where the film is actually set, for once) that puts Radcliffe in his first romantic comedy, opposite Zoe Kazan and Adam Driver, no less.

Our bet? Reviews and Radcliffe should push this to a nice little gross of $6 million.

Still from "Tracks"

9. Tracks (May 23)
Director: John Curran
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver, Jessica Tovey, Emma Booth
Distributor: The Weinstein Company

Box Office Potential: More Adam Driver! More Australians! This time with Mia Wasikowska in the lead, who stars in the film as a real-life  woman named Robyn Davidson who set out to travel solo from Alice Springs across the vast, empty Australian desert to reach the Indian Ocean some 2,000 miles away (Driver plays a photographer who occasionally accompanies her). John Curran's film is yet another Toronto pick up on this list that waited out awards season to give it room to breathe, and the Weinsteins (who did the same with "Begin Again") are sure to give it a nice push (and a deserved one -- it's a great film).

Our bet? One of the best films actually centered around a female character coming out this summer, we'd suspect that would push Mia and company to $5 million.

10. Wish I Was Here (July 18)
Director: Zach Braff
Cast: Zach Braff, Donald Faison, Joey King, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Ashley Greene, Jim Parsons, Josh Gad
Distributor: Focus Features

Box Office Potential: A decade after Zach Braff made "Garden State" and it turned into a $26 million grossing summer breakout comes "Wish I Was Here." Buzz isn't quite the same as it was for "State" (and there's already some haters thanks to the widely documented Kickstarter campaign), but we aren't counting it out completely. The coming-of-age story focuses on Aidan Bloom, a 35-year-old actor played by Braff whose career struggles have made it difficult for him to support his wife and children. The trailer oozes over-sentiment, and even if that might turn a few folks off we suspect quite a few will be into it as well.

Our bet? No "Garden," but a non-disastrous $4 million.

This article is related to: Box Office, Summer, Wish I Was Here, Tracks, Begin Again, Boyhood, Woody Allen, Magic in the Moonlight, The Rover, Chef