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Legends of the Fall: How “The Way” and “Margin Call” Bucked the Indie Box Office Blues

Legends of the Fall: How "The Way" and "Margin Call" Bucked the Indie Box Office Blues

As was the case for its Hollywood counterpart, it was not a great fall at the indie box office.

Some of the most anticipated and acclaimed Sundance titles – “Like Crazy,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Take Shelter” – all failed to break out beyond specialty niches, with the former two heading for grosses just over the $3 million mark and the latter hovering just under $2 million.

By no means horrible numbers, but certainly not what Paramount Vantage (“Crazy”), Fox Searchlight (“Martha”), and Sony Pictures Classics (“Shelter”) must have had in mind when they bought the films.

But there were two notable bright spots amidst the duldroms that not too many people saw coming: Emilio Estevez’s “The Way” and JC Chandor’s “Margin Call.”

Grassroots Distribution Paves “The Way”

“The Way” – which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010 – made its way to theaters on October 7th via a partnership between Estevez, Elixir Films, Producers Distribution Agency and ARC Entertainment.

Similar to what PDA did with “Exit Through The Gift Shop” and “Senna” – both success stories in their own right – a team was assembled that included Richard Abramowicz, Mark Schiller, Dennis Rice and Cynthia Swartz (and also utilized Eleventy One, a company that stepped up to fund the P&A for the film).

“We set out to prove what a traditional distributor would do,” Sloss said. “Or maybe even a little better.”

It worked. After 9 weeks of release, “The Way” has pulled in $3,623,724. In a true testament to its word of mouth, it saw its per-theater-average rise four consecutive weekends – which is particularly rare given that it was the film’s 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th weekends, respectively.

Originally planned as a Spring release, the team opted to hold out for the fall.

“That would have been a real press,” Sloss said. “First of all, we had to raise the money for P&A and second, our feeling was that we wanted to this in an old-fashioned, grassroots way. We didn’t want to buy awareness through traditional media but to really trust the playablity of the movie.”

Sloss said that one of the reasons they decided to get inolved was that Estevez had said from the beginning that he and his father were willing to do a bus tour.

“We took him at his word and followed through on that,” Sloss laughed.

Sloss said the fact that they put so much time and energy into establishing a base of awareness was something that really paid off – especially later in the film’s run.

“It’s a testament to that kind of grassroots preparataion and that sometimes it takes a while for seeds like that to sprout,” he said. “And it’s also a testament to the idea that maybe theaters aren’t as reluctant as people think they are to hold on to films that they believe in. They always say it’s hard to let a film sit in theaters and grow and that those days are gone. But to a certain extent, we’re a testament to the fact that that’s not really true.”

A Multiplatform Success Story Occupies Theaters and VOD

Of all the films picked up out of the Sundance Film Festival, JC Chandor’s “Margin Call” was not the one people were expecting to be the fest’s big breakout. But $4.7 million (and counting) later, the film has turned out to be the highest grossing acquisition title from the  festival released this fall, and the third highest grossing overall (Sony Classics’ “The Guard” and The Weinstein Company’s “Our Idiot Brother” both currently have higher grosses from their summer releases).

The Wall Street-set drama – which was acquired by Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate in a joint deal – also set another record: It’s the highest grossing film ever that was launched day and date on VOD.

“It caught the zeitgeist as a trenchant examination of Wall Street at a critical moment in the culture with OWS going on,” Roadside Attractions’ Howard Cohen told Indiewire. “And it launched the career of writer-director JC Chandor in a spectacular way. People have focused on how it has exceeded expectations vs. the way it was perceived in Sundance, although I’d venture to say independent films almost always succeed versus expectations. For instance:  Despite the Grand Jury Prize, no one at Sundance would have predicted Roadside’s amazing journey last year with ‘Winter’s Bone.'”

Beyond the remarkably perfect timing that was OWS, Cohen also credits the film’s ensemble cast for aiding the film’s success.

“As much as the topicality of the film, they were the key to a lot of the TV coverage we got when we opened,” he said. “Kevin, Penn, Demi, Simon, Zack, Paul and Stanley, as well as JC, got on shows all over the dial (Jeremy was in Budapest shooting The Borgias).”  

Cohen said the cast were certainly instrumental in the VOD success as well. 

“Since VOD viewers get pretty small amounts of information about a title, the cast is a major selling point,” he said. “We expect to sell roughly the same number of VOD units — 500,000 or so– as movie tickets through the run.”

To get more information on the VOD factor,  Roadside did an exit poll a couple of weeks into the release at the Renaissance, a Landmark theatre in Chicago’s Highland Park suburb where the film had been working well.  Fascinatingly,  95% of the audience didn’t know the film was on VOD.

So where does “Margin Call” leave the VOD vs. theatrical debate?

“For future films I still think both media can work even when they the audience does start to know it’s also on VOD,” Cohen said.  “But we won’t know until we get there.  We know as distributors, exhibitors, and the rest of the industry that we all want to be very careful how we combine these media.  In a way we’re in a fragile moment in film history given the explosion of media choice.” 

Cohen said Roadside will only do certain films this way going forward.

“Some films are not right for day-and-date, especially those with unknown cast, or those at the other end of spectrum for which we have  wider theatrical ambitions than can be had currently in the day-and-date model.  ‘Margin Call,’ as an intimate, serious drama but with a big cast, was in a way the perfect picture to succeed in this way.  We’ll be looking — very carefully — for others.”

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