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Indie Box Office 101: How Do You Measure Whether An Indie Film Has Done Well?

Indie Box Office 101: How Do You Measure Whether An Indie Film Has Done Well?

Understanding how the indie box office works can be a complicated process.  On a fairly regular basis, Indiewire’s weekly box office column enrages a few commenters who don’t get why a certain film is being deemed “disappointing” or why a film’s “mild” per-theater average is notable. 

Sometimes they’re simply right and our analysis isn’t quite on the mark, which is in itself a symptom of the complicated and occasionally subjective way in which one measures indie box office success. But sometimes those commenters simply — and reasonably — don’t understand how many variables are at play when it comes to analyzing indie box office numbers.

Why an indie film can be deemed a “hit” is not as simple as its opening weekend gross, as per most studio releases. There can be multiple reasons why our box office column might designate a film’s performance as good, bad, or somewhere in between.  As a supplement to those columns, we’ve decided to offer a basic introduction to the specialty box office market via these 5 major factors for how to measure the success of a film:

1. The Per-Theater-Average: Because indie films play in considerably less theaters than studio films, the per-theater-average is often more important than the weekend gross itself.

For example, the film with the highest gross on this week’s Indiewire box office chart was “Salmon Fishing In The Yemen,” which took in $1,272,643 in 483 theaters. While that is a very good number, it’s not necessary the most impressive on the chart. 

Look at “Bully” by comparison. In only 5 theaters, that film grossed $116,472, which made for a $23,294 PTA — the second highest of any film so far this year. “Salmon” only averaged $2,635 per theater.

2. The Theater Count and the Duration of Release: It’s not as simple as best PTA = most impressive performer.  One has to take into account how many screens the film is on, and how many weeks it has been in release.

While “Bully” might have had the highest average last weekend, it had two huge things going for it: a tiny theater count and the fact that it was in its first weekend of release. In those scenarios, averages above $20,000 (or even $30,000 or $40,000) are common and often less impressive than films on more screens later in their release.

Take “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and “Footnote” this past weekend. Both in their fourth weekends, the films have expanded to 44 and 60 theaters, respectively. And each averaged just north of $4,000 per theater, which is a very strong number for specialty films in their fourth weekend on that many theaters. The $2,635 that the aforementioned “Salmon Fishing In The Yemen” grossed on 483 theaters is also very good, as another example.

3. The Expansion Numbers: Going hand in hand with the above notes regarding a film’s duration of release is the importance of expansion numbers in general. While in the studio world a first weekend often makes or breaks a film, for indies it’s more about what happens in subsequent weekends. A great first weekend per-theater-average on a few screens in New York and Los Angeles can mean great things to come… or the opposite.

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.

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