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The Little ‘Bernie’ That Could: Richard Linklater and Millennium Entertainment’s Sleeper Success Story

The Little 'Bernie' That Could: Richard Linklater and Millennium Entertainment's Sleeper Success Story

While “Moonrise Kingdom” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” have been getting the majority of press regarding “summer indie breakouts,” there’s been a considerable success story flying under the radar: Richard Linklater’s “Bernie,” which just crossed the $7 million mark this past weekend.

The film is already far and away the highest grossing film ever for distributor Millennium Entertainment (which never had a film cross the $1 million mark before), and should top “Dazed and Confused” in the next week or so to become Linklater’s highest grossing independently released film (three of his studio efforts — “The School of Rock,” “Bad News Bears” and “The Newton Boys” — have all grossed more).  

“Bernie” found Linklater reteaming with “School of Rock” star Jack Black, who stars as Bernie Tiede, a mortician who becomes the only friend of a wealthy widow (Shirley MacLaine).  Loosely based on true events (it’s based on the 1998 Texas Monthly article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” by Skip Hollandsworth, who co-wrote the script), the dark comedy also stars Matthew McConaughey (who’s having an incredible year with this, “Magic Mike” and upcoming releases “Killer Joe,” “Mud” and “The Paperboy”).

Millennium bought the film — budgeted at a reported $6 million — out of last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, which is not typically breeding ground for big buys. But things clearly worked out.

“We fell in love with ‘Bernie’ at the LA Film Festival, and hoped that audiences would share our enthusiasm for Linklater’s colorful East Texas locale and the film’s irresistible title character,” Millennium Entertainment CEO Bill Lee said. “Bernie’s success is a game-changer for Millennium Entertainment and demonstrates what we’ve always firmly believed – that an independent distributor (without the support of a media conglomerate or big studio parent company) can, with passion and savvy, do well in this market.”

“Bernie” opened on April 27 on three screens to a promising $28,602 average. What followed was a very slow-and-steady approach, with the film’s screen count peaking at 332 seven weeks later. Remarkably, the film managed nine straight weeks of averages above the $2,000 mark. It even saw its average jump from $2,062 to $2,215 in its whopping ninth weekend of release.

“We knew that Bernie was a crowd-pleaser but that we had to identify a release window in an oversaturated market which enabled us to hold theatres long enough for audiences to discover the movie,” Millennium Entertainment EVP Distribution Andy Gruenberg said.  “We targeted April 27, plotted a long and slow rollout with a special emphasis on maximizing our returns in the Texas market, releasing Austin (where Linklater has a stronghold) alongside initial LA and New York runs.”

The Texas market is definitely noteworthy. At Landmark’s Magnolia Theater in Dallas, the film is already one of the top 10 grossers ever. It has taken in $224,708 at that theater alone, more than all but five films in the theater’s history: “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Sideways,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Black Swan” and “Midnight in Paris.” That’s pretty remarkable company. Each of those films are among the highest grossing indies of the past decade, and each ended up a best picture nominee. Behind “Bernie” are a similar batch of breakouts: “Juno,” “March of the Penguins” and “Napoleon Dynamite.”

“It’s still filling our biggest auditorium in its 9th weekend so it’s got a long way to go still,” Shawn Mahan, General Manager of Landmark’s Magnolia Theatre said. “I’ve only ever seen a couple of films ever have word of mouth like this. It’s pretty incredible.”

Still on 166 screens,”Bernie” is likely to end up with a gross around $9 million — a mark only 3 limited releases (“Marigold Hotel,” “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Salmon Fishing In Yemen”) have managed this year.  That might not be “Brokeback” or “Black Swan” numbers, but for everyone involved, it’s clearly a milestone.

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