Long before its impressive opening weekend put its predecessors to shame, Richard Linklater’s long-awaited third part of the “Before” franchise screened on March 9 at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, TX. After the film, the director took the stage to answer audience questions and eventually got around to discussing the trilogy’s evolution.
“No one wanted a sequel. No one ever asked about it,” Linklater said, referencing the response he got when he first floated the idea of making “Before Sunset.” “We always joked this is the lowest grossing film to spawn a sequel, and I can confidently say these are the lowest grossing films to ever be a trilogy, or whatever we are now. It makes no sense, but three people wanted a sequel and we did it.”
Though his last comment could be seen as an inspirational statement perfectly encapsulating the independent filmmaker’s spirit, most people focused on the joke. The quote made the rounds online and gained the film some notoriety. A few months later at a screening of “Before Midnight” in Los Angeles, event host Elvis Mitchell went so far as to introduce the film as “the lowest-grossing trilogy in the history of motion pictures.” In later interviews, Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy all joked about the label their director had “confidently” (if also jokingly) saddled them with months earlier.
Linklater shouldn’t have been so confident. Thankfully, and somewhat shockingly, “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” and “Before Midnight” do not constitute the lowest-grossing trilogy of all time, and not only that, they won’t even be No. 2 for very long.
First of all, Linklater’s romantic trilogy wasn’t even the lowest-grossing English-language franchise prior to the release of “Before Midnight.” That undesirable distinction goes to “The Work and the Glory,” a three-part series that ran in limited release from 2004 to 2006 with a new entry every year. The films were based on a nine-part book series that traced the birth of Mormonism through the lives of a fictional family. The first film was the most successful, grossing just over $3 million in its 25-week run that reached 112 theaters. “Part II: American Zion” barely broke $2 million despite a wider initial release, and its predecessor — “Part III: A House Divided” — only managed to break the $1 million mark.
If Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy were surprised to be back for more after their initial film, imagine the surprise of “The Work and Glory” star Sam Hennings when he kept getting called back to reprise his role as Benjamin Steed. After all, the first film reportedly cost $7.5 million against its $3 million gross, and the following two films only cut their budgets down to $6.5 million each despite decreased earnings at the box office. The original boasts at an extremely rotten 17 percent on RottenTomatoes.com, while the sequels did improve to 40 percent and then 80 percent, respectively (though only a handful of critics bothered seeing them).
There are still other franchises worse off than the “Before” trilogy — just in case you think “The Work and the Glory” should be disqualified because it’s targeting a very small demographic (Mormons and anyone curious about a fictionalized take on the founding of the Mormon faith).
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The Thai imported “Ong Bak” trilogy managed a meager $4.6 million in America, making it the lowest-grossing trilogy to make a theatrical run in the States. “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” also outgrossed “Shiloh,” and its poorly-titled sequel, “Shiloh 2: Shiloh Season.” With or without inflation-adjusted ticket prices, the “Before” series is ahead of these unfortunate few.
More importantly for fans of Jesse and Celine is how well the couple’s latest venture, “Before Midnight,” does at the box office. Despite early assumptions this would be the couple’s last series of long walks and heated discussions, the three collaborators have gone on record saying they’re open to picking up the story nine years from now for a fourth film. Financially speaking, “After Midnight” is looking like a very solid investment. “Before Midnight” broke the bank with a whopping $246,000 opening weekend in just five theaters, followed by $404,000 in 31 theaters the next weekend. My calculations put it on track for around $13 million domestically. While that rough estimate will become more concrete once “Midnight” starts its national run June 14th, the third film is on pace to become the most successful entry in the series.
Each of the films took a very different path to theaters despite keeping the same core talent for each new venture. “Before Sunrise” kicked off the franchise as a joint production between Castle Rock Entertainment, Columbia Pictures, and a few smaller companies. It was released in January 1995 by Columbia Pictures to 363 theaters and grossed $1.4 million on its opening weekend before being pulled from theaters after only four weeks in theaters. After opening the Sundance film festival earlier in the year, it seems reasonable the film would have benefited from the independent distribution models of the aughts. Still, we’ll never know whether the series would even have existed without a major studio backing the original and pushing it into wide release.
Castle Rock Entertainment also produced “Before Sunset,” released the now requisite nine years later, but the now defunct distributor Warner Independent Pictures joined them this time. WIP wisely gave the sequel a limited summer release date to take advantage of the film’s romantic setting, but they may have mistimed their push by releasing it in 20 theaters on a crowded — and family-friendly — July 4th weekend. While it put up a solid per theater average of $10,971 its opening weekend, that figure was cut by more than half by week three and only 102 theaters had been added. Whether this was a result of less than primo positioning, rolling out the film in too many theaters too quickly, or it was simply the best the film could have done, “Before Sunset” ended its run with $5.8 million; almost $300,000 more than the original, but almost $3 million less when adjusted for inflation.
The sole financial bright spot for “Sunset” was its performance overseas. Though there’s no data readily available for the original’s foreign performance, Linklater has said it did very well. Foreign markets made more of an emergence, though, by the time “Sunset” hit screens in 2004, and Warner Independent took full advantage. “Before Sunset” racked up $10.1 million overseas, almost twice as much as it managed stateside. Linklater has cited these solid returns as one of the reasons he was able to get funding for the next feature.
“Before Midnight” was financed independently and then sold the distribution rights to Sony Pictures Classics after its premiere at Sundance earlier this year. For now, everyone involved with the production has got to be pretty pleased with “Midnight’s” first two weekends. If the film continues to play well, it should be looking at a long, successful summer both here and overseas. It’s even generated some Oscar buzz thanks to overwhelmingly positive reviews and a solid history with the Academy (“Before Sunset” was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay). If it can sneak out a Best Picture nomination, “Before Midnight” could make some serious money (“Midnight in Paris” kind-of money) — or if it makes some serious money, it might snag a Best Picture nomination.
Either way, everyone should be feeling particularly up about Jesse and Celine’s future. Though Linklater and Co. will have to wait another nine or so years before starting a new production, don’t be surprised if a fourth entry helps the “Before” series climb even further out of the “Lowest-Grossing Trilogy” cellar.