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5 Reasons ‘It Follows’ Became the Surprise Indie Hit of the Year

5 Reasons 'It Follows' Became the Surprise Indie Hit of the Year

It Follows” isn’t the highest-grossing horror film of the year. That would be “Insidious Chapter 3,” which, with a studio-level budget of $10 million, has grossed nearly $121 million to date. But a quick peek at Rotten Tomatoes reveals the difference between the two. While “Insidious 3” is “certified rotten” with an average of 59% positive reviews, “It Follows” stands tall at 96%. Unlike “Insidious,” which came and went as most horror films do, David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows” pierced the cultural conversation. It was different — smart, stylish, scary — and with a killer soundtrack. It got people talking, and the money followed. 

How did a small indie genre film break the horror franchise mold? At IFP Film Week, the co-founders of Animal Kingdom, Joshua Astrachan and David Kaplan, sat down with former RADiUS-TWC CEO Tom Quinn to tell the story. Indiewire’s Eric Kohn moderated the panel.

READ MORE: What The Success of ‘It Follows’ Means for Indie Film Distribution

It’s a sophomore effort with strong style and character.

To Animal Kingdom, Mitchell was a known commodity — they had seen his debut film, “Myth of the American Sleepover” and didn’t have to take a chance on him. “There were ways we could see the fabric and texture of his first film in the reality of the second,” said Astrachan. “David had a really beautiful book he’d put together with all these visual references,” added Kaplan. “He had a vision.” That vision showed Detroit as the character looming large over the film. “It was ruin porn, or the city as it exists today,” said Kaplan. The strong sense of style, character, and place instilled the kind of trust that’s requisite for undertaking what Kaplan described as a “lo-fi project with a lot of integrity.” According to Quinn, “It’s an incredible genre film that exists within the tropes and is character-driven, and it has a real director’s point of view, which is so rare.”

It kept the budget low.

“We shot for $1.3 million, entirely in the state of Michigan, so we could take advantage of the tax credit,” said Kaplan. “We made the film with a non-union crew.” Ultimately, “It Follows” grossed 15 times its budget.  

It premiered at the right festival.

Because of its arthouse flair, the natural fit for “It Follows” seemed to be a Cannes premiere. But according to Kaplan, “it was actually a real debate whether or not to go to Cannes.” The team wondered if debuting in Toronto or Sundance would give the film better prospects stateside, since the U.S. market was their biggest theatrical hope. Furthermore, the producers worried that their film would get buried. “We knew we’d be a small fish in a big pond,” said Kaplan. But because the Animal Kingdom team had worked with sales agent Visit Films to lock down two international pre-sales to France and England, “there was already a bit of momentum,” said Kaplan. “It was the rare instance where a sales agent comes in and does exactly what they said they were going to do from day one.” Ultimately, Mitchell’s legacy as a Cannes alum coupled with the film’s strong aesthetic rendered Cannes the best fit. “It Follows” premiered to great reviews, and RADiUS picked it up. 

READ MORE: The 2015 Indiewire IFP Independent Film Week Bible

It test-screened for early adopters.

“We tested the film, and it didn’t test very well,” said Quinn, who attributed the misfire to the film’s ambiguous ending. “The elliptical nature of the film — the fact that it doesn’t ultimately answer its own questions — is frustrating to a large group of people, but to me that’s the part of the greatness,” he said. “You will continually talk about it for days and days.”

Quinn allowed that “the testing process itself is flawed,” as the randomness of the audience selection doesn’t reveal the preferences of the art-house crowd. In other words, preaching to the choir can be beneficial. “We wanted a better sample of a filmgoer,” said Quinn. “We needed to find the early adopter. What does the Brooklynite — somebody who goes to Brooklyn Academy of Music and Nitehawk — think?” Quinn and his team thought these early adopters would champion the film, bringing it into the trending conversation at large. “Once somebody super-cool says it’s awesome, the rest of the country’s going to follow suit,” he said.

But it’s difficult to construct such a specific sample for a test screening. 

Audiences guided the film’s release strategy.

Over the past two years, RADiUS engineered two unlikely successes: “Snowpiercer,” which they released on VOD early and made headlines for the risky business model that paid off; and “Blue Ruin,” which followed a similar strategy to more modest, albeit improbable, gains. Quinn admitted RADiUS went to VOD too early with “Blue Ruin” — by using the day-and-date model, RADiUS precluded the chances of a theatrical boom. He didn’t want to make the same mistake again.

“‘It Follows’ could fit any possible release strategies,” said Quinn. “Could we have spent $15-20 million from day one and launched the movie wide? Yes. Could we have launched day-and-date on multiple platforms? Yes. All of that would have made sense. But what if we let any of the possible scenarios play out?”

Animal Kingdom, for their part, went with RADiUS because it was the only buyer willing to try this unconventional — and unprecedented — release strategy. “This proved to be the perfect deal,” said Astrachan. “There was an openness. RADiUS said, ‘We don’t know what this movie is yet, but we’re going to figure it out over the next six months.'” 

“We built a very complex release strategy, and the audience was going to tell us which way to go,” explained Quinn. They first gunned for the best case scenario: a wide release. “But all the big theaters passed on it,” said Quinn. “None of them thought it was a wide release film.” Next, RADiUS built a VOD window, not unlike “Snowpiercer,” that would follow two weeks after a limited theatrical release. “But, unbeknownst to the VOD providers, in the event that the film took off the first weekend, we were actually going to pull that window,” said Quinn.

“We had to straight-up lie to VOD providers. That was a placeholder date.” RADiUS couldn’t preclude the possibility of expanding theatrically, but in the event that the film didn’t take off, they wanted to have a responsible release strategy in place. That meant a secure VOD window with a guaranteed revenue stream. 

Quinn told the producers, “This kind of release has never been done before, but we have a vision, and every potential upside for this movie is absolutely the right thing to do.” They collectively agreed on the base strategy but “hoped to do something more interesting,” said Quinn.  

“The results were fantastic,” said Kaplan. “RADiUS was so fast when they had the ability to go.” 

“It Follows” took off theatrically, and RADiUS pushed back the VOD date. “Almost all of the VOD providers were super cool about it,” said Quinn.

READ MORE: Why ‘It Follows’ is Really Scary: What It Means for Indie Film Distribution

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