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How ‘Moonlight’ Beat the Odds to Reach Theaters In African-American Neighborhoods

Barry Jenkins's acclaimed drama has topped more than $8 million at the U.S. box office and was a big winner at the 2016 Gotham Awards and New York Film Critics Circle Awards.


Trevante Rhodes in “Moonlight”


One of the questions surrounding “Moonlight” was whether it would find its way to movie screens in African-American neighborhoods. That’s not standard arthouse territory, and with no bankable stars and an unconventional story, the A24 platform release didn’t offer much to suggest a wide theatrical audience.

READ MORE: ‘Moonlight’: How the Transformative Power of An Unexpected Role Changed Naomie Harris’ Career — Consider This

Six weeks since its October 21 release, “Moonlight” has bucked the trend with $8 million in box office and counting and holding more than 600 screens — including those in African-American communities. The film was the big winner at Monday night’s Gotham Awards in New York, taking home awards for Best Feature, the Audience Award, the Special Jury Award For Ensemble Performance, and Best Screenplay for writer-director Barry Jenkins. It has a Metascore of 99, making it one of the platform’s best-reviewed movies of the decade.

A24 recently took the film nationwide, a level of saturation that put “Moonlight” in the enviable position of filling a marketplace void for African-American arthouse movies, an accomplishment very few filmmakers can claim. While Tyler Perry has built an empire on commercial movies geared toward African-American audiences, “Moonlight” is the rare arthouse movie that has reached non-arthouse moviegoers, a major coup for any indie filmmaker.

To say the movie’s commercial and critical reception have surpassed Jenkins’ expectations would be a massive understatement. “I thought five people would see this film: my mom, my sister, and maybe a few close friends” Jenkins told IndieWire backstage at the Gothams. “The fact that it’s playing in one theater is a privilege.”

Jenkins credits A24 and Plan B Entertainment with letting him tell the story he wanted to tell without factoring in marketing data or catering to audience demographics. “Nothing we did was geared toward making the movie fit this box or that box,” Jenkins said. “There’s something to be said about how the film can create the market, and create the campaign.”

Barry Jenkins Moonlight

Barry Jenkins, director of “Moonlight”

Daniel Bergeron

“Moonlight’s” victorious night at the Gotham Awards came at a pivotal moment. The wider release added more than $1.5 million to “Moonlight’s” box office total in a five-day period. After that, the number of screens showing the film dipped for the first time, settling at around 620. While that figure pales in comparison to the more than 4,000 screens currently showing “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” it’s a major achievement for any independent film to receive such a wide release.

“Six hundred covers pretty much every neighborhood in the country,” said Bill Thompson, senior vice president of theatrical sales at international arthouse distributor Cohen Media Group. “If it ends up on 10-Best lists and with Academy Award nominations, it will go even wider. I think the challenge is going to be keeping those 600 runs going from now until late January when the nominations come out.”

Indeed, the period from December to February is a long stretch for any film to sustain its theatrical momentum, even one with the acclaim of “Moonlight.” “You saw it with ‘Room’ last year,” Thompson said. “It performed well, but A24 had to spend a lot of money to keep it going week after week after week. That’s what everybody faces who opens early in the fall.”

“Moonlight” received a major boost Thursday, winning awards for Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali) from the New York Film Critics Circle and earning nominations for Best Picture, Best Acting Ensemble, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing from the Critics Choice Awards. How wide could the film go if it nabs more nominations and wins?

In order for “Moonlight” to reach as wide an audience as “Precious,” it will need to expand to roughly 1,000 screens. Matching “12 Years a Slave’s” more than 1,400 screens will be even harder.


Ashton Sanders in “Moonlight”


“There’s not enough screens for indies to get to 2,000 or 3,000,” said Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, adding that 600 is often the high mark for indie award contenders. “You’re going to see that with all the indie movies. That’s what ‘Whiplash’ had.” The 2014 drama starring Miles Teller peaked at around 570 screens, earning $13 million at the U.S. box office and $33 million worldwide. According to a source, A24 expects “Moonlight” to earn $13 million by Christmas, with its expansion continuing into the new year. (Per its policy, the company does not comment on its releases.)

While the film still has a long journey, its triumphs suggest that the theatrical marketplace doesn’t only favor big-budget action films and superhero movies. As a high-art film driven more by artful moments than a conventional narrative, “Moonlight” has already begun to provide a wakeup call to the industry.

“It’s the film of the season, and rightly so, but we need more consistency,” actor David Oyelowo told IndieWire at the Gothams, adding that surprise box office hits like “Precious” only come around once in a while. “It’s a great sign, but it’s anomalous. We need films like ‘Moonlight’ to be celebrated, made for an audience, and to have access to them in this way more often.”

Next up for “Moonlight” is its international run. In November, Altitude Film Distribution acquired the film for release in the U.K. and Ireland; that will roll out in February 2017. Additional territories already sold include Canada, France, and the Netherlands.

READ MORE: ‘Moonlight’ Set to Receive Live Orchestra Screening Treatment, Featuring Composer Nicholas Britell

For Jenkins, one of the most gratifying aspects of the reception for “Moonlight” is not the financial success, but how many post-screening Q&As have included comments from white, black, hispanic, straight and LGBT individuals commenting on how much they relate to the story.

“I love the fact that so many diverse audiences have been able to see themselves in this film,” he said. “It’s very heartening for me.”

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