No one expected Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” to become a full-fledged indie hit. The Oscar-nominated documentary that Magnolia Pictures acquired out of last year’s Toronto International Film Festival is on track to earn more than $7 million, displacing 2004’s “Woman, Thou Art Loosed” as the indie distributor’s top-grossing film of all time.
Director Raoul Peck is a veteran filmmaker, but “I Am Not Your Negro” was far from a sure thing. The film centers on the late African-American writer James Baldwin, diving into the pages of his unfinished book about the legacies of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the documentary paints a vivid portrait of black life in America, connecting recent events in places like Ferguson, Missouri to race relations in the ’50s and ’60s through archival footage, interviews, and photographs.
“In spite of its almost experimental form, it really still is an incredibly powerful emotional experience for people,” said Magnolia president Eamonn Bowles. “It’s almost like a dream state where James Baldwin is taking you through history.”
So how did an unconventional doc about a writer who died 30 years ago find such a large audience? Here are three ways Magnolia helped turn the movie into a specialty box office hit.
Catching the Oscars Wave
Convinced that “I Am Not Your Negro” had a good shot at landing an Oscar nomination — the film earned a Metascore of 95 — Magnolia set a release date of February 3, less than two weeks after the Academy Award nominees would be announced. The company also targeted the first weekend of Black History Month, when it could benefit from heightened interest among audiences.
Rather than going with a platform release in Los Angeles and New York, Magnolia opened “I Am Not Your Negro” in 43 theaters and 18 cities (after an Oscar-qualifying one-week run in December), taking in nearly $710,000 in its first weekend.
“In normal circumstances, this depth of theaters and cities would not be found until perhaps the second month,” IndieWire’s Tom Brueggemann pointed out back in February. “Distributors hesitate to tamper with formulas, but in these times when specialized exhibition is seeing a clear decline, in part because so much is available via alternative venues to audiences nationally at the same time, perhaps this shows how in certain circumstances a much wider swath of the country doesn’t need to wait so long.”
Targeting Nontraditional Theaters
In New York and Los Angeles, Magnolia sought out nontraditional movie theaters where “I Am Not Your Negro” would generate strong word of mouth. In addition to playing at the Metrograph on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the film opened in Harlem’s Maysles Cinema and in Los Angeles’s Rave Cinemas Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza.
“None of these theaters have ever had Academy runs before, but it was important to us to really go directly to the African-American community with the film,” Bowles said. “We did very well at those screenings and engendered a lot of word of mouth and interest in the film.”
As “I Am Not Your Negro’s” theatrical run winds down, Magnolia is already expecting a strong performance on VOD platforms like Amazon Prime and iTunes, which will offer the movie in early May. “I fully believe that more people will see it in its ancillary life,” Bowles said. “Already, the pre-sales on iTunes have been better than just about any other film we’ve had.”