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‘The Big Sick’: 6 Ways to Create a Summer Indie Hit and an Oscar Contender

So far so good for "The Big Sick," which is riding rave reviews and word of mouth to long-haul success and likely awards. But it wasn't easy.

"The Big Sick" cast and crew

Judd Apatow, Kumail Nanjiani, Emily Gordon, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano, Barry Mendel, and Michael Showalter

Daniel Bergeron

3. Team-player director Michael Showalter.

“When I read the script, it was an inspired, big-hearted draft,” said Showalter. “I’m very structurally minded, thinking in terms of what the blueprint is underneath it all.”

They took a collegial approach that’s more familiar to television. Showalter, Nanjiani, and Gordon spent a summer outlining — pinning cards on a board, talking it through scene by scene. They presented their work to Apatow and Mendel, and continued to meet for another four to five months, with the occasional table read. Only at that point did they take the script into the world of financing via Film Nation.

“It felt appropriate to open our process to other people and get input,” said Showalter. “When Ray Romano, Holly Hunter, and other actors were cast, that brought a whole other level of work, bringing in each actor, and 10 more rewrites.”

Throughout the process, Showalter insisted on finding structure. “Everyone brought a different thing to the process that was most important to them,” he said, “whether the comedy or the drama. I was figuring out the act breaks, the plot points, those classic milestones in a movie that guide the audience through the story. I look at it mathematically. The movie in my brain is broken up into specific sequences and parts that are all part of a larger machine. The editing was the last part of that. If we had done the first two phases correctly, we had the right materials.”

Martin Starr, Judd Apatow, Thomas Middleditch, Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani and Weird Al Yankovic'The Big Sick' film premiere, After Party, Los Angeles, USA - 12 June 2017

Martin Starr, Judd Apatow, Thomas Middleditch, Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani and Weird Al Yankovic at “The Big Sick” film premiere


4. A strong ensemble cast.

Apatow had the last word on casting, while Showalter worked with the ensemble on set. “We were making sure tonally we were on the same page, what scenes felt like,” he said. “The actors did preparation, mapping out where their characters are going.”

While Zoe Kazan and Oscar-winner Holly Hunter seem perfect as daughter and mother, “Everybody Loves Raymond” TV star Ray Romano was a revelation as her anxious father. “We all feel he’s a good actor,” said Showalter. “We know how funny he is, and he has shown that he’s a lovely, subtle, soulful actor. We were are excited to hopefully have him show that side of himself.”

Anupham Kher (“Bend It Like Beckham”), who plays Nanjiani’s father, is a beloved Bollywood star.

5. Gender parity.

Unlike most Hollywood romantic comedies, the relationship between Nanjiani and Gordon is balanced, their witty dialogue and smart repartee equally strong. The filmmakers made sure that Nanjiani’s struggles with his Pakistani family were in balance with Gordon’s parents.

6. Amazon Studios.

As soon as they nabbed “The Big Sick” at Sundance, Amazon distribution chief Bob Berney planned a summer counterprogramming platform release in partnership with Lionsgate. The movie opens June 23, and goes wider to about 1,500 screens on July 14. While Nanjiani, Kazan, Romano, and Hunter are known factors, a summer family comedy needs time to grow with multiple audience demos.

“The best asset is the film itself, the word of mouth,” said Berney, who released the similar “The Big Fat Greek Wedding” and masterminds each film’s distribution and marketing plan. “We needed the film and true-story element to come out, to let it build.”

Rave reviews and LA and NY Q&As boosted the opening. Nanjiani’s initial appeal is to younger men and women reachable via social and digital media campaigns (enhanced by photo booths in theaters with giraffes and balloons, to echo hospital waiting rooms). Older audiences will follow the reviews as the movie broadens.

Making the comedy a hit comes first, but the Oscar campaign is already under way. Oscar-winner Hunter (“The Piano”) has the strongest shot, along with Romano in supporting and Nanjiani and Gordon’s screenplay. (The writers’ branch is more open to comedy than most others.) Showalter for director and a Best Picture slot are longer shots, but the film will get a boost from likely Golden Globe comedy nominations.

This true immigrant culture clash is timely, sweet and endearing, and carries real emotion. Finally, that’s its edge with Academy voters.

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