Behind ‘Moonrise Kingdom’s’ Unconventional But Steady March to the Oscars

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Wes Anderson's quirky "Moonlight Kingdom" has a 95 percent favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has crossed the $40 million mark at the box office

It’s a Hollywood rule of thumb that if you want to be a player come awards season, you've got to be a critical and commercial success. Director Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” a quirky, summer-set tale of very young love has now checked both of those boxes, emphatically.

“It’s going to be interesting when the Top 10 lists start to come out,” David Brooks, president of worldwide marketing for distributor Focus Features, told TheWrap. "We’re in the discussion now, and I’m sure we’ll continue to be.”

“Moonrise Kingdom” was co-written by Anderson (left) and Roman Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola's son. It tells the tale of two 12-year-olds in love, gone missing from a small New England town in 1965 and the search that ensues.

Its 94 percent favorable rating on review-aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes is the best of any of this summer’s movies in wide release, and last weekend it crossed the $40-million mark at the box office.

Also read: Wes Anderson on ‘Moonrise Kingdom’: ‘It’s a Memory of a Fantasy’

If it does make an awards splash, “Moonrise Kingdom” will have taken an unconventional path. Late fall is the traditional time to open specialty films with awards aspirations — though Sony Pictures Classics took a similar tack last year with Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.”

Also like "Midnight in Paris" — Allen's biggest box-office hit, an Oscar nominee for Best Picture. Director and Art Direction and winner for Best Original Screenplay — "Moonrise Kingdom" was the opening-night attraction at the Cannes Film Festival. 

Also read: 'Moonrise Kingdom' Review: Wes Anderson's Sad-Tweens Tale Engaging, Deadpan-Funny

Anderson's dryly funny and artfully simple style — precious, detractors say — is on full display in "Moonrise," his seventh and most commercially successful film since 2001's "The Royal Tenenbaums." That film earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and in 2009, his "Fantastic Mr. Fox" was nominated for Best Animated Feature.

Anderson produced "Moonrise Kingdom" with Scott Rudin, Steven Rales and Jeremy Dawson, who had executive-produced and co-financed his "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and "Darjeeling Limited," both also produced by Rudin. When Focus acquired the rights in May of 2011, it was with an eye on the Croisette.

“From the start we targeted Cannes as a launch pad," Brooks said. Focus opened it on May 25 in two theaters in New York and two in L.A., and it took off, averaging $130,752 per-screen — the highest ever for a live-action film. 

“We expected a big opening, but not that big,” Brooks said. "It validated our feeling that we had a film that we didn't have to rush, and that we'd be better off letting demand percolate.” A textbook platform release followed.

The marketing was synced up with the vintage summer camp look of the film and four "making of” shorts" were rolled out along with the trailer. Focus upped the screen count to 16 in the second week and 96 in the third. Then it cracked the Top 10.

Also read: Indie Box Office: 'Moonrise Kingdom' Shines in Expansion

Bill Murray, part of the ensemble cast and a frequent collaborator with Anderson — “Moonrise” was the sixth film he’s made with the director — starred in a tipsy video tour of the film’s sets that went viral. Anderson helped create posters for individual cast members.

Young unknowns Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are the film’s leads, but the ensemble includes not just Murray but top-line talent: Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, Ed Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel and Frances McDormand. Bob Balaban narrates.

By the time Focus was ready to take the film wide, after expanding to 178 and 395 theaters in its fourth and fifth weeks, “Moonrise” had taken in $11.6 million. And its social-media heat had begun to take on a life of its own. Katy Perry was among a raft of celebs who gave it boost, tweeting, "I want to live in a Wes Anderson world" to her 15 million followers.

On June 29, Focus expanded to 854 theaters. It took in $4.9 million and moved into the No. 7 on the box-office Top 10 list. It stayed on the list for the next month.

As it heads into its 11th week, its overall domestic gross stands at $41.1 million — not bad for a movie with a $16 million production budget — and Focus expects it to play through the month.

Along with Fox Searchlight's "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," which has made north of $45 million, "Moonrise Kingdom" is the summer's breakout specialty hit. ("Best Exotic," set in India and featuring a largely British cast, has done far better overseas, with $85 million; the very American "Moonrise Kingdom" has made just under $14 million abroad.)

“Besides the fact that this is a very well-done movie, it shows that there is a demand for intelligent movies that appeal to adults out there,” Phil Contrino, editor-in-chief at BoxOffice.com, told The Wrap. "That's a group that is, for the most part, underserved by Hollywood, particularly in the summer.”

The plan now, according to Brooks, is to build momentum for the awards season. The box office bounty can't hurt the campaign war chest, and Focus plans to release the DVD in the fall, before the crush of screeners and screenings.

Awards season strategists were loath to talk specifics this early in the year, but agreed there was one very basic advantage to coming out in summer – voters will be more likely to have seen the movie, either in theaters or on DVD. The downside is that your film can become yesterday's news, but as one insider put it, "I'd rather have to be knocked out of someone's mind than to have to fight my way in." 

Focus agrees.

“At this point, the movie is sort of doing the work for us,” Brooks said. “We’re advertising some, but it’s mainly just reminding people of how well the film was reviewed. We know we’re in people’s minds and hearts.”