"Beasts of the Southern Wild" may be one of the year's most exciting and singular movie experiences, but Benh Zeitlin's film faces real challenges at the box office
First-time director Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is the biggest indie-film sensation of the 2012 festival season. It won the grand prize at Sundance after an uproarious debut screening, quickly landed a deal with Fox Searchlight, went to Cannes where it won the Camera d'Or as the festival's best first film and recently took the audience award at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
But will those awards mean a thing when "Beasts" begins its limited release on Wednesday?
Zeitlin's film is an experimental, allegorical attempt to create a new kind of folklore – and the same approach that makes it stand out also means that it is far from a typical summer film, or an easy sell for Searchlight.
Executives at Fox Searchlight declined TheWrap's requests to discuss the film's marketing campaign, but an exec at a rival company said Searchlight's was perhaps an enviable challenge.
"I don't know if they'll be able to sell it outside the hard-core indie audience," the exec said. "But I wish it was my movie to try with."
Certainly, "Beasts" is like nothing else in the marketplace. The story of a defiant young girl named Hushpuppy who lives in a remote bayou community with her father, the film mixes raucous partying and personal loss; the richly-drawn setting, called "The Bathtub," sits at the far edge of civilization and seems doomed by ecological catastrophe, government interference and even some long-extinct aurochs come back to life.
"The idea … is not to be an anthropologist and document something, but to invent a new story with the parts that you find," Zeitlin told TheWrap.
When it debuted at Sundance, TheWrap called it "a movie … for people who think 'Treme' doesn't have enough gumbo, 'Take Shelter' could use more apocalypse, 'Where the Wild Things Are' isn't wild enough and 'When the Levees Broke' could have done with a few prehistoric creatures rampaging through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina."
"Beasts" is weird, raw, unruly and unexpectedly emotional. It was made by a director who'd never done a feature before, working with a miniscule budget and a cast of amateurs – including an astonishing 6-year-old girl whose name, Quvenzhane Wallis, stands a good chance of challenging the spelling skills of a lot of Oscar voters.
None of the cast had acted before, and the roles were fitted to them in an extensive rewriting process. Dwight Henry, who plays Hushpuppy's father, was unwilling to leave his all-night baker's job to prep for the film, so Zeitlin would sit with him from midnight to 4 a.m. mining autobiographical details for the character; acting coaches would then come in for the 4-to-9 a.m. shift.
Fox Searchlight knew the risks when it bought the film soon after its Sundance debut: The company reportedly paid no upfront guarantee for the film.
For Zeitlin, the lack of an advance wasn't a deterrent: He was just happy to get a deal so he could make the changes that he didn't have time to make before Sundance.
"At that [Sundance] screening, I was still so broken," he said. "We finished the film about two days before that, and I had a whole pile of notes that I hadn't gotten to do. So I was watching the film thinking, that dog's barking too loud, we need more magenta in that shot… I was convinced everybody hated it. Even after the standing ovation, I just couldn't wrap my head around the fact that I was finished."
The Searchlight deal, he said, was huge because it meant he could go back and add some magenta, make the dog's bark softer …
"I didn't even know what Fox Searchlight was," he said, laughing. "I had no idea about the industry or anything. But the first thing I was excited about was when they told me, 'You know, if someone buys the film, you're going to be able to go back and do your notes.' So we got to go back and fix all the psychotic miniscule things that were bothering me. And now I'm at peace with it."
Searchlight's advertising has focused on the Cannes and Sundance wins, and on raves from a group of top-tier critics: Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott at the New York Times, Richard Corliss at Time, Peter Travers at Rolling Stone …
The initial release is limited to Los Angeles and New York, where word-of-mouth from the festivals should guarantee robust box-office figures. It will expand beginning on July 4 in New Orleans and reach about two dozen cities by mid-July.
"I think it will work to a core arthouse group driven by the wide acclaim and awards," said the head of an indie company who asked not to be identified. "Most likely it will have a tough time breaking out of that … [but I] would never count out Searchlight, who have broken out challenging films before."
If the company now faces the daunting task of turning a festival favorite into a commercial success, Zeitlin said he is not worried in the slightest that his little film might not be a big hit.
"It's already gone so much further than I ever could have imagined," he said. "For me, the expansion to audiences has just been fascinating. It's just so interesting to see such a regional little movie made by such a scrappy, ragtag group of people communicate so far from where we did it.
"And it's been amazing that people understand it so well. People in the Ukraine are like, 'I completely understand what you're talking about.' And I'm like, really? I don't think I could have said anything to that person that would have made sense to them, but the film is somehow making sense. That's been really, really exciting.
"It'll be great if it does well," he concluded. "But I'm not scared that it won't."