The two movies with the most buzz coming out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival — “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and “Dope” — are about to hit theaters, and they could bring a wake-up call for this year’s so-far sleepy independent film scene.
More intimate, smaller fare can be ideal counter-programming to summer’s superhero romps and mega-sequels like Universal Pictures’ “Jurassic World,” which opens Friday. The last two Academy Award Best Picture winners — Fox Searchlight’s “12 Years a Slave” and “Birdman” — were summer releases, so it’s a proven launch pad for honors, too.
But so far this year, no limited-release film has taken off in terms of awards-level buzz or box office.
Fox Searchlight’s “The Second-Best Marigold Hotel” is the highest-grossing indie film with $31 million. A24’s John Garland sci-fi tale “Ex Machina” ($24 million), Sony Picture Classics’ Julianne Moore drama “Still Alice” ($18.6 million) and Radius-TWC’s sexy teen horror film by David Robert Mitchell “It Follows” ($14.6 million) have also made their mark at the box office.
In comparison, Wes Anderson‘s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” had booked the bulk of its $59 million domestic box office haul by this time last year. In addition, Jon Favreau‘s “Chef” was starting to heat up to an eventual $31 million and IFC Films was about to roll out Richard Linklater‘s “Boyhood.”
Art-house box office may pick up in coming months.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is a touching comedy about the friendship between an awkward high school senior (Thomas Mann) who spends most of his time making parodies of classic films and a gravely ill classmate (Olivia Cooke).
It won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize and Audience Awards and was acquired for $12 million at the festival by Fox Searchlight, which will debut it in limited release on Friday. The plan is to build buzz before going nationwide with the film, which is directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and adapted by Jesse Andrews from his 2012 novel.
“We love the picture,” said Frank Rodriguez, Fox Searchlight’s head of distribution, “and the reviews have been great, but we have to temper our enthusiasm a little. We don’t have stars in it, and the director is an unknown, so we just don’t know.”
Given recent history, caution makes sense. Much-buzzed and pricey Sundance titles like Steve Coogan’s “Hamlet 2” and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Don Juan” failed to connect with mainstream audiences, often because the quirkiness or unique perspective that makes them festival hits doesn’t play as well broadly.
Notable exceptions include 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project,” which grossed more than $248 million globally on a budget of less than $750,000, and critical hits “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012), “Little Miss Sunshine,” (2006) “Memento” (2000), “Hoop Dreams” (1994) and Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” (1992).
Both “Dope” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” are hits with critics, with the former at registering a 100-percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the latter clocking in at 89 percent.
Open Road Films is eschewing a platform, or gradual, release and going wide on June 19 with “Dope.” Writer-director Rick Famuyiwa’s comedy-drama about an inner-city teen (Shameik Moore) trying to get into college against all odds played in the Directors Fortnight section at Cannes to a rave reception, after which Open Road won a Sundance bidding war for “Dope,” acquiring it with Sony, which will handle foreign distribution, for $7 million, plus $20 million in marketing.
It has an impressive pedigree — with Forest Whitaker producing, and Sean Combs and Pharrell Williams as executive producers — and an ensemble cast loaded with up-and-comers Tony Revolori (“Grand Budapest Hotel”), Kiersey Clemons (“Transparent), Blake Anderson (“Workaholics”), Zoë Kravitz (“Mad Max”), rapper A$AP Rocky, Tyga, Keith Stanfield and Chanel Iman.
The decision to roll out “Dope” widely rather than with a gradual or “platform” release was easy, said Jason Cassidy, Open Road’s marketing president.
“We see a great opportunity, and it warrants it because it’s fresh and funny and the testing numbers are incredible,” he said. “It’s a multi-cultural film that we think will appeal to African-American, Hispanic and Caucasian audiences, and there’s nothing like it in the market, so we wanted to give it every chance to break out.”
In addition, “Love & Mercy,” Roadside Attractions’ biopic about the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson starring Jon Cusack and Paul Dano, showed promise with a $2 million debut in 465 theaters over the weekend, and Sony Picture Classics’ “Infinitely Polar Bear” arrives on June 19. Mark Ruffalo stars in the comedy about a manic-depressive divorced dad tying to win back his wife (Zoe Saldana) by caring for his two young daughters.
Magnolia Film’s “The Wolfpack” opens Friday and is among several documentary movies that deserve attention, including Warner Bros.’ “Batkid Begins” (June 26), A24’s Amy Winehouse documentary “Amy” (July 10) and “A LEGO Brickumentary” (July 31).
Here’s a look at some of the year’s top-grossing independent films so far:
Will “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” lead to a third? Richard Gere joined the charming original film’s Dev Patel, Judy Dench, Bill Nighy and Maggie Smith for director John Madden’s sequel, the year’s highest-grossing indie release so far with $33 million for Fox Searchlight.
Writer-director John Garland’s sci-fi “Ex Machina” has grossed nearly $25 million since opening a little more than two months ago, and is easily A24’s highest-grossing release ever. Oscar Isaacs and Domhnall Gleeson star and Alicia Vikander plays an intensely alluring android in the cerebral British thriller.
Teenage sex sets off an ominous spirit stalker in the simple but stylish horror film “It Follows” from writer-director John Robert Mitchell. It was headed directly to video, but a warm reception at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival earned a theatrical release for this creeper starring Maika Monroe. It’s taken in $14.6 million for Radius-TWC, not bad given its under-$2 million budget.
Julianne Moore won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of a college professor diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and “Still Alice” has ridden that momentum to a $28.5 million box office run for Sony Pictures Classics. Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart and Kate Bosworth star in the film, written and directed by Wash Westmoreland and the late Richard Glatzer.