Lulu Wang's "The Farewell," may be the one movie this summer that can end what has been a drought for indie films at the box office.
Last year, the documentaries "RBG" and "Won't You Be My Neighbor," Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman" and Boots Riley's "Sorry to Bother You" became indie successes. But halfway through summer 2019, very few films have done decently in limited release, and none have reached the level of last year's biggest hits, despite strong reviews.
"The Farewell" scored the great accomplishment this past weekend of earning the highest per-screen average box office of any film this year. Yes, it out-earned blockbusters like "Avengers: Endgame," the top film of the year, on a per-screen basis. But "The Farewell" opened on just four screens. "Endgame" played on more than 1,000 times as many screens.
A24's "The Last Black Man In San Francisco," one of the most acclaimed films at this year's Sundance, has held decently well with just over $3 million grossed after six weekends with a screen count of less than 200. And this weekend, the NEON documentary "Apollo 11" will return to theaters to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's moon landing. It has earned $9 million in box office grosses so far.
But nothing has reached the level of the $42 million domestic gross earned by 2017 indie darling "The Big Sick" or the $49 million earned last year by "BlacKkKlansman." Even "Apollo 11" hasn't reached the $10 million mark that was passed by three summer docs last year, including "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"
The biggest disappointments this summer have been the two indie films that were in wide release. Despite very strong reviews, Amazon's adult comedy "Late Night" has only grossed $14 million since its release in June while Annapurna's "Booksmart" was swallowed up by "Aladdin" on Memorial Day weekend with a theatrical total of just $22 million.
Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock says that when it comes to films in limited release, a high score on the Tomatometer isn't always enough. He credits much of the recent indie summer success to audiences' renewed interest in true stories.
"When you don't have a recognizable brand or a huge marquee star, an interesting take on a true story can be the go-to selling point," Bock told TheWrap. "On the documentary front, we saw that both with weird stories like 'Three Identical Strangers' and with profiles on beloved figures like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Mister Rogers. I don't think this year's documentaries covered figures that were as popular."
But true stories don't just help documentaries. They can help scripted films as well.
"The Big Sick" told the complicated love story of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon -- and the pair wrote their story together. "BlacKkKlansman" told the mostly true story of how a black cop infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado.
"Kumail Nanjiani is great, but as we've seen this weekend with 'Stuber' he's still not at the level where he's a huge box office draw," said Bock. "But Nanjiani writing a movie with his wife about the stranger-than-fiction story of how they fell in love is what really got people interested. It felt fresh and original."
The truth factor helps the "The Farewell." Based on writer-director Lulu Wang's own experience with her Chinese immigrant family, the drama-comedy stars "Crazy Rich Asians" breakout Awkwafina as a woman who must grapple both with her grandmother's terminal cancer and her family's decision to not tell her grandmother that she is dying. The film earned $355,662 per screen this past weekend, compared to just under $90,000 for "Endgame."
"The Farewell" will continue to expand in major cities -- A24 will bring it to 35 screens this weekend -- before going wide on Aug. 2. Bock isn't sure that this steady rollout will be a winning strategy.
"I think that if a studio's got a film with a huge average from a four-screen release and a load of critical acclaim behind it, it's worth a shot to expand it as quickly as possible," Bock said. "If you just go to 30-50 screens in the second weekend and then maybe 150-200 in the third, you risk losing moviegoers in a lot of smaller markets that might hear about the rave reviews these films get when they open in L.A. and New York and are interested, but forget about them by the time it gets released where they live."
But going straight to wide release has its dangers as well. "Booksmart" went for a 2,500 screen opening on Memorial Day Weekend and only grossed $8.7 million over the 4-day weekend. That's a per screen average of less than $4,000.
The ideal scenario for "The Farewell" would be a steady word of mouth among arthouse audiences over the next two weekends, positioning it as the top alternative to Triple-A blockbusters like "The Lion King" and keeping it in the consciousness of its core Asian demographic.
If that happens, it could be poised for a stronger opening than "Late Night" or "Booksmart" when it opens in August on the same weekend as "Fast & Furious" spinoff "Hobbs & Shaw," serving as a quieter, more emotional alternative to Jason Statham and The Rock smashing cars.