When It Follows expanded from 38 to 1,218 theaters in North America this past Friday, Forbes’ Scott Mendelson declared it an instant flop, pointing out how poorly its first day gross compared to something like You’re Next in 2013. He declined to back down from that position when It Follows’ total weekend results came in, showing that the indie horror title had earned a mere $3.8m. Noted horror enthusiast and BadAssDigest head honcho Devin Faraci agreed, declaring on Twitter, “IT FOLLOWS is a very good movie that made an ambitious play and it didn’t work. The movie isn’t a hit. It didn’t do well.”
It Follows is a movie many of us have been hearing about since the Cannes Film Festival last year, understandably curious when others described it as being unlike anything they’d ever seen before. It’s the story of a 19-year-old girl (played by Maika Monroe) who loses her virginity and thus becomes part of a chain letter-like curse where she’s pursued by a shape-shifting monster until she passes the curse on through sexual contact with a new partner. Huh. That sounds like a vaguely clever inversion of the slasher norm of the 80s. But, wait, if the person you pass the curse to is killed by the monster then it reverts back to you. So, don’t just think a one-night stand lets you off the hook.
Clever, like a supernatural STD version of The Ring, but what makes it so good? According to RollingStone, “[Director David Robert] Mitchell’s contribution to the scary-movie canon tips its hat to a number of sources, from Eighties slasher flicks to The Shining. But the way he molds these influences into such a deliberate, dread-inducing experience without turning it into a wink-nudge pastiche feels like a minor miracle. It is the most singularly creepy lo-fi American horror movie to slink into theaters in years.”
And slink into theaters it did, expanding wide this past weekend with next to no advertising. That’s how I, a devout movie nerd, had no idea It Follows was playing in my town this weekend even though I had seen headlines about the movie ditching its original plan to go to VOD in favor of pursuing a wide, theatrical release. Even micro-budget horror movies with no real buzz, like As Above, So Below, pop up on my radar via TV commercials or online ads, especially during the commercials I hear on Spotify every Friday. Instead, Radius/TWC chose to rely on social media to spread word-of-mouth about It Follows, which had already played for two weeks in a handful of mostly sold-out theaters. When that didn’t translate to an eye-popping weekend total the box office analysts were quick to drop the hammer, declare a loss, and move on.
Then a funny thing happened. Alamo Drafthouse’s founder Tim League penned an editorial on BadAssDigest explaining just how wrong anyone was to declare It Follows a flop:
The Forbes article contextualizes It Follows as if it were a major studio film with an enormous marketing campaign. It bemoans the fact that it only made half of what You’re Next grossed in its opening weekend and is therefore a failure. It Follows was initially announced as a “compressed window” VOD release (theatrical March 13, VOD March 27) with a modest advertising budget. You’re Next had a $20 million dollar advertising campaign replete with billboards, bus shelters and a giant TV campaign. It went wide in week 1 on 2437 screens, more than twice that of the It Follows week 3 expansion. The fees to license Lou Reed’s song Perfect Day just for the You’re Next trailer are likely comparable to the initial marketing budget of It Follows. This just isn’t a fair comparative measure.
Despite that marketing budget handicap, It Follows was the fifth highest grossing film in the nation last weekend. #4 was freaking Cinderella. It Follows vastly outgrossed the giant, hugely-promoted Liam Neeson thriller Run All Night, also in its third week of release. The $3129 per screen average was the fifth highest of all the top 20 grossing movies of the weekend.
All of this was done by a movie from an unknown director, a cast with no name recognition and a very limited advertising budget. It Follows is on track to gross more than $12 million dollars, is already the highest grossing film in the history of Radius, boasts a 95% certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and should be painted as the independent film success story of the year, not a “flop.”
So, basically, context is key.
League claims Radius’ founder told him It Follows almost doubled their internal projections for the weekend, vastly exceeding what they would have been able to make from VOD alone. Moreover, Radius and the It Follows filmmakers should be applauded for potentially pioneering an adaptive business model. This movie was supposed to simply play in a couple of theaters for three weeks and then hit VOD, but they had the flexibility to alter those plans when it shattered per screen averages in its first weekend. It’s now merely getting by on old-fashioned and social media enhanced word of mouth, playing in many theaters which haven’t even been showing trailers for the movie before now.
Mendelson now concedes that delcaring It Follows a flop was too harsh, “The film allegedly cost just $2 million to produce and, if Radius-TWC was able to avoid overspending on marketing and distribution costs, then it stands to reason that a$9m-$14m result would qualify as at least a decent result. Yes I too am depressed by the notion that a critically-acclaimed and buzzed-about horror film grossing $10m in theaters may count as a win, but that’s the anger that arguably fueled my initial doomsaying.”
However, League wants not just box office experts but also the rest of the industry to take notice:
What I would love to see in the wake of It Follows‘ success is increased flexibility by all the major players involved: VOD platforms, cinemas and iTunes alike. Strong indie films with a chance of breaking out would begin with a 2-4 week theatrical window. If they do extremely well, the VOD and iTunes windows would be pushed back to allow the theatrical revenues to be maximized and for awareness of the film to build. At the same time, expansion market cinemas would be willing to pick up the film, provided it crossed certain revenue thresholds in its first two weeks of release. If the theatrical grosses aren’t there, the film would stick to the compressed-window strategy or maybe play in those expansion markets with just a few showtimes.
Of course, such a model is widely impossible due to the major theaters refusing to entertain the idea of anything they exhibit playing in any other format outside of a somewhat artificial 90-day exclusive window, but that’s a topic I’ve covered elsewhere.
It Follows expands to even more theaters this weekend, and now that I’m finally over my nagging cold I intend to see it. Furious 7 will likely make more money than God, but it’s nice to be reminded that there are differing levels of success when it comes to movies. Something making just south of $4m in one weekend can be just as thrilling for those involved as something making over $100m for a major studio.