2016 has been a very, very bad year in so, so many ways, but as it pertains to the film industry it has been an especially poor year to be an independent film producer, distributor, and financier, that is if you still value the theatrical experience. The days of little indies that could like Slumdog Millionaire, My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Juno coming out of nowhere to take the worldwide box office by storm are seemingly behind us. The definition of what audiences are willing to pay to see in theaters is ever narrowing. At the same time, rampant piracy, weakening currencies, general economic uncertainty and increasing competition from local films has uprooted the foreign pre-sale market and depressed demand for America’s indie movies.
Yeah, but who needs a theatrical run anymore? Netflix and Amazon, both highly motivated to maintain a steady flow of new content to not only attract new subscribers but also entice new ones, routinely outspend their competitors on the film festival circuit. In fact, in a couple of months they’ll both be vying for Oscars, with Netflix well-positioned in the Best Documentary category thanks to Ava DuVernay’s 13th and Amazon sure to ride Manchester By the Sea to multiple nominations, including Best Picture. On top of that, similar to Netflix/Amazon Prime the VOD market is ever expanding, yet ultra-secretive about profits, meaning when it comes to indie films we might be transitioning into a new reality where only the producers and financiers have any idea if they have an actual hit. Lacking any hard data, we’ll all be forced to simply return to talking about indie films as films, with nary a reference to profitability.
But that day is not today, or at least that’s not what this article is about. Instead, as a sort of “other side of the business coin” rejoinder to my recent post about Doctor Strange, aka, Marvel’s latest money-printing machine, I wanted to take a cue from IndieWire and look into how indie films have fared thus far in 2016.
Every Tuesday, the indie film news site uploads a chart of the year’s top 20 indie films, defined as any “indie, foreign (including Bollywood films that open in limited release) and/or documentary — that opened in limited release (599 screens and under) in 2016 and/or were acquired for 2016 distribution by an independent distributor or a studio (or its speciality division).” However, they limit their chart to domestic gross, and don’t include production budgets, thus making it difficult to tell how excited one should really be to see that with a running tally of $26.9m domestic Hell or High Water is this year’s highest-grossing indie film. When you actually know Hell or High Water cost $12m to make you realize $26.9m represents barely breaking even.
So, here’s this year’s top 20 organized by worldwide gross, and including budget where available:
The top five consists of three British movies (Lady in the Van, Absolutely Fabulous, Eye in the Sky), two of which fared better in the UK and elsewhere than in the States, a micro-budget American horror film (The Witch) which was picked up by indie distributor A24 at Sundance and India’s fourth highest-grossing film of all time (Sultan) which barely made a dent the US. My main takeaway from that group is Witch‘s modest success can be seen as a testament to its quality but also to it being the right kind of film for this current market, i.e., a micro-budget horror flick, one of the few genres people still consistently support as being worthy of seeing in theaters.
The rest of the list contains multiple box office flops (Cafe Society, Hands of Stone and Birth of a Nation, which didn’t even make back the money Fox Searchlight spent to obtain the distribution rights out of Sundance) and a collection of minor hits relative to their budgets, although Doris and Wilderpeople would probably be considered sizable hits compared to their respective micro-budgets.
Released into this subdued market four weeks ago, Barry Jenkin’s adoringly reviewed Moonlight has now cracked the top 20 despite being a platform release which is still only playing in 176 theaters. With a 98% RottenTomatoes approval rating, Moonlight beautifully, but brutally depicts the life of a gay African-American man at three different stages of his life, and is likely to be the primary sledgehammer taking down #OscarsSoWhite this year, a function Birth of a Nation was supposed to fulfill until its, well, let’s just call them “troubles” got in the way (as did the ho-hum reviews). As the word-of-mouth spreads and its number of theaters expands, look for Moonlight to climb up the chart.
As a point of comparison, last year’s list of top 20 highest grossing indie films included 5 October/November/December awards contenders: Spotlight (#3), Brooklyn (#5), Trumbo (#17), Room (#19) and The Hateful Eight (#20). Thus far in 2016, Moonlight is the only such film to make the list meaning the next two months could bring several more indies to make some noise at the box office (e.g., maybe Jeff Nichols’ Loving will catch on), that is if they don’t get buried under the weight of Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts, Moana and Rogue One.
Of course, as I mentioned at the beginning tracking box office figures for indie films is an increasingly antiquated measure of success. However, for the more casual moviegoer maybe this will read like a list of quality smaller films to think about at least renting. Maybe not so much Hillary’s America, though. Please don’t rent that. Trump won. Dinesh D’Souza doesn’t need anyone’s business anymore.