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Is The Big Sick Doomed to Box Office Failure?

Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani appear in The Big Sick by Michael Showalter, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Nicole Rivelli.

The Big Sick was one of the buzziest films at the Sundance Film Festival last month, sparking a bidding war which Amazon and Lionsgate ended up winning by offering $12m for guaranteed US and some international distribution. Now, Amazon and Lionsgate are making the bold choice to put Big Sick out in limited release on June 23 (opposite the latest Transformers as well as Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled) before expanding wide on July 14 (opposite Bad Dads, Midnight Sun and War of the Planet of the Apes). Have they just doomed this film to box office failure?

Let’s back up. The Big Sick, if you don’t know, is Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon’s largely autobiographical rom-com that roughly goes “Pakistani boy meets white girl, white girl contracts mysterious illness and falls into coma, Pakistani boy bonds with white girl’s interesting parents.” That’s how Nanjiani and Gordon’s real life courtship went, and the now-married couple translated their experience into a screenplay, which Michael Showalter directed and Nanjiani starred in (with Zoe Kazan playing Gordon’s part, and Ray Romano and Holly Hunter playing the parents). Unlike some recent Sundance movies, it is not considered a true awards contender, but it’s definitely a crowd-pleasing comedy which could really catch on through word of mouth, which is why Amazon/Lionsgate are wisely opting for a platform release.

History is not on their side, though. The last Sundance comedy to break out at the summer box office in any meaningful way is Napoleon Dynamite, which grossed $44.5m back in 2004. The three most recent such films to try and make a go of it in June– Swiss Army Man, Dope and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – failed to make much if any of a financial impression. Of course, no one actually expected anything from Swiss Army Man, aka the magical realism farting corpse movie. Dope and Me and Earl, on the other hand, both scored lucrative distribution deals out of Sundance, and were expected to revive a sagging indie box office in the summer of 2015. Instead, they made less than $30m combined, pegged as failures for trying to appeal to teenagers at a time when teens were too busy with the likes of Jurassic World.

dope-movie-trailer

Perhaps Big Sick will have better luck by appealing to a slightly older audience, which has been the safer play for prior film festival hits picked up and turned into summer season counterprogramming. Plus, with Hollywood now in a year-round blockbuster scheduling many of the old rules don’t apply anymore or aren’t nearly as iron clad. Maybe an indie comedy in June and July will be exactly what everyone in will need. Or, maybe like so many other recent indies which ventured outside of awards season, it will be swallowed up and spit out and enjoyed months later by Amazon Prime users who flock to Twitter to say, “Hey, I just watched this movie called The Big Sick. It’s pretty good. That Silicon Valley guy can really act. Why had I never heard of this before?”

Here’s a partial list of recent film festival hits which were commercially released in June or July as counter-programming to comic books, action slugfests and animated films. It’s a strategy which should work in theory, but rarely does for a variety of reasons, such as the way summer blockbusters tend to function like black holes trapping everyone in their gravitational pull. As you’ll see, the recent high water mark for box office performance for indie film festival pickups turned into summer counterprogramming is just $25m (for Boyhood). NOTE: For those films which first premiered at a film festival other than Sundance (or didn’t even play Sundance at all) I’ve included the name of the alternate festival (e.g., Toronto, Berlin, Cannes).

2016

Captain Fantastic – $5.8m

Don’t Think Twice – $4.4m (SXSW)

Swiss Army Man – $4.2m

Equity – $1.6m

The Fits – Less than $200K

2015

Dope – $17.5m

Love & Mercy – $12.5m (Toronto International Film Festival)

Amy – $8.4 (Cannes)

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – $6.7m

Irrational Man – $4m (Cannes)

The End of the Tour – $3M

Infinitely Polar Bear – $1.4m

The Overnight – $1.1m

2014

Boyhood – $25m

A Most Wanted Man – $17m

Begin Again- $16.1m (TIFF)

Wish I Was Here – $3.5m

Obvious Child – $3.1m

Third Person – $1.1m (TIFF)

2013

The Way, Way Back – $21m

Bling Ring – $5.8m (Cannes)

20 Feet from Stardom – $4.9m

Much Ado About Nothing – $4.3m (TIFF)

2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild – $12.7m

Safety Not Guaranteed – $4m (TIFF)

Take This Waltz – $1.2m (TIFF)

2011

Beginners – $5.7m (TIFF)

Buck – $4m

The Trip – $2m (TIFF)

Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times – $1m

2010

Cyrus – $9.9m

Winter’s Bone – $6.5m

2009

The Hurt Locker – $17m (Venice)

Moon – $5m

2008

No film festival indies made more than $1m

2007

No film festival indies made more than $1m

2006

Prairie Home Companion – $20m (Berlin)

Strangers with Candy – $2m

Who Killed the Electric Car? – $1.6m

Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man – $1.3m

2005

Heights – $1.1m

Sources: THR, BoxOfficeMojo

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About Kelly Konda (1782 Articles)
Grew up obsessing over movies and TV shows. Worked in a video store. Minored in film at college because my college didn't offer a film major. Worked in academia for a while. Have been freelance writing and running this blog since 2013.

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