There comes a moment every summer where audiences turn on blockbusters and cry out for cinematic nourishment, not mere empty calories. This used to be the moment when some indie something or other would come along and turn into a surprise hit, largely by giving the audience something they desperately needed: an escape from the norm. In recent years, this has simply transformed into audiences turning to Netflix, embracing Stranger Things while blockbusters like Ghostbusters, Star Trek: Beyond and Jason Bourne played to half-empty theaters. Heck, just this past weekend I skipped Transformers in favor of binging Netflix’s latest buzzy show, GLOW. I’m sure Michael Bay’s really sweating my protest (sarcasm intended). But those of us already beaten down by 2017’s seemingly endless march of blockbusters might have a reason to cheer. Two indie films just killed at the specialty box office this weekend, and they will both be playing nationwide in a couple of weeks.
Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon’s autobiographical rom-com/ Sundance hit The Big Sick (guy and girl meet, like each other but have cultural differences, then girl falls into coma and almost dies…you know, the same old thing) and Sofia Coppola’s Cannes director-winner The Beguiled (remake of old Clint Eastwood movie about a Union soldier romancing a house full of Confederate women while recovering from war wounds) each bested the per theater averages of any other limited opening this year ($87K for Big Sick, $60K for Beguiled). Moreover, only one of last summer’s specialty releases (Café Society) posted a comparable per theater average ($71K).
Of course, when we start talking about per theater averages with box office we’ve transitioned into a sabermetric-sounding territory, like when baseball writers start raving about a player’s OPS or dWAR which is around when the average reader simply tunes out because, eh, math? Seriously? Just tell me what this means!
Eh, maybe nothing. You remember how I just said Café Society had the biggest per theater average opening at the specialty box office last summer? Yeah, that didn’t exactly translate to big business. Café ended up with a domestic total of just $11m, the going average for recent Woody Allen movies. The Beguiled would be lucky to make even that since other than Lost in Translation only one Sofia Coppola movie has ever grossed over $10M (Marie Antoinette’s $15M in 2006).
The Big Sick is more of a wild card since it is Kumail Nanjiani’s first starring role, and even after years as a stand-up, four seasons on Silicon Valley and the occasional comic relief role in mainstream comedies he’s still going to be someone mostly known by those specialty audiences who were probably already inclined to see The Big Sick anyway. Of course, as Get Out and Wonder Woman have shown representation-starved audiences will turn out in force for the right project (Nanjiani is Pakistani-American), but the track record for film festival comedies released as summer counterprogramming is not good.
Big per theater averages for specialty openings most directly means that the movie really connected with people in New York and Los Angeles. But if we were a nation dictated by the coasts Hilary Clinton would be President right now. So, yeah, the movies the big cities like don’t often travel well. However, this is the opening salvo in a longer-term strategy of building up word of mouth.
The Big Sick is already doing a good job of that. Its business went up from Friday to Saturday, a clear indication of positive word of mouth, and Nanjiani and his wife Gordon (who is played by indie stalwart Zoe Kazan in the movie) have been hitting just about every podcast, blog and talk show possible to promote the hell out of this movie. Moreover, the film has been receiving great reviews, and has Amazon and Lionsgate’s marketing machine behind it (look at what Lionsgate was able to do with La La Land last year). The Beguiled, on the other hand, has been receiving good, but not great reviews, and Focus Features is rushing it to a wide release next weekend, waiting no time to build up word of mouth any further. The Big Sick, by comparison, won’t hit nation-wide until mid-July.
Takeaway: There are these two indie movies out there right now. The people in LA and NY seem to like them. Maybe you will too because after they opened so big in limited release they now have a far higher likelihood of coming to a theater near you in the coming weeks. That is, unless you already live in LA and New, in which case do you have a couch I can crash on because I really want to see both of these movies asap.