Film Fund-amentals: The Indie Figures For 2009

It is the middle of summer and already the air has taken an autumn chill courtesy of the mid-season box office report. Technically, the box office is up by 10 per cent. In reality, this is due to a couple of films that have done big business. The vast majority have pretty much tanked. Once the adjustments are made, the figures are extremely disheartening.

Unfortunately, this is especially true for indie movies in 2009. According to the figures courtesy of Peter Knegt’s article a few weeks ago on the site (dated July 7), the return this year for low budget independent movies is enough to make a person weep (and not with joy).

Of the top 20 indie films released in the first half of 2009, only eight made it past the $2 million mark at the box office. Only one made it past $10 million (Sunshine Cleaning at $12,055,108). Even the grand total for all 20 of these films barely comes close to a mediocre opening weekend for the lousiest of tent pole movies. This comparison isn’t fair, but it is the primary point being viewed by the average studio executive.

But what is really fascinating in Knegt’s breakdown of these figures is what I would call the Week 4 phenomenon. Each of these movies opened relatively strong (and in the case of the top five, extremely strong) during their first couple of weeks on approximately four screens. By Week 4, they would finally open wide (well, as wide as most indie movies ever get). At that point, they reach their highest box office gross and then fall like a rock. Even more notably, their average per screen drops immediately and they never recover from that drop. Roughly summed up, they open on four screens averaging about $20,000 to $30,000 per screen. Once they open on 120 screens, the average drops to something resembling a buck fifty.

Somewhere within this phenomenon lie some very important points. Looking at the weekly box office report on the top five (so far) indie movies of 2009, the following figures stand out:

Sunshine Cleaning: first week four screens; $54,797 per screen. Week 4: 479 screens with an average of $3,772 per screen.
Away We Go: first week four screens; average $32,602 per screen. Week 4: 495 screens with an average of $3,453.
The Class: first week 25 screens with an average of $6,207 per screen. Week 4: 62 screens with an average of $4,407.
The Brothers Bloom: first week four screens and an average of $22,600. Week 4: 173 screens with an average of $2,385.
Two Lovers: first week seven screens and an average of $16,798. Week 4: 93 screens and an average of $4,123.

Right off, we will exclude The Class from any further study. It’s a French film and, for better or worse, there is no mystery in the inability of a foreign language film to find an audience in the USA. Film may be an international language, but not for the average American moviegoer. To be honest, the movie was lucky to ever get out of Manhattan.

But the remaining four films also had their main audience in Manhattan. This is part of what is going on with these figures. In each case, the limited opening is primarily in New York (and maybe a few other large cities). Then the movies spread out to the rest of the country (well, sort of) and everything immediately falls apart.

If I were a New Yorker, I would see this as the simple difference between urban sophistication and the nation of yahoos who reside somewhere west of the Hudson (and I have found from experience that the typical New Yorker does have only a vague idea of what lies to their west). However, I’m not a New Yorker and I’m not exactly convinced that this artificial urban divide is the real answer (with the exception of foreign films).

Three extremely successful previous indie movies suggest that something else may be going on. My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Little Miss Sunshine and Slumdog Millionaire all played with fantastic success throughout the country. Both Little Miss Sunshine and Slumdog Millionaire even went through a similar Week 4 phenomenon. But in the case of both of these movies, the drop was still at a commercially viable level and held (pretty much) at that level for 25 to 30 weeks of first run play.

Likewise, none of these films had star appeal. At the time of its release, John Corbett was the closest thing to a “name” in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Likewise, Alan Arkin was the most prominent cast member of Little Miss Sunshine. As for Slumdog Millionaire, most Americans can’t even pronounce any of the names of the cast less alone tell you anything about them. In each case, the mainstream marquee value is on the thin side. But star value is meaningless in the indie arena, as was demonstrated by the poor showing of the Harrison Ford indie movie Crossing Over (a bare total of $455,654).

So what is the difference? The key areas are distribution patterns, public awareness, and — the thorniest issue of all — audience appeal. We will be dealing with this in the next post.