Film Fund-amentals: The High and the Low

Like the first falling leaves, the summer figures are still rolling in (as well as the seasonal metaphors). And thanks to a solid overview from Peter Knegt at IndieWIRE, we have the list of the most successful low-budget movies of the summer.

The good news is that four independent films can be sort of seen as having done kind of OK. The bad news is found in the way I just phrased the good news. The most successful small-budget film of this past summer is (500) Days of Summer, with a US gross of $25,203,886. Since it was made for a budget of $7.5 million, it did extremely well for itself.

The second most successful indie film was The Hurt Locker. Budgeted at $11 million, Kathryn Bigelow’s hard-edged view of the Iraq War took in $11,595,912 at the US box office. This limp return is sort of OK since The Hurt Locker is likely to have a stronger run in Europe. Its first week in Britain took in $511,706, as opposed to the mere $145,352 it pulled in its first US week.

In the number three spot is the son-of-Ziggy-Stardust production Moon, with a $4,652,960 (US) box office and the promise of even better returns in Britain. With a budget of $5 million, it will need every pound note it can take. As for Food, Inc., its $4,098,279 gross is good for a social/political documentary that doesn’t have Michael Moore, but by all accounts its production budget was dwarfed by large legal bills incurred through suits filed by numerous large food companies. Like a class-action suit, its decent box office may merely prove to be a windfall for the lawyers.

So what does this tell us? I mean aside from that damn glass being half-empty/ half-full stuff again. It does suggest that small indie films are still viable. In a proportional comparison, it could actually be argued that (500) Days of Summer did about as well as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen — about the same percentage of profit without the enormous outlay of both money and resources. Likewise, both The Hurt Locker and Moon did no worse than many of the other “big” summer releases, minus the equivalent amount of wasted money and resources.

Likewise, it tells us that the European market is becoming increasingly important to American indie films. Both The Hurt Locker and Moon played stronger in their opening weeks in Britain than they did here. One of the reasons is that in each case these films opened in more theaters in Britain than they did here. During its first week of limited release in the US, The Hurt Locker played on four screens; in Britain, it opened on 140 screens. OK, the experience of slow release for an indie film does seem to work better in the US. But it was obviously treated as a major film overseas. I’m beginning to suspect that the trans-Atlantic gap is growing ever wider.

Perhaps the most intriguing item in Knegt’s report has to do with the movie Surveillance. This Jennifer Lynch production actually came out in 2008, milked its way through a long list of film festivals and less than stellar reviews, never really got a US theatrical release and then went to DVD in 2009. In all, it barely made $25,352 at the few theaters it ever saw. Then it went this summer into VoD release via the Odeon and Sky Filmworks system and has already made over a million bucks in a bizarre tribute to the emerging possibilities of digital distribution. After all, if you can make that much from a Jennifer Lynch film, just imagine what kind of business a good movie could do. (Hey, I actually had to watch her previous movie, Boxing Helena, so I’m not being too unkind.)

Add in two notable — if borderline — cases the summer was even better. Todd Phillips took The Hangover to a morning-after kick of $270,237,753 (US), which isn’t bad for a $35 million budget investment. In fact, this movie is really the only clear-cut super hit of the summer. As for District 9 (whose original $9 million budget turned into $30 million once the fx work was done), it has currently taken in $92,490,621 (US), which is pretty good for a down-beat, no-stars and gritty social-statement-done-as-a-sci-fi-fantasy flick.

So yes, the reported death of indie cinema is a bit exaggerated. Granted, it may be real close to life support, but the same is true of the “major” films. Further, the relationship between budget and box office is at least making more sense with these movies than it does with any dozen of the inflated Harry Potter and the Fallen Robots Kicking Megan’s Butt movies. The financial “logic” of the tent-pole films is both irrational and destructive to the business.

And this loss of logic is what the major studios need to rethink.