Film Fund-amentals: Indie Scorecard Part 2: the Summer Tally

The cicadas have already begun their seasonal dirge, and despite the unprecedented heat, summer is moving into its final, sultry stage. Sultry, however, is not the word to describe the summer box office. Words like limp, mediocre and just plain dismal would seem more appropriate. But before the boys of Hollywood are forced to refudiate the tent-pole theory of film production, we should have some game playing with the figures and pretend to give them a fair hearing before we convict ’em.

To be honest, there have been some pretty successful movies this summer. For example, Iron Man 2 took in a hefty $310 million US gross ($615 million worldwide). With an estimated production budget of $200 million plus (the plus meaning that the real budget was probably around $300 million), it will actually make some real profit once it is out on DVD — at least as long as DVD sales stop slipping away (there has been a recent upturn, but much of that is due to the DVD release of Avatar).

Likewise, Toy Story 3 has taken in $363 million US ($630 worldwide). With a production budget of $200 million plus (see above about what the plus means), it will have a reasonable return by Christmas with DVD sales (see above about the slipping revenues from DVD sales).

In each case, the movies opened on 4,000-plus screens. Also in each case, the films suffered major drops between their first and second weeks (Iron Man 2 fell by about 50 percent while Toy Story 3 dropped by nearly 40 percent). By their fifth week of release, each movie was barely coasting at an average of $3,000 per screen. Not exactly bad totals, but not really the kind of figures that would make many theater owners beg for more. And keep in mind that these were two of the most successful releases of the summer.

Then there is The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. Barely retaining some sense of the first movie’s indie origins, the current budget is around $65 million (more or less, though still pretty dang modest next to the big boys). With a US gross of $265 million (worldwide: $553 million), it has made a clear clean profit despite its fast box office drop (more than 60 percent within three weeks of play). It is running about even with the previous release, New Moon, but the figures clearly indicate that it has hit the profit wall, and the steady budget increase should be kept in mind during production of the next installment.

Then you have the three most successful indie movies of the summer. The Duplass Brothers’ comedy Cyrus was made for a lean $7 million (which is a huge budget for these guys) and has managed a steady creep in distribution to a total of 446 screens and a gross of $5 million. More important, Cyrus is currently averaging around $2,300 per screen and rising as it heads into its sixth week of gradual release.

Close behind Cyrus is the $2 million production of Winter’s Bone. In its sixth week of release, Winter’s Bone has moved up to 121 screens with an average of $2,870 per screen and a current gross of $3 million and climbing. It may actually out-gross Cyrus and appears to be well on its way to becoming one of the most successful indie movies of 2010.

But the big attention is on The Kids Are Alright. OK, compared to the other two movies it has the most generous budget ($10 million – which wouldn’t have covered the first week of lunch on Iron Man 2) and the bigger-named cast (yes, I know that Cyrus stars John C. Reilly, but still…). But the real attention-getter is that The Kids Are Alright has taken in $1.8 million in its first two weeks of release and is only playing on 38 screens. I personally suspect that Winter’s Bone will prove to be the stronger movie, but The Kids Are Alright has become more of an attention-grabber for the media.

What does any of this mean, besides the obvious fact that indie films have to work hard for their money while tent-pole productions are a pretty expensive way to make the rough equivalence of $2 dollars? These figures certainly prove that the slow release pattern is the way to go for most indie movies. Part of the problem when major studios dabble in indie production is their failure to grasp this basic difference in distribution patterns. Likewise, the success of Winter’s Bone is a tribute to the power of Internet-based word-of-mouth (which the majors are still trying to figure out).

But there is another oddity in these figures that is just now being realized by some people. Every successful major film this summer has made more money overseas (especially in Europe) than in the US (some films such as Iron Man 2 even opened first in Europe). This didn’t used to be the case, and it suggests future problems for mainstream Hollywood. European distributors are already seeking a bigger cut of the action based on this imbalance at the box office. In turn, the US box office is actually in a state of decline, and the current indicators strongly suggest that this attendance drop has only just begun.

Some indie movies, when they do manage to get released, can have a slow but steady pattern at the box office. Likewise, the European market is often more interested in these films than the current American system. In many ways, indie movies are closer to the European model. A case in point is the 2009 Swedish thriller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Made for a modest $13 million and released rather belatedly in the US, it has already made $9.5 million in its extremely limited American release (only 70 screens). This looks like a pretty modest return until you add that to its worldwide gross of $109.5 million.

To be honest, it is probably the only outright legitimate hit of the summer.