Where's the breakout indie film this summer?

05:00 AM, Jul 01, 2013

Liam James stars in 'The Way, Way Back,' an indie film that has the potential to be a breakout success. Claire Folger, Fox Searchlight/


Written By by Patrick Ryan, USA TODAY

At this point last summer, small-budget indie darlings Moonrise Kingdom and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel were charming audiences while marching toward respectable box-office earnings in excess of $45 million each.

But heading into this year’s holiday break, the indie candidates with the potential for matching that success are as clear as Mud. That critically acclaimed coming-of-age tale starring Matthew McConaughey opened wide May 10 and has earned a little more than $20 million as it winds down its run. Beyond that? There’s not much.

Waiting to take Mud’s place in theaters is a handful of potentially solid performers — The Way, Way Back and Unfinished Song open wider Friday — that may not achieve runaway success, according to industry analysts.

Did filmmakers fumble an opportunity? Was 2012 an aberration? Or is it still too early in the season to tell?

Both Moonrise and Marigold Hotel had a very specific hook that captured audiences and enabled them to elevate to a level where they got national attention and became breakout hits,” says box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Hollywood.com. “I don’t see anything in the order or magnitude of what we saw last summer at this point.”

Instead, this summer’s specialty fare looks to be fairly typical in terms of box-office appeal, says Phil Contrino, analyst for BoxOffice.com. He cites Before Midnight ($4.6 million since opening May 24) and Frances Ha ($3.2 million since May 17) as slow-rollout films that may not reach gangbuster Moonrise numbers but should have considerable staying power on the basis of their fantastic word of mouth.

You have to send people out of the theater eager to passionately recommend the film to their friends,” Contrino says, “or else it can get lost in the clutter of studio tent-poles.”

Is this tent-pole-heavy environment — see Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 — a death knell for the success of specialty films, which generally open in fewer than 1,000 theaters by way of independent distributors or major-studio subsidiaries?

Not exactly, Contrino says, citing counter-programming such as Warner Bros.’ The Great Gatsby ($141 million). The Baz Luhrmann film wasn’t a specialty project by any means, but a prime example of Hollywood targeting audiences who have grown weary of “car chases and explosions for 2½ hours.”

Studios will also rarely shy away from the opportunity to produce low-budget horror films and comedies, which are “low-risk and high-reward,” Contrino says.

As always, the key to summer success for indies comes down to good storytelling, smart marketing and, unlike their tent-pole counterparts, stellar reviews.

A lot of people talk about how critics aren’t as important anymore,” says box-office analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations. “Maybe that’s true for blockbuster films, but it’s the smaller films that really need those reviews to stay afloat and really just stay relevant in the sea of blockbusters.”