From 'Fruitvale Station' to 'Before Midnight': Do independent films still work in the summer?

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Image Credit: Rachel Morrison

If you’re an adventurous moviegoer, then counterprogramming, as it’s known, is one of your best friends. It’s what allows you, right smack in the middle of the greasy-butter escape-tastic sequelitis summer season, to see movies like The Kids Are All Right or Beasts of the Southern Wild or Before Midnight or Midnight in Paris: movies for adults, movies that trade over-scaled fantasy for human-scale feeling, movies that get publicized as early awards players because they truly deserve to win awards. If that one screen at the way, way back of the megaplex wasn’t showing The Way, Way Back or Frances Ha, but instead was offering the sixth opportunity that afternoon to see Man of Steel, a lot of us who love movies would be the poorer for it. Counterprogramming offers more than just an offbeat “alternative.” It allows “small movies” (a term that drives me nuts, since some of the greatest movies ever made have been “small movies”) to saddle up right next to jumbo-size ones, to be experienced with the same Saturday-night big-screen excitement.

But if you’re one of those companies that distributes those “small films” (Fox Searchlight, say, or the Weinstein Company, or Sony Pictures Classics), trying to thread them through the summer traffic jam of franchise color and noise, then counterprogramming, for you, isn’t just a way of providing your core audience with a few good movies to see before the leaves start turning brown. Counterprogramming is a business, with its own strategies and ruthless market-tested wisdom. And so it has to work as a business. Since the way our film culture has evolved means that the vast majority of heavy-duty prestige movies for adults will be released during the last three months of the year, the basic business dilemma facing any distributor interested in counterprogramming is this: If you release your movie in, say, June or July, will it do as well as it would have done later in the year? Will it be remembered at awards time? In short: Is counterprogramming worth it?

That’s a tricky question to gauge, because independent films, even the sort of Sundance-breakout landmarks we’re mostly talking about, may be powerful works of art, but they are also boutique blossoms that have the potential to produce boutique — which is to say modest — box-office grosses. So knowing precisely when to release them is a delicate issue. Still, a counterprogramming hit is something that you can smell and feel and taste when it’s happening; you look at the numbers, and you listen to what moviegoers are talking about, and when those two things converge, you know that you’ve scored. Back in 2010, The Kids Are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko’s marvelously funny and moving family/relationship drama starring Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, was released at the beginning of July, and it went on to gross $20.8 million, making it one of the most successful independent films of the year. In recent years, starting with Vicki Cristina Barcelona (2008), Woody Allen, the sort of guy you imagine barely even going out in the summer, has emerged as a kind of counterprogramming Godzilla, thanks, in no small part, to the brilliant marketing of Sony Pictures Classics, which turned Midnight in Paris into Woody’s all-time biggest box-office hit, with a haul of $56 million. (Woody has more breakout potential at the end of this month, when he releases Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.) And last summer, I’ll admit I was genuinely shocked to see that Beasts of the Southern Wild, a “visionary” avant ramble set in a phantasmagorical version of the Delta — the very sort of movie I would have expected to play at a Greenwich Village art house, and not too widely beyond that — became an indie smash, generating $12.7 million as it turned into the star-spangled bold-and-different movie to see. That it was remembered, and decisively, at Oscar time, with the plum of a Best Picture nomination, may have been just about the most vindicating vote that counterprogramming ever had.

This summer, however, the jury is very much out on how counterprogramming is doing. Right now, the $20 million figure is a good benchmark for what makes a decisive indie hit, and this year two films have hit it — though both, significantly, came out before the start of the summer. The Place Beyond the Pines, the twisty Ryan Gosling/Bradley Coooper cop-and-crime drama, was released on March 29 and went on to gross $21.5 million. Mud, the Tom-Sawyerish-boys-meet-Matt-McConaughey-as-outlaw Southern fable that is Jeff Nichols’ follow-up to Take Shelter, was released on April 26 and has grossed $20.8 million. Of course, you could argue that Mud came out just a week before Iron Man kicked off the summer season, and that it’s therefore vintage counterprogramming. But I think the earliness counts for a lot. Mud was able to take root in the consciousness of moviegoers well before the summer grew thick with titles, becoming a dense happy jungle of escapism.

As soon as that happened, indie films began to lay a little low, with even some of the more acclaimed titles kind of chugging uphill. When Before Midnight was released over the Memorial Day weekend, it was classic counterprogramming, and I applauded the confidence and audacity of Sony Pictures Classics for putting Richard Linklater’s great, sun-dappled, but rivetingly intense marital drama out there as a bona fide entertainment. Before Sunrise, in 1995, and Before Sunset, in 2004, had each grossed around $5.5 million. But this third chapter in the series was a far more remarkable movie, and one you didn’t need to have seen the previous two films to appreciate. With appropriately glowing reviews heralding the most brilliant love story of the year, Before Midnight was set to rule. But it hasn’t, exactly. It has crept along quietly, taking in nearly $7 million, with a modest per-screen average, and all along I’ve been wondering: If it had been released at the end of the year, with serious awards consideration hovering, might it not have exploded much more? It’s easy, of course, to play that hindsight game, but with counterprogramming, that’s really the only question: Did a film find its place — or would it have found a better place at another time? Sofia Coppla’s The Bling Ring is, I think, her best film, and it has a subject — a tawdry tabloid true story of celebrity and youth culture gone mad — that, you could argue, should have made it every bit as commercial as her Marie Antoinette. But that movie, released in October of 2006, ended up making $16 million, and The Bling Ring, with its run winding down, has just squeaked past $5 million. Might not the movie have done better in, say, the lonely month of September, when its tasty outré subject, viewed through Coppola’s increasingly fascinating lens, could have won it a bigger slice of media attention?

There’s a temptation to look at a movie’s box-office performance and, almost automatically, pronounce it a fair reflection of the business that that movie was always destined to do. The Bling Ring has performed marginally, and so everyone from distributors to moviegoers looks at a film like that and says: “I guess it was kind of marginal. Maybe the subject matter was just too offbeat.” But I would argue that The Bling Ring, marketed as an art film in the summer, missed connecting with its core audience: all the 21st-century American girls out there who think just like the members of the Bling Ring, and would be all too eager to see “themselves” on screen, especially when embodied by a passel of actresses featuring Emma Watson.

When counterprogramming doesn’t work, it’s not because people suddenly have zero interest in seeing good movies. It’s because the awareness of smaller films has been tamped down by the heat, the advertising, the blockbuster noise, the summer orgy of pop. Collectively, we all grow a little less attuned to anything that isn’t “fun.” Which brings me to the movie this summer that will most fully test the current power of counterprogramming, and that is Fruitvale Station. When I first saw Ryan Coogler’s amazing, wrenching, devastating movie at the Sundance Film Festival, the pull of it was so intense, the audience’s connection with the life of Oscar Grant III — a 22-year-old African-American shot and killed, for no reason, by an Oakland transit officer — so complete, that I thought: “This isn’t just a superb film. It’s a breakout smash waiting to happen.” The Weinstein Company obviously thought so, and snapped it up, and this weekend, when it is opening on just seven screens, I expect Fruitvale Station, buoyed by the ecstatic reviews it deserved, to make a splash. But once it goes wide, how far can it go? My guess is that Fruitvale Station, in the current climate, will wind up grossing somewhere between $10 and $20 million, and that certainly, if it hits that benchmark figure of $20 million, everyone will consider it a major success. It will have out-grossed Beasts of the Southern Wild, and the wizards of Weinstein will surely push hard for it at awards time. Thus far, they have done an inspired job of presenting the movie to the public.

But here’s what haunts me. When you watch Fruitvale Station, the film implicitly connects you to all the stories of young African-American men killed, over the decades, by trigger-happy law-enforcement officers. And what’s perpetually missing from those stories is a sense of the life that was lost. I think that’s extraordinarily noteworthy in the Trayvon Martin case (which, theoretically, provides a timely publicity angle for the movie). If you watch the media coverage of the Martin trial, you may feel, at times, like the more immersed you are in the details of the case, the less you know about what actually happened — which all works, of course, in George Zimmerman’s favor. And more than that, what does the saturation coverage tell us about Trayvon Martin himself? Mostly, nothing. His existence as a symbol, even a “good” liberal symbol of young American black manhood cut down, is part of the problem. In effect, he’s dehumanized by the very forces that would claim to be on his side.

Fruitvale Station is an answer to every real-world case like that one and all the superficially sympathetic but finally numbing media coverage that those cases receive. Coogler and his extraordinary lead actor, Michael B. Jordan (pictured above), lead us deep into the life of Oscar Grant, showing us not just his tenderness and dreams but his deep troubles and flaws and foibles as a human being, and so, by the end, when he’s shot in the back, we know, really know, what we’re losing. It’s a brilliant, organic strategy for a movie that will leave audiences not just crying but shaking, and that touches a powerful social-political chord precisely by never showing you that it’s doing so.

My point, though, is that to watch Fruitvale Station is to connect, potently, not just with a movie, but with a deeply unsettling reality outside of the movie. And that makes almost everything about the film intensely serious to both experience and contemplate. At Sundance, I envisioned the movie finding a major foothold within this year of pop culture — but I imagined it doing so in October or November, when it would have had the space to unfold inside people’s hearts and minds, the way that Precious did in 2009. That movie wasn’t just a hit, it was a crossover phenomenon (it made $47.5 million), and frankly, I saw no reason why Fruitvale Station, which is an even more bravura act of filmmaking, couldn’t do the same thing. My gut tells me that in the late fall, it would have. But will it now? Yes, people want to see good movies in the summer, but there may also be something about the summer that resists, to a degree, the gravity of a movie like Fruitvale Station. I hope I’m wrong. What’s more, I realize that this is all completely speculative, and so I’m raising these issues not as definitive pronouncements but as food for thought. But my motivation is simple: I want great movies to be discovered the way they deserve to be. And I’m starting to wonder whether counterprogramming also has the potential to swallow them up.

So what’s your favorite example of counterprogramming — a great non-blockbuster movie released during the summer, one that you were grateful you got to see during the summer?


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