Summer Indie Counter-Programming

Slide 1: Introduction

Every summer, Hollywood unleashes blockbuster after blockbuster. And every year, one or two independent films rises above the fray––as well as the explosions, natural disasters, and car crashes of summer movies–to gain critical and popular attention. Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right has all the ingredients for being this summer breakthrough indie film.  But what about other indie hits?  We take a look back over 15 years to look at those indie hits and the big films that opened the same weekend as they did. 

Slide 2: Kids

Release Date: July 21, 1995
Domestic Gross: $7,412,216
Programmed Against: Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home

The same weekend that parents were taking their kids to see the whale movie Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home, many adults were going to watch a film called Kids. Photographer-turned-director Larry Clark worked with a young screenwriter named Harmony Korine to capture the reality of a group of teens living in New York City. Written by Korine when he was just 18, Kids depicted its adolescent protagonists drinking, stealing, getting high, and having unprotected sex – all of which ultra ultra-realism was too much for the MPAA, which slapped an NC-17 rating on the film. (Harvey and Bob Weinstein actually had to create a new company, Shining Excalibur Films, to release the movie because Miramax – after its purchase by Disney – was not allowed to release NC-17 movies.) While not everyone loved Kids, it was a film that demanded to be seen whether you liked it or not, with Roger Ebert stating, “Kids is the kind of movie that needs to be talked about afterward.” On the back of all that debate, Kids earned an impressive $7.5 million at the U.S. box office. The film’s success propelled Korine to a directorial career and such movies as Gummo and julien donkey-boy (both produced by FilmInFocus’ Scott Macaulay), while Clark would once again team up with Korine on the 2002 movie Ken Park, another provocative depiction of teenage transgression.

Slide 3: The Usual Suspects

Release Date: August 18, 1995
Domestic Gross: $23,341,568
Programmed Against: Mortal Kombat

Director Paul W.S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat was one of the early big-budget Hollywood films to adapt a video game. But while Nintendo and Sega-loving kids trekked off to see it in the summer of ‘95, director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie presented audiences with a modern movie that harked back to a classic Hollywood genre, the caper film, for their indie hit The Usual Suspects. The pair began with a grabby title (referencing a line from Casablanca) and the idea that the movie’s poster should feature the main characters in a police line-up. What they ended up with was one of the biggest indie hits of the 1990s. While Singer’s 1993 debut Public Access brought him some attention, he more than fulfilled his promise with this contemporary noir from McQuarrie’s smart, serpentine script. In a cast full of fine actors, Kevin Spacey stood out as soft-spoken, limping con man Verbal Kint (a man who may or may not be the infamous Keyser Söze), and went on to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance. The movie earned an impressive $23 million Stateside, proving that cerebral thrillers could contend with more traditional box office fare. Singer was soon snapped up by Hollywood and went on to have monster hits with the first two films in the X-Men franchise and Superman Returns.

Slide 4: Ulee's Gold

Release Date: June 13, 1997
Domestic Gross: $9,161,691
Programmed Against: Speed 2: Cruise Control

On June 13, 1997, moviegoing audiences were given a choice between Speed 2: Cruise Control – a sequel to the bomb-on-the-bus hit from 1995 which was set on a distinctly sluggish cruise ship – and Ulee’s Gold, a small indie movie featuring a comeback from a member of a Hollywood dynasty. The latter was directed by Victor Nuñez, who four years earlier had a significant indie success with Ruby in Paradise and now hit paydirt again with the story of a Vietnam vet and beekeeper, Ulysses “Ulee” Jackson (Peter Fonda), who tries to bring his family back together after his son ends up in jail and his daughter-in-law abandons their two young children. The movie was a return to the big screen for Peter Fonda, who described Ulee as “the best character I've ever read… the kind of role you pay money to do.” Fonda was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards and Screen Actors Guild Awards that year for his performance, and Roger Ebert lavished praised on the film and its star, saying, “Now, at 57, he has found the role of a lifetime--perhaps the role that points the way to a reborn career.”

Slide 5: The Full Monty

Release Date: August 15, 1997
Domestic Gross: $45,950,122
Programmed Against: Event Horizon

In August 1997, two very different films from British directors opened on the same day in the United States. On the one hand, Paul W.S. Anderson’s sci-fi horror blockbuster Event Horizon provided a big popcorn film, while Peter Cattaneo’s working-class feel-good story The Full Monty kept its British roots intact. Set in 1972, the film told the story of six unemployed steel workers in the depressed industrial city of Sheffield who decide to make a little money on the side as male strippers. Their gimmick is that, unlike the famous Chippendales dancers, they will get completely naked – or do “the Full Monty.” Cattaneo’s movie infused his stark picture of Northern gloom with a cheeky charm and tenacious optimism, with the characters – led by Robert Carlyle’s Gaz – refusing to be defeated by the bad breaks they’ve received in life. Salon’s Laura Miller noted how tasty this cinematic treat was at the time: “With no chewy, ambitious themes, no movie-star charisma or auteur flourishes, The Full Monty is the kind of movie that critics underestimate and audiences love.” Indeed, this underdog’s tale was irresistible both to audiences as well as critics, and it was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture. The Full Monty defied the odds to massively outperform Event Horizon, racking up $45 million in U.S. ticket sales to Event Horizon’s $26 million.

Slide 6: The Blair Witch Project

Release Date: July 16, 1999
Domestic Gross: $140,539,099
Programmed Against: Eyes Wide Shut

On July 16, 1999, the big movie opening was Stanley Kubrick’s swan song, Eyes Wide Shut, an artful drama boasting the star power of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. But a no-budget video project straight out of the Sundance Film Festival called The Blair Witch Project proved frighteningly popular. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s movie about three students who get lost in the woods in Western Maryland had an intentional rawness that made audiences fear the footage might be real. Clearly audiences wanted to be scared, and most chose the barebones chills of Blair Witch – especially with rumors floating about that the subjects actually died – to the elegant suspense of Kubrick’s meticulous drama. The Blair Witch Project ultimately raked in $140 million (from a budget of just $60,000), while Eyes Wide Shut (which cost $65 million to make) earned just $55 million. As Janet Maslin wrote in her New York Times review, the film has become a holy grail of DIY filmmaker: “Like a cabin built entirely out of soda cans, The Blair Witch Project is a nifty example of how to make something out of nothing. Nothing but imagination, and a game plan so enterprising it should elevate its creators to pinup status at film schools everywhere.”

Slide 7: Ghost World

Release Date: July 20, 2001
Domestic Gross: $6,217,849 
Programmed Against: Jurassic Park 3

In summer 2001, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park 3, with its legacy of huge dinosaurs and big thrills, opened the same week as Ghost World. In some ways, the two films represented two very different comic book sensibilities. While Jurassic Park was never a graphic novel, its fantasy world and jaw-dropping action could easily have sprung from one. Conversely, Ghost World, directed by Terry Zwigoff (who previously helmed the underground comix documentary Crumb ) was actually adapted by the author from his own graphic novel of the same name. But rather than superheroes or dinosaurs, Ghost World followed the antics of two bored teenagers: Enid (Thora Birch) and her best friend Rebecca (played by Scarlett Johansson, then most famous for playing a supporting role in The Horse Whisperer.) While some summer films are about heroes winning against adversity, Ghost World, as Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman pointed out, is “a buoyant, funny, and disarmingly humane comedy of beautiful losers in revolt.” The film went on garner an Oscar nomination for Best AdaptedScreenplay, as well as do booming business at the box office.

Slide 8: Whale Rider

Release Date: June 6, 2003
Domestic Gross: $20,779,666
Programmed Against: 2 Fast 2 Furious

The same week in 2003 that the fast car franchise sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious zoomed into cinemas, a much slower New Zealand film called Whale Rider by an unknown director Niki Caro about Maori culture enchanted American audiences. Based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera, Whale Rider tells the story of a young girl, Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), who must overcome traditional gender bias to prove she is worthy of being considered a potential leader of her tribe. In great part due to the incredible lead performance by 11-year-old Castle-Hughes, the film became a massive crowd favorite at major festivals like Toronto and Sundance, and was described by Roger Ebert as “the great audience-grabbers of recent years. … The genius of themovie isthe way is sidesteps all of the obvious clichés of the underlying story and makes itself fresh, observant, tough and genuinely moving.” Following a highly successful theatrical run, Whale Rider resurfaced at the Oscars, with Castle-Hughes becoming the youngest ever Best Actress nominee.

Slide 9: 28 Days Later

Release Date:June 27, 2003
Domestic Gross: $45,064,915
Programmed Against: Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle

Taking a page out of The Blair Witch Project’s playbook, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later proved that indiehorrormovies can do very good business at the box office. In this case, the big movie it was set in contrast with was Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, in which Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu returned to kick more PG-13-style ass in this sequel to the big screen remake of the 70s TV show. 28 Days Later was a return to his indie roots for Boyle after his adaptation of Alex Garland’s cult novel The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Shot on video, 28 Days Later had an intentionally low-budget look that added another layer of unsettling remove to this post-apocalyptic zombie flick penned by Alex Garland. Like all good zombie flicks, 28 Days Later delivered not only scares but used the genre as a vehicle for social commentary. Boyle is well-known for making visually impressive films with top-notch soundtracks, and this is no exception: the shots of a desolate, deserted London after “the rage” has swept through the city are truly memorable, while John Murphy’s post-rock soundscapes provide a suitably somber, sometimes epic undercurrent to the cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle (later an Oscar winner for Boyle’s all-conquering Slumdog Millionaire). The movie was lauded by critics as not only as a great piece of entertainment but as a landmark movie, with Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir writing, “In this film the innate potential of the digital-video medium -- its ability to capture a subtly troubling chiaroscuro effect, not unlike that of late medieval painting -- is more fully realized than ever before.” Boyle’s movie did well enough to spawn a sequel, 28 Weeks Later in 2007.

Slide 10: Swimming Pool

Release Date: July 2, 2003
Domestic Gross:
$10,130,108
Programmed Against: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

In early July 2003, two European film icons had films opening at the same time. Austrian bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger was back, as promised, in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, while French director François Ozon’s Swimming Pool also featured another legendary actor, Charlotte Rampling. Swimming Pool tells the story of a middle-aged British crime novelist, Sarah Morton (Rampling), who accepts her publisher’s invitation to write her next book at his summer house in the South of France, where she meets Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), the publisher’s promiscuous daughter. While Terminator 3 embodied the full-scale carnage we love in summer flicks, Swimming Pool, like the best in sexy European thrillers, was more about disrobing. Ozon’s film audience’s attention were grabbed by a very striking poster featuring a bikini-clad Sagnier laid out seductively by the titular pool. (“Ask anyone what they think about the movie Swimming Pool, and the first thing that probably comes to mind is the poster,” says Kevin B. Lee in his ReWatch video on Ozon’s film.)  The pleasure in the movie is all ours, as Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum observed: “The narrative logic of Swimming Pool slips through our hands like cool water, shimmery and light-dappled, leaving behind the pleasures of summer heat and goose bumps.”

Slide 11: American Splendor

Release Date: August 15, 2003
Domestic Gross: $6,010,990
Programmed Against: Freddy Vs. Jason

When Freddy Vs. Jason hit cinemas in the summer of 2003, it boasted not one but two legendary bogeymen from long-running horror franchises and was ready to face off with anything a comic book movie could throw at it. But, like Ghost World, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor was not your typical comic book movie, as there was not a superhero, scheming criminal mastermind or damsel in distress to be found. The film was based on the autobiographical comic books written by Harvey Pekar (in collaboration with numerous artists, including Pekar’s friend Robert Crumb), telling the story of Pekar’s decidedly humdrum everyday life. Directing duo Berman and Pulcini, former documentarians, had fun mixing together non-fiction with fictionalized reconstruction, going all meta by putting the real Harvey Pekar and his wife Joyce in the movie and having Pekar commenting on Paul Giamatti, “this guy who is playing me.” Pekar’s unique personality and perspective, the creativity and invention of its makers and great performances by Giamatti (in his breakout role) and Hope Davis (playing Joyce) all contributed to American Splendor overcoming its underdog status to become a hit both with reviewers and at the box office.

Slide 12: Napoleon Dynamite

Release Date: June 11, 2004
Domestic Gross: $44,540,956
Programmed Against: Garfield: The Movie

In June 2004, there were two comic choices at the U.S. cinemas as a family-friendly blockbuster about a lazy cat (Garfield: The Movie) and an indie movie about a maladjusted teen underdog (Napoleon Dynamite) both opened on the same week. As Mike Plante documents in his article “Short Films That Grew Up”, Napoleon Dynamite had its humble beginnings as a 9-minute short titled Peluca (2003), made for his BYU film class by writer-director Jared Hess. The $500 film about a socially awkward high school student starred fellow student Jon Heder, who returned to reprise his role in 2004’s Napoleon Dynamite, a feature-length version of the same premise, which Hess co-wrote with his wife Jerusha. Napoleon was bought for $3 million at Sundance, but then exceeded all expectations (for a decidedly offbeat movie with no stars) by bringing in a fifteen-fold return on that investment. Michael Atkinson wrote in the Village Voice that the film was “an epic, magisterially observed pastiche on all-American geekhood,” and though the critical opinion on Hess’ movie was split, more important was the smart marketing of the movie that resulted in Napoleon’s dance and “Vote for Pedro” T-shirts becoming part of the cultural language.

Slide 13: Fahrenheit 9/11

Release Date: June 23, 2004
Domestic Gross: $119,194,771
Programmed Against: White Chicks     

The same week in 2004 as the release of Wayans brothers’ broad comedy White Chicks – about two African-American FBI agents who go undercover as white hotel heiresses – another movie with a daring – yet much more serious – premise also opened. Two years earlier, Michael Moore had triumphed with his film Bowling for Columbine, which not only won the Best Documentary Feature award at the Oscars but broke the U.S. box office record for the highest grossing documentary ever. In Moore’s Oscar acceptance speech, he’d decried then-President George W. Bush for his “fictional war” in Iraq, and this became the subject he explored in his follow-up film, Fahrenheit 9/11. Moore brought his brash, irreverent brand of populist investigative filmmaking to bear with this examination of Bush’s presidency and the “War on Terror” – a subject that could not have been more prescient considering the U.S. had been invaded Iraq only 15 months earlier. After winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes in May, Moore’s movie was released in June and in a single weekend smashed the box office record set by Columbine. Ultimately, Fahrenheit 9/11 out-grossed Columbine six times over and radically redefined how financially successful a non-fiction film could be. As in so many cases, a savvy marketing campaign was a big factor in the big box office numbers, most notably an inspired poster featuring Moore and Bush smiling and holding hands on the White House lawn below the slogan “Controversy…What Controversy?” And, fo the record, Fahrenheit 9/11 earned $50 million more than White Chicks domestically.

Slide 14: Broken Flowers

Release Date: August 5, 2005
Domestic Gross: $13,744,960  
Programmed Against: The Dukes of Hazzard

In 2005, 80s nostalgia was in full swing as the big screen remake of the TV series The Dukes of Hazzard hit theaters, with a pop star (Jessica Simpson) and an MTV bad boy (Johnny Knoxville) in the lead roles. In Broken Flowers, which opened the same week, writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s travelogue of a man re-visiting all the women he loved provided a more personal concept of nostalgia. The film starred Bill Murray as Don Johnston, an aging lothario who goes to visit all of his old flames after he receives an anonymous letter telling him he has a 19-year-old son. Jarmusch’s film boasted an all-star cast, with Murray’s exes being played by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton and Julie Delpy, but was still quintessentially a Jarmusch movie, as Jessica Winter explained in her ReWatch essay on the movie. “Broken Flowers is somewhat faster-paced and more action-packed than some of Jarmusch’s earlier films,” Winter writes, “but all the components of his distinctive template are familiar: the recurrence of visual motifs and songs, the fade-outs between vignettes, the dry sight gags.” The film, awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes prior to its U.S. release, broke barriers as it got the excellent reviews that have become standard for Jarmusch movies, but also grossed a very impressive $13 million at the box office. You can watch Jessica Winter’s ReWatch video on Broken Flowers here.

Slide 15: Little Miss Sunshine

Release Date: July 26, 2006
Domestic Gross: $59,891,098
Programmed Against: The Ant Bully    

On July 26, 2006, kids animated feature The Ant Bully, the big movie opening that week, was hoping to become the family favorite of the summer, however instead it found itself cast as Goliath in a battle with a small-scale indie by the name of Little Miss Sunshine. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, partners in life as well as film, had spent five years trying to make the movie, a script by first-time writer Michael Arndt about a dysfunctional family who travel cross-country in a beat-up VW bus to the children’s pageant of the title. Dayton and Faris, who had a strong track record making pop promos and commercials but had never directed a feature film, ultimately decided to bypass the studio route and make the movie independently. It proved the right move: when Little Miss Sunshine premiered at Sundance, it sparked a bidding war, and the distribution rights were sold for a record $10 million. The film had much to recommend it: a strong cast that combined talented headliners (Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette), a comedy star playing against type (Steve Carrell), a veteran star (Alan Arkin) and talented youngsters (Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin), plus a funny, touching script, a memorable ending and – most importantly – charm to burn. In addition to earning almost $60 million at the box office – easily out-muscling The Ant BullyLittle Miss Sunshine burned bright during awards season, winning Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (for Alan Arkin) at both the Oscars and the Baftas, while it was also named the American Film Institute’s Movie of the Year.

Slide 16: (500) Days of Summer

Release Date: July 17, 2009
Domestic Gross: $32,391,374
Programmed Against: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

On July 17, 2009, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince opened on over 4,000 screens, the sixth adaptation of the popular series of novels which finds Harry growing up and falling in love. On that same date, audiences were also falling for (500) Days of Summer, a very different take on growing older and falling in love. (500) Days of Summer, which marked the feature directorial debut of music video veteran Marc Webb, was shot without studio money and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The story is about the awkward love affair that develops between a couple of hip L.A. youngsters, a hopeless romantic (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the adorable yet unsentimental girl (Zooey Deschanel) who works in his office. Notably, the film offset the cuteness of its lead actors by stressing its differentness, with its tagline “This Is Not A Love Story. This Is A Story About Love” and the curious use of parentheses in the title indicating that there was more complexity here than in your average twentysomething romcom. (Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel pushed the different nature of their romance by appearing in a viral web video as punk couple Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen.) After the movie became the standout indie title of the 2009 summer season by raking in $32 million at the box office, Webb was handpicked to direct Spider-Man 4, the reboot of the multi-billion dollar franchise.

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