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Indie Release Mojo: Margaret, Dream House, Machine Gun Preacher, Drive

by Anne Thompson
October 3, 2011 5:33 AM
3 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood

The box office wreckage this weekend reminds that it's usually NOT a good idea to take a movie away from a director, and how hazardous it is for indie films in this over-crowded marketplace.

Margaret. Filmmakers battling with studios over too-long edits of their movies are many over Hollywood's long history, from Eric von Stroheim and Orson Welles to Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. But it's depressing indeed to look at the fate of Kenneth Lonergan's sophomore outing Margaret, shot in 2005 with a strong ensemble--Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, and Matthew Broderick-- which was on the shelf so long that it became tainted goods and a reviewers' target by the time it opened to a woeful $7,496 gross and $3,748 average in two theaters (Searchlight had planned limited runs in 12 cities).

Thompson on Hollywood

The struggle involved two powerful producers--the late Sydney Pollock and Scott Rudin--insisting that financing producer Gary Gilbert not take the movie away from an auteur final-cut director, whose two-hour-50 minute cut (which Ruffalo calls a “masterpiece") didn’t meet Fox Searchlight’s contractual demands. Lonergan mentor Martin Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker delivered a shorter edit, but no entity was willing to pay the fees to make it happen.

Nobody came out ahead here: not the fractious producers, the filmmaker, or the distributor. What could have prevented this debacle? Fox Searchlight had contractual length constraints, but in the end, wouldn't the longer and timely film have been better than damaged goods nobody wanted to see? (More details and review round-up here.)

Dream House. Irish auteur Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, In America) would seem an odd choice for a commercial thriller, but Morgan Creek wouldn't have landed class acts Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz without him. Finally, after creative clashes between Sheridan and Morgan Creek yielded an edit no one liked, the stars withdrew from promoting the film and Dream House skipped critics screenings and grossed a meager $8.2 million. Again, nobody won. Except maybe Craig and Weisz, who fell in love on the set and got married.

Drive vs. Machine Gun Preacher: wide or platform release? Anthony D'Alessandro asked that question in his analysis of Warrior and Drive's box office performance. There was once a time when you could count on a good movie liked by critics building strong word-of-mouth in limited release. The guys at Sony Pictures Classics still believe in playing out their movies over time. They also have the earned clout to do so with exhibitors. They know their audience, and can calibrate just who will show up to what.

It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes these days a movie is better off starting fast out of the box in order to reach a benchmark number. Why: The ancillaries. All advertising fuels future Blu-ray, Netflix, DVD and VOD. Thus Film District's Bob Berney argues that his "Reverse Platform" strategy for Drive is working like a charm. You spend as much opening on fewer screens, he points out. "We're cheating it a bit to get the mainstream audience in," he admits. "We wouldn't have gotten that audience the other way. This is a success, I'm proud of it, it's a radical violent film."

Drive opened to $11 million on 2900 screens, to awesome reviews but a C- Cinemascore--which tends to measure mainstream moviegoers reaction. Focus used this strategy with stylish smart Euro-thrillers Hanna (C+ Cinemascore) and The American (D-), which arguably pulled bigger crowds than they would have earned the old-fashioned way. Drive played best--shocker--in core film markets like NY and LA, where it competed with the likes of Contagion; it dropped 49% in its second weekend and 43% in its third (with a healthy 44% jump from Friday to Saturday) on 1794 screens. Even as the film organically pulls back to its strongest runs (thus the "reverse platform" concept), and lures younger crowds via its hit soundtrack, Drive is on track to gross about $32 million, which will get it into the black, even with a $24 million spend on P & A, and marks a solid 2.8 multiple of the first weekend.

When the marketplace is crowded with fall movies chasing the same smart audience demo, platforming can be a risky and expensive. Look at Relativity Media's Machine Gun Preacher, a heart-felt true story about a missionary in Africa directed by Marc Forster and starring Gerard Butler. While Lionsgate was reluctant to platform Warrior with an 84% Tomatometer score, Machine Gun Preacher did well considering it was at 23%. This weekend the film broadened from four to 33 screens and grossed $82,000 for a modest $2,485 per-theater-average and a ten-day total of $140,200. But did it play well enough to hold screens and keep going? It already lost its main house in San Francisco.

The hazards of platforming are real. "In the fall, if you platform and miss," says Berney, "you're dead." Like Margaret.

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More: Box Office, Fall

3 Comments

  • cadavra | October 4, 2011 4:35 AMReply

    If producers want to be filmmakers, then they should stop hiring directors with well-known names and recognizable styles, and just hire some kid fresh out of film school and pay him guild minimum. He'll be so happy for the gig that he won't mind a bit what happens in the cutting room.

  • mary | October 3, 2011 6:11 AMReply

    Sorry, a little question: was the theatrical version of "Margaret" edited by studios instead of Scorsese?

    "Drive" performed similarly to some other modestly-budgeted adult films that opened wide, like "The Men Who Stare at Goats", "The American", "The Debt".

    Platforming requires strong critical support to work well. Sony Pictures Classics learned more about it recently: "Take Shelter" opened strongly while "Restless" did nothing. "Restless", "Machine Gun Preacher" and "Margaret" should not open in platform release because of their mediocre critical reaction.

    On the other hand, I think "Warrior" should have opened in platform release because of its so-so starpower; "Drive" did well because it has Ryan Gosling to sell. (both "The Men Who Stare at Goats" and "The American" have George Clooney, "The Debt" has Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain)

    I think that "Machine Gun Preacher" opened better than "Margaret" because "Machine Gun Preacher" received much more publicity; both Gerard Butler and Michelle Monaghan did press for "Machine Gun Preacher", while almost no one did press for "Margaret". Publicity can modestly overcome the negative effect of bad reviews in sometimes.
    Still, I think Relativity had better to open "Machine Gun Preacher" in a few hundred theaters in spring and let the publicity carrying the film (like what Sony Pictures Classics did with "Chloe").

  • Derek | October 3, 2011 4:40 AMReply

    Wow! Lonergan delivers a 2.5 hour film when he was supposed to deliver a 2.5 minute film? Even Coppola would call that a bit excessive.

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