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The Indie Summer Blockbuster

The Indie Summer Blockbuster

Articles - Directing

Stars Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith is poised to top this summer’s box office.

Ah, the timeless rhythms of summer: Kissing under the boardwalk, overindulging at the family picnic, watching Boston beat the Yanks at Fenway… For movie fans, summer is also the best time to line up for blockbusters. Ever since a hungry predator named “Bruce” swam his way past $770 million 30 years ago, summer screens have been dominated by the major studios. This season’s lineup looks to hold form, packed with sequels (Rush Hour 3, Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo), prequels (Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, Batman Begins), remakes (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Bad News Bears) and old TV shows (The Dukes of Hazzard, Bewitched).

What summer is less known for is the low-budget indie gems that are a model of counter-programming. Even Hollywood’s mightiest distributors have learned that when filmgoers want some latte with all that buttery popcorn, they turn to less formulaic movies. They may not ever sell as many tickets as War of the Worlds, but they can change the summer movie-going universe all the same.

This summer’s indie underdogs include Sundance darlings Hustle and Flow and Rize, Swedish master Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband and Crónicas, a political thriller from Ecuador. Docs like Murderball, about quadriplegic athletes, and Werner Herzog’s astounding snuff film, Grizzly Man, will stir up business and controversy.

Of course, whatever indie films manage to bust out this summer, they have worthy precedents. Heck, Jaws, the movie that invented seasonal distribution 30 years ago, was made for $12 million by a young television director. Here then are 10 “independent blockbusters” that have made summers past so memorable.

Top to bottom: George Lucas was once considered an “indie” moviemaker, with both the original Star Wars and American Graffiti under his belt; Docs ruled in 2004, with Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me bringing in record numbers.

American Graffiti 1973

Ironically, it is the end of summer, and by extension, innocence, that propelled this granddaddy of all teen movies to more than $115 million at the U.S. box office and its number #1 ranking in the summer of 1973. George Lucas was not yet 30 when he scripted this semi-autobiographical indie, shot on the streets of his hometown in Modesto, California.

Young George’s love for racecars is well documented: He wanted to be a pro driver until a serious accident changed his ambitions—and ultimately Hollywood—forever. But as a recent profile in Wired points out, it was experimental independents like Norman McLaren, Arthur Lipsett and Jordan Belson that fired Lucas’ inner moviemaker. With its overlapping storylines, handheld documentary camerawork and naturalistic night lighting, American Graffiti was a risky, original work that Universal Studios was so unsure about, they threatened to pull its release.

Everything about this fun, nostalgic and tender film is tinged by what is beyond its characters’ reach: The blonde in the T-Bird, the hunt for the ultimate drag race, “going steady” as college looms in the distance. Lucas created a perfect time capsule of teenage life that grew more bittersweet with the dark echoes of time: Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq. Even in triumph, American Graffiti was careful to remind its characters (and the Vietnam-era America it played to) of what is lost along the way: When lifelong nerd Toad incredibly hooks up with superbabe Debbie, she says to call the next day—then leaves without giving her phone number.

Star Wars 1977

It was indeed a “long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” that this little sci-fi longshot stayed atop the box office charts for an entire summer! The stories behind the biggest surprise in movie history are now Jedi folklore: Distributor 20th Century Fox wanted to sell off their stake in the film days before release; only a few dozen exhibitors would even screen it—and that was after Fox threatened to pull its surefire hit, The Other Side of Midnight.

“High-tech” special effects included cardboard cutouts used as Starfighters, Darth Vader’s voice recorded through a scuba regulator and duplicated stormtrooper footage to save time and money. Budgeted for $8 million (and made for $11 million), Luke, Han, Leia and the gang went out with a meager $4 million overall marketing campaign and racked up more than $460 million in the United States alone. Almost 30 years later, the biggest movie of the summer still has Star Wars in its title. It inspired a weapons defense system and profoundly changed commercial moviemaking. May the (rebel) force always be with you.

Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial topped the box office in three different summers—twice durning its initial release and again two decades later when it was re-released!

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial 1982

Whatever George does, Steven does better. Lucas created the summer franchise film with Star Wars in 1977 and, on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1980, Spielberg dictated aloud his “little alien movie” to Harrison Ford’s then-wife, screenwriter Melissa Mathison, inspiring E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to phone home.

Even though nearly one-fifth of the film’s paltry $10.5 million budget was poured into animating the pug-faced puppet, E.T. still blew away high-profile summer sequels like Rocky III and Friday the 13th Part 3: 3D. Made in continuity and chock-a-block with references to Star Wars (remember the
Yoda costume when the kids trick or treat?), E.T. remains the most intimate and character-driven film in Spielberg’s canon. The film actually spanned two summers, opening June 6, 1982 and still in theaters more than a year later, where it had notched more than $359 million. Two decades later, when the film was re-released, it debuted at #3, beating out The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and A Beautiful Mind.

sex, lies, and videotape 1989

Enough with the “indie-in-spirit” movies funded by skittish studios. Where is the summer hit picked up by Harvey Weinstein at some no-name festival? Uh, done. In 1989, Park City, Utah was just an overpriced ski town when a 26-year-old music video director debuted this Freudian puzzle-box of a film he’d written in two weeks. Made for $1.4 million and shot with a skeleton crew in Steven Soderbergh’s hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, sex, lies, and videotape literally made the Sundance Film Festival the indie weathervane it is today. It also transformed Miramax from a fledgling peddler of Euro art-house fare into a summer “playah.”

James Spader’s profoundly creepy and fucked-up drifter ignited the “must-see” date movie of the summer. Sex, lies, and videotape made 10 times its cost in about 38 days and proved that there were almost as many people interested in watching Andie MacDowell have a real orgasm on video as Meg Ryan faking one in When Harry Met Sally.

The Full Monty 1997

Parent execs of Fox Searchlight wanted to change the title of this funny and deeply British film because they thought xenophobic Americans would never get the humor. Wrong. With comedy competition like Gone Fishin’ gracing screens in the summer of 1997, Searchlight wisely let The Full Monty build from six to 400 screens in about 30 days, where it doubled its $3.5 million budget.

British stage vets Robert Carlyle (who made American tummies roil the summer before in Trainspotting) along with In The Bedroom’s Tom Wilkinson, are endearingly pathetic, as they “jigger around in the buff” with their mates.

Naked truth: What’s not to love about a film that features Tom Jones, Wilson Pickett and Hot Chocolate on the same soundtrack? Or one that calls Jennifer Beals’ character in Flashdance “not much of a welder”? The Full Monty made more than one-fifth of its $257 million worldwide gross in the U.S., confirming that for American summer audiences, the lunchbox had indeed landed.

Pi 1998

Absolutely no one imagined a summer film audacious enough to weave together chaos theory, Kabbalah, migraine headaches, the ancient Chinese game Go and the New York Stock Exchange—and then open that bizarre concoction the same weekend as Lethal Weapon 4 and Doctor Dolittle. Harvard-educated Darren Aronofsky spent $68,000 of his family and friends’ money to create this story about an anthropophobic mathematician whose radical number theories are pursued by both Wall Street and Hasidic Jews.

Artisan Entertainment built upon Pi’s heady success at Sundance for a July opening in just one theater. By Labor Day, the film was on more than 50 screens and had made 35 times its production cost. More mysterious than the cosmic riddle at the heart of this fearless art flick is why its talented creator (who has cited Frank Miller’s Sin City as a major influence on Pi’s dark and contrasted world) has made only one film since. I guess Max and Sol were able to outsmart the Street, but not Hollywood.

The Blair Witch Project 1999

Lightning struck twice when Artisan picked up another first-time freak show at Sundance the year after Pi. This $35,000 home movie brilliantly exploited America’s love for reality entertainment. Three student moviemakers hike deep into the woods with minimal gear to make a documentary about the Blair Witch, who snags dumb kids who venture too deep into the woods. The footage (but not the moviemakers) is found one year later and cut into the movie that terrorized audiences (mostly those who thought it was a documentary, thanks to an inspired Internet marketing campaign).

Distributors lie, but numbers don’t: The Blair Witch Project took in more than $1.5 million in five days in just 27 theaters, an astounding per screen average of more than $56,000. According to Bruce Nash of www.the-numbers.com, by the end of the summer, the most successful indie film of all time had pulled in nearly $134 million. With a final U.S. tally of more than $140.5 million, offset by a $6.5 million P&A budget, the film generated an incredible 975 percent return on its overall investment, notes Nash.

For Hollywood execs, the scariest thing about The Blair Witch Project was that two indie moviemakers with a Hi8 and 16mm camera, three actors and a DAT machine could produce the eighth highest-grossing summer movie in the same year as the first new Star Wars saga in more than 15 years.

Napoleon Dynamite 2004

If you’ve seen those “Vote for Pedro” signs all over your town and haven’t a clue, then you missed the sweetest (and silliest) blockbuster of last summer. Napoleon Dynamite may teeter on being too “quirky” for its own good, but it’s impossible to remain immune to the charms of this Sundance ‘04 pick-up, where design and details often stand in for plot.

Other wackos surrounding Dynamite, who favors a tight red ‘fro and moon boots, include Uncle Rico, still living for that high school football pass he threw 30 years ago, ultra-nerdy brother Kip, who finds his African-American soul mate in an online chat room and, of course, Pedro, a soft-spoken Latino who inexplicably decides to run for class president.

In many ways, this $400,000 indie, which made nearly all its $45.5 million gross in the US of A, was the perfect summer film: Charming and inoffensive, with an irresistible “be-true-to-yourself” ethos. Is it a coincidence that two of the best recent indie summer comedies conclude with some sweet musical dance moves dared to be expressed by uncool white men on-screen? I think not.

Super Size Me 2004

Documentaries need a compelling premise to capture an audience’s attention—particularly during the summer, when, as Hollywood wisdom goes, people don’t want to think. Super Size Me’s uniquely American conceit—quantity equals happiness—first turned heads at Sundance in 2004.

Moviemaker Morgan Spurlock dreamed up a Sherman’s March through fast-food culture after seeing TV news reports about two girls who sued McDonald’s for making them morbidly obese. Spurlock designed three simple rules and filmed them: 30 days chowing down three times a day on crap only bought over the counter at the Golden Arches; everything at Mickey D’s had to be eaten at least once; our hero had to super size his order whenever asked by a glazed-eyed employee.

Interviews with doctors, cooks, legislators and gym teachers are interspersed with Spurlock’s vital signs ballooning to near-toxic levels. Super Size Me, which earned more than $11.5 million from May through September, was a fly in McDonald’s fry oil: This past March, the corporation that claims to feed more than 46 million every day unveiled a “healthy living” campaign. After millions of summer filmgoers unexpectedly flocked to see Spurlock brave partial liver failure, depression and an attenuated sex drive just to tell his story, what could Academy voters do but sing “I’m lovin’ it” and bestow an Oscar nomination on the fourth highest-grossing documentary of all-time.

Fahrenheit 9/11 2004

Yes, it cost $6 million and opened in more than 860 theaters its opening weekend. Yes, it had a P&A budget of more than $12 million and was slated to be released by a studio until Michael Eisner got cold feet. Add to that director Michael Moore nearly getting tarred and feathered on the floor of the RNC and you’d think that Fahrenheit 9/11 was a fundraising tool of MoveOn.org and the DNC.

But do you remember some of the charges Moore fired at Bush the elder and his simian-faced son? Did you hear how many lawyers the dude had to hire to protect the integrity of his reporting? As in all Moore films, there are specious claims that try to blame every evil ever visited in Western Civilization on the power elite. But no one can deny that in a post-9/11 summer, where the flag was waved but never questioned, no other film had the guts and savvy to so venerate the First Amendment. That’s why Fahrenheit 9/11 grossed more than $24 million in its first five days alone, marking the first time a documentary was number one its opening weekend.

With a total U.S. box office of more than $119 million, Americans clearly wanted what Moore was selling: Independence. MM

INDIE BLOCKBUSTERS BY THE NUMBERS
FILM RELEASE DATE BUDGET P & A U.S. GROSS WORLD GROSS ROI SUMMER RANK
American Graffiti 8/11/73 $777,000 $2,000,000 $115,000,000 $140,000,000 1971% 1
Star Wars 5/25/77 $11.000,000 $4,000,000 $468,998,007 $797,900,000 1437% 1
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial 6/11/82 $10,500,000 $10,000,000 $435,110,554 $775,913,554 961% 1
sex, lies, and videotape 8/4/89 $1,4000,000 $1,000,000 $24,741,667 $36,500,000 415% 19
The Full Mont 8/13/97 $3,500,000 $3,500,000 $45,950,122 $256,900,000 228% 24
Pi 7/10/98 $68,000 $300,000 $3,221,152 $4,678,513 338% 58
The Blair Witch Project 7/14/99 $35,000 $6,500,000 $140,539,099 $248,300,000 975% 8
Napoleon Dynamite 6/11/04 $400,000 $3,000,000 $44,540,956 $45,658,577 555% 27
Super Size Me 5/07/04 $65,000 $1,000,000 $11,529.368 $17,705,863 441% 44
Fahrenheit 9/11 6/23/04 $6,000,000 $12,000,000 $119,114,517 $204,114,517 231% 9
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