The Indie Month That Was: Part I

By Michael Lynderey

May 14, 2009

This is probably how swine flu spreads. I can't be too careful.

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While the box office has been overflowing for 2009's wide release offerings, it hasn't been a very good year for the under-800 theaters crowd. So far, only a few platform releases have found wider acceptance. April, specifically, offered a fair collection of limited release films, most of which didn't get much past the starting gate at the box office. Still, here's a look at the acclaimed, the rejected, and the just plain odd films that played somewhere out there in April 2009.

The A-Lister

The biggest sub-800 theater movie of the year so far has been Sunshine Cleaning, the almost-token Sundance-flavored hit of the season. Everything went according to plan for this release, which follows a pair of sisters who get into the lucrative (?) crime scene cleanup industry. Like all high profile indie films, it first opened up in only a handful of theaters (4), delivering a masterful per-screen average of $54,798. Throughout March and April, it proceeded to expand to 64, 167, 479, 598 and finally 642 locations, and it was only there that the buck stopped (at that point, the per-theater average deflated to $1,527). The indie cred and relative star power of Amy Adams and Emily Blunt brought this one out, despite somewhat middling reviews for this type of film. For Adams, a successful smaller film is becoming almost a March tradition - witness her better received March '08 release Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which brought in $12.3 million in fewer screens than the '09 Adams film. Sunshine Cleaning, on the other hand, has so far grossed $10.4 million, a decent-enough result that proves there's still some power in quirky comedies.




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Opening wide... somewhere

The most interesting breed of limited releases are the ones studios open in a couple hundred screens right away, without a platform release or time to grow legs. Occasionally, such movies have a strong niche market - say, a Christian-oriented film like Facing the Giants or an African-American-targeted release like Not Easily Broken - and so they do fairly or very well with this strategy. However, most movies given this type of entry into theaters are just being dumped. That's why studios rarely do it, and there's usually a particular reason why they even bother giving their unwanted product such a wide release.

First on this roster, there's The Informers - a drugs, sex, and rock 'n' roll odyssey about glamorous and troubled people in L.A. On paper, it sounds like a possible winner. It's a Bret Easton Ellis adaptation - a fact that gets a movie at least some interest from a certain demographic. It's set in the '80s, like three recent films (Watchmen, Adventureland and the Haunting in Connecticut). It's got a large cast, mixing big names (Billy Bob Thornton, Kim Basinger, Winona Ryder) with some lesser knowns like Jon Foster and Amber Heard. But then the downsides come in - Ellis films (American Psycho, Less than Zero, The Rules of Attraction) may get some good reviews, but they never do well at the box office. This one went through some heavy cutting (the scenes excised include those featuring Brandon Routh, who played Superman in Superman Returns and has effectively remained incognito at the movies since). And the RottenTomatoes score is 14%.


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