The indie box office busted out this year, hitting is stride post-Covid with an eclectic string of releases that made a splash artistically and financially.
Independents and mini-majors saw $1.47 billion in box office receipts as of Dec. 27, up from $811.7 million in 2022, according to Comscore.
Focus Features had the biggest limited opening of the year with Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City (gross $28 million). Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers with Paul Giamatti ($17.9 million) drew older demos, picky, yes, but finally comfortable back in theaters. Ditto for MGM’s Air, a film Amazon originally slated to go directly to Prime Video, that hit a core 45+ audience and a $52 million cume.
A24’s Past Lives, the much-nominated first film by Celine Song, made $10.9 million and its low-budget horror Talk to Me cleared $48 million. Emma Seligman’s raunchy teen comedy Bottoms from MGM topped $12 million.
That led into a fall bonanza heading into awards season with Anatomy Of A Fall, Origin and Ferrari from Neon; A24’s Priscilla, Dream Scenario and The Iron Claw; Saltburn, American Fiction and The Boys In The Boat from MGM; Poor Things and All Of Us Strangers from Searchlight Pictures and Waitress: The Musical from Bleeker Street and, as per above, The Holdovers.
GKids’ Hayao Miyazaki animated The Boy And The Heron, released Dec. 8 has grossed $33 million.
A constellation of indie distributors from Sony Pictures Classics to Magnolia Pictures, IFC Films, Utopia, Oscilloscope, Kino Lorber, Roadside Attractions, Greenwich Entertainment, IFC Films, Sideshow/Janus, Music Box, Picturehouse, Crunchyroll, Well Go USA, Blue Fox, Mubi and dozens more had successful releases.
Sound of Freedom from Angel Studios made $184 million.
Godzilla Minus One from Toho was a sleeper hit that punched above its weight at $44 million.
And Radical from Pantelion/Participant with Eugenio Derbez grossed $8.6 million.
Indian films flooded into theaters, frequently popping into the weekend top ten with standouts Salaar: Part 1 – Ceasefire, Dunki, Jawan, Animal, Jailer Gadar 4 and Pathaan.
A24’s re-release of The Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense by Jonathan Demme topped $5 million — more than its initial 1984 release. Ditto for Neon’s remastered Old Boy at $1.75 million, outgrossing its 2003 theatrical run of the Park Chan-Wook film.
“I think there’s a huge resurgence of indie film” this year, said Comscore senior media analyst Paul Degarabedian.
“These films can really generate some heat, not only at the box office but creatively and critically. On a per theater basis. On a profitability basis. They should be looked at as hits.” They are not a large percentage of the overall box office but, “It’s that cumulative horsepower of some of these indie films that are very important.”
An anomaly this year: indies from big guns A24 and Neon on down had interim agreements from SAG-AFTRA allowing them to promote films with cast during the long actors’ strike. Studios could not, so pushed some releases (Warner Bros. moved Dune: Part Two from November to March 2024, MGM nudged Challengers from September to April to name a few).
Fewer big films in the marketplace may have helped the independents.
The very pointed fan boredom with half-baked studio superhero movies did not hurt the indie business either.
However, “It’s not like people are going to see bad independent movies at the cinema. People go out for quality,” says Jonathan Sehring, who launched Sideshow with Janus Films two-and-a-half years ago, debuting with Drive My Car. Releases this year included The Eight Mountains, Orlando, My Political Biography and Wim Wender’s Anselm.
Kevin Wilson, head of theatrical distribution for Amazon and MGM is upbeat on original content in 2024 given the strong end of the year. “You started to see some breakouts on those types of films, which we haven’t seen in a long time…I think there’s more room for those next year. I think cinephiles and adult audiences are paying more attention now to what’s there theatrically for them because, in all honesty, there hasn’t been enough out there for them in the last few years. It’s all content driven. If the content’s there, they’ll go.”
“This year is encouraging across the board,” agreed Lisa Bunnell, head of distribution at Focus Features.
A24, which had 14 releases this year that also include Ari Aster’s Beau Is Afraid, You Hurt My Feelings and All Dirt Roads Taste Of Salt, inked a multi-year output deal with Warner Bros./Max in early December that was the talk of the town among indie distributors. Output agreements, which provide cash, and allow distributors to chase higher priced films on the festival circuit, have become increasingly rare and the best some indie distributors can hope for are one-off deals with different streamers, major or minor.
“I am very buoyed by A24’s new output deal,” said Arianna Bocco, the longtime head of IFC Films who left earlier this year. “But some of the conversation is, can we find a model that is not entirely dependent on an output deal, where there is some healthy open market?” There is so much choice on a big streamer “that unless you are really well placed, you are gong to get lost in the mix.”
A24’s success in general “is an exciting reminder of where others could go at some point,” said Kyle Greenberg, head of marketing for Utopia. “What they do is integral for arthouse films.” Utopia (Shiva Baby, Everyone’s Going To The World’s Fair, Holy Spider, Sick of Myself) is currently rolling out The Sweet East buy Sean Price Williams.
“It’s an interesting time when the Marvel and superhero films are receiving less attention. Hopefully, that creates a lane for more original films and storytelling,” he said. “But [indie distributors] are still in competition with studios. And streamers have great filmmakers on their rosters” from Tod Haynes’ May December (Netflix) to Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon (Apple) this year.
“How do you compete when there are a bunch of other companies [who] overspend on things to make a name for themselves?” asked Kyle Westphal, head of theatrical sales at Music Box Films (Fremont, The Unknown Country, L’Immensita’). “You can’t compete with that. Because if they say, ‘We want to pay a million dollars for this’, and their business model is losing money, you saying, ‘I want to be at a million dollars and ten cents’, when you know you can’t recoup that, doesn’t make sense.”
“I don’t have a satisfying answer. Other than there’s still a hunger out there for quality films. There are people out there who are still hungry for independent and international films,” he said.
“Maybe some days you get lucky with streaming. Some days you get lucky with stuff that’s more traditional. Airlines still license independent films. There are all kinds of not sexy, not headline grabbing, ways to recoup expenses. It’s not always an output deal. It’s often a combination of things,” Westphal said. “There’s no silver bullet. If you have an output deal, that’s great. But for an independent distributor that isn’t in that position, it is still a matter of how much can you get from theatrical, how much can you get from a smaller streamer, how much can you get from transactional, how much can you get from airlines, how much can you get from basically any source of revenue.”
What ‘s An indie?
As the entertainment landscape shifts, it’s become a bit harder to define an independent or a specialty film. The Comscore list this year excludes films by the five major Hollywood studio. It doe includes Focus, Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics, which are studio affiliates, as well as Amazon MGM Studios. It has Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour and Renaissance: A Film By Beyoncé both distributed by AMC Entertainment through Variance Films, and event programming from Fathom (The Blind topped $17 million) and Trafalgar (BTS: Yet To Come In Cinemas made $8.7 million).
“I think [independent] is in the eye of the beholder,” said Degarabedian.
Sound of Freedom earned more domestically than Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny ($17 million)and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning ($172 million). Indian films are a great example of how the lines are blurring as they can be huge epics but play for a specialized audience.
“Wes Anderson movies have gotten big enough where in some cases if you just look at the box office you’d say, ‘Oh, that’s not an indie film.’ Then you’d look at the budget, or the director.”
What indie distributors big and small have in common — they seek original ideas, they nurture new talent. Said Kyle Greenberg, head of marketing and distribution at Utopia. “We need to champion art. People don’t walk into the Louvre, and look at the Mona Lisa, and ask how much money it’s made. Yes, obviously distribution is a business. But we need to remember that film is an art form.”