Superheroes rule the box office and the Guardians of the Galaxy have brought us the biggest film of the summer (which is about to dethrone Captain America to become the biggest film of the year). But talking about these big-budget behemoths with gigantic box office rewards (unless you’re the latest installment of the Expendables or Sin City brand) means talking about the same thing over and over again – a happy hour of strange creatures, diversified only by a couple comedies.
Fortunately there’s a great mix of summer fare that kicked absolute ass on a very modest per-screen basis. One can’t exactly expect that a limited release in select big cities would fare as well if it expanded to thousands of theaters across the nation (averages generally shrink when/if they do), but it’s still great to see the “little guy” head into a release in a handful of theaters and earn a better average than the top summer film (Guardians had $23,118 on 4,080 screens).
All of the following movies beat that average (save one that opened on only two screens), and offer everything from period dramas to modern comedy to films that took over a decade to capture. The men in tights, so to speak, may have won the box office, but I’m happy a selection of films like this still exists in this ever-mainstream movie world.
Amma Asante’s Belle opened in just four theaters, and brought in an average of $26,645. The film takes period dramas in a new direction introducing us to Dido Belle, one of Britain’s first mixed-race artistocrats, whose uncle, Lord Mansfield, gave judgments instrumental in changing Britain’s slave trade. It was a commercial success and has become a star-making turn for its women of color – Asante is now prepping her first studio feature, and star Gugu Mbatha-Raw is about to hit TIFF with Beyond the Lights.
It’s nice to see a filmmaker rise through the ranks, but then return to the modest charms that made him a star. After writing Swingers and making Made, Elf set Jon Favreau on a rocket upwards and right into the director’s chair for Iron Man, which made this new Marvel world thrive. But after flopping with Cowboys & Aliens, Favreau went back to basics as writer/director/star of Chef. The film, in a sense, reflects Favreau – a down-on-his-luck chef uses a food truck to get his world back on track. When it opened on 6 theaters this summer, it was averaging a whopping $34,160.
One Avenger and his director get into food, another goes back to his more indie roots with music. It’s nice to know that matches like this can still happen, with Once’s John Carney collaborating with Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley, who always shines brighter when her roles allow her to be in the modern era. The film follows a fired music exec who accidentally hits creative pay-dirt when he hears a woman (who was dumped by her rising-star boyfriend) put her pain into song. In its limited release on five screens, the film earned an average of $26,813.
In a film literally years in the making, Richard Linklater follows a boy from ages 5 to 18 – not as a documentary like Michael Apted’s Up, but as a scripted drama following an actor through his adolescence. The director bested his already wildly impressive 98% fresh score for Before Midnight a year before with a 99% fresh score, and he boasted an absolutely massive average for its limited run on five screens – $77,524.
First time feature filmmaker Gillian Robespierre dared to make the film no one else would – a romantic comedy about a woman deciding to have an abortion. A ten-foot pole would be too uncomfortably close for most, but Robespierre made it work, offering a film that’s both cleverly funny and emotionally honest. It also gave Jenny Slate the chance to evolve beyond her embarrassingly brief stint on Saturday Night Live, and show how easily she could slide in and command a starring role. When the film opened on just three screens, it averaged $25,772.
Kelly Reichardt’s feature is the most modest of the bunch. Its gross never hit a million dollars, and it reached only 56 theaters during its 12-week run. But Night Moves is quite different from the other fare that made this list and the top films of the summer. It’s quiet, pensive, and though it boasts Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard, it’s an indie through and through, from its production to its conceit. The film follows three radical environmentalists who scheme to explode a hydroelectric dam. That this very Reichardtian narrative, on the two screens it opened on, averaged $10,744, is pretty great.
Magic in the Moonlight
On one hand, it’s no surprise that a Woody Allen film would do reasonably well. He’s been around for decades and in recent years, offered a new, yet still familiar twist in his filmmaking. Magic in the Moonlight (which follows a magical Colin Firth who has an aversion to phony spiritualism and wants to debunk Emma Stone’s clairvoyant) made an impressive $24,241 average in its limited release on 17 screens. There are reasons long and wide to question his position, especially in regards to his family and treatments of age and sexuality, yet it’s still stunning how this man continually keeps a strain of classic cinema alive and successful.
The Trip to Italy
And, finally, there is Michael Winterbottom’s next comedic journey with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as they sample food, argue about accents, and continuing to offer the wry comedy that made The Trip such a delight. Like the rest of the examples on this list, it barely hit any theaters when it opened recently (3), yet it has already managed an impressive $23,904 average. With just a week and a half under its belt, its gross is already over $200,000, and hopefully the magical Coogan + Brydon mix will continue to be a moneymaker.
Especially since their Michael Caine returns hilariously.