Features and Columns · Movies

This is How Smalltime Filmmakers Go Big

By  · Published on April 24th, 2017

Box Office

Not everyone needs to jump into a blockbuster.

You could say that Free Fire is a box office flop, but I wouldn’t. The first Ben Wheatley movie to hit American suburbs in its opening weekend is an achievement of exposure in spite of what it actually grossed. Sure, its just-under $1m debut is only a third of what Variety claimed it was on track to make, and for a movie reportedly budgeted somewhere between $7m and $10m, that’s a low start. Its per-screen average is not even in the four digits. But, hey, it’s Wheatley’s biggest opening yet, and that’s the right track.

At a time when many decent smalltime filmmakers are being snatched up for ginormous projects immediately after receiving some indie-sized acclaim, it’s great to see guys like Wheatley and Nacho Vigalondo take gradual steps upward. Vigalondo’s latest, the $15m-budgeted monster movie Colossal has also grossed just over $1m in the US, albeit in the span of three weeks on far fewer screens — now at 224, up from its initial four, compared to Free Fire’s 1,070. Similarly, it’s the best box office performance of the director’s career.

Both Wheatley and Vigalondo are foreigners now working with American settings and each has an Oscar-winning actress in a starring role (Brie Larson in Free Fire, Anne Hathaway in Colossal). Yet they’re still far from Hollywood fare, not exactly major releases. These are cult-level filmmakers who could one day find suitable blockbusters, a la James Gunn and Rian Johnson, but for now they’re still fit for modestly budgeted genre pictures and anthology film contributions (both of them did a segment for The ABCs of Death). Compared to, say, Colin Trevorrow, they’ve been able to build a fanbase and a reputation prior to, if ever, they go more mainstream.

Another way for smaller-scale filmmakers to go these days is straight to streaming. Certainly Free Fire and Colossal will eventually be seen by more people through a service like Netflix, which currently offers Wheatley’s previous effort, High-Rise, and Vigalondo’s previous feature, Open Windows (as well as The ABCs of Death and V/H/S: Viral, another anthology for which Vigalondo directed a segment). But some true cinephiles believe Netflix is an improper dumping ground for indies deserving theatrical release.

Both of these movies are distributed in the US by fairly new companies — A24 put out Free Fire while Colossal is handled by Tom Quinn and Tim League’s Neon — and each is committed to theatrical exhibition, despite the former’s occasional prerelease deals with DirecTV, when it’s clearly called for. Free Fire, for instance, is the kind of action thriller that isn’t exactly chock full of big-screen spectacle but does go better with a audience of more than one, preferably with a pint in every viewer’s hand.

Not that Free Fire’s box office proves this was the case for a lot of moviegoers (I was the only person in my Thursday evening showing, though I did get to comply with the beer-in-hand part) but at least A24 is giving it the opportunity for people to see it the right way, with the optimal situation being that they attend with a group of friends to ensure some sort of crowd. It’s hard to tell with its so-so critical reception and audience ratings (there is no Cinemacore grade for simplest measure of the latter) if the movie will have enough strong word of mouth to keep it in theaters, but the awareness of a wide release could benefit its small-screen life anyway. Best scenario: people see it in theaters; good scenario: people see it.

Colossal is also best viewed in a theater, though as much for what’s on the screen — while not an effects-driven movie, the monster spectacle is definitely a big part — as the experience of a packed room. You can’t not see a movie with a title like Colossal on as colossally sized a screen as possible. Neon has taken a more traditional small-release route with its limited-but-expanding plan. People continue to talk about it online, building anticipation for those of us in areas where it didn’t hit right away.

My Genre-Film Love Shakes The Earth When It Stomps, The Coming of ‘Colossal’

I don’t think these two movies have enough difference in their distribution and marketing costs to make one method of release more profitable than the other. However, A24 may have indeed expected Free Fire to open bigger, and it surely could have done so with its screen count had there been enough interest. The company can likely afford a minor loss better than Neon can, though, especially given their newfound prestige of winning Best Picture this year with Moonlight. And anyway, the sacrifice was for a worthy cause.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.