Michael Cieply: On A Thin Film Schedule, There’s Room For Another ‘People’s Hit’

I’m trying to stay optimistic. It takes some effort, as just about everyone seems to think the film business is a mess–strike-thinned schedule, cultural chaos, streaming models in flux. But, hey, the Golden Globes audience was up by half, never mind critical reaction to the show. There are still signs of life out there.

So I’ll stick with an earlier prediction, that this will be a big comeback year for the Oscar show.

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More, I’ll cautiously suggest that we can expect what you might call an “interstitial hit” between now and next December.

These are movies that seem to come out of nowhere. They arrive with low or no expectations, from companies that are barely on the map. But they work their way into some conceptual or temporal gap in the release schedule, firing up viewers with je ne sais quoi, And suddenly they’re right up there in the Top Ten, side-by-side with the studio-backed sequels, super-heroes, cartoon fantasies and highly compensated stars.

Among the hundreds of obscure pictures released in any given year, you can’t predict which, if any, will become a folk phenomenon of this sort. If you could, the studios would find a way to vacuum them up and blast them out with a four-alarm marketing campaign, and they wouldn’t be surprises any more.

So I won’t speculate about titles. But the widely expected drop in big studio releases this year will almost certainly leave space for some interstitial hit to fill.

Remember, that happened last year with The Sound of Freedom, which Angel Studios opened in July against Disney’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. In the weeks that followed, the film, about the rescue of abducted children, beat Indy’s domestic box-office take, with $184.2 million in ticket sales, not because of some right-wing promotional conspiracy (yes, there was an unconventional Pay-It-Forward sales campaign), but because it plugged a narrative gap for a very hungry audience.

An outsider hit of that sort—a cinematic folk rising, if you like—hadn’t cracked the Top Ten since 2004, when The Passion of the Christ, from Newmarket Films, ranked third at the domestic box office, with about $370.3 million in sales.

During the intervening 18 years, the major studios and near-major competitors like Lionsgate left no breathing room at the top for a true people’s hit.

But there had been just such a break-out only two years earlier, in 2002, when My Big Fat Greek Wedding took in $223.9 million for IFC Films (and another $17 million or so the next year), to place fifth at the box office. And three years before that, in 1999, Artisan’s Blair Witch Project placed tenth for the year, with $140.5 million in sales. Notably, overall picture counts were lower back then, leaving the outsiders some space.

The archetype for these off-the-grid hits, at least in the modern era, was probably AIP’s Amityville Horror, which surprised with over $86 million at the box office, to land in the Number Two spot, just behind Warner’s Superman, in 1979.

But among interstitial box-office surprises, the much-loved poster child is Dirty Dancing. Almost nobody saw it coming. MGM put the script in turnaround, freeing it to become Vestron’s first feature, and the beginning of a franchise in 1987. Oddly, the film ended at Number 16 in that year’s rankings, but only because, after a Dog Days release in August, it played well into the next year. If its $63.4 million in sales—a lot of money at the time—had been counted entirely in 1987, Dirty Dancing would have placed tenth, in the standings, edging out Predator.

Rare, and a bit mysterious, those out-of-nowhere surprises do brighten things up. We saw one last year, with The Sound of Freedom. I’ll bet another pops up in 2024.

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