Indie films may not be achieving the grosses of years gone by, but we shouldn’t judge them against the inflated goal posts of the past.

If the closure or diminution of the studio specialty divisions has meant a loss of financing sources, it has also meant a big gain in sobriety in the releasing of independent films in the world-leading US marketplace. And it’s time to celebrate those indie successes without comparing them to the grosses of similar films in years gone by when all the studio divisions were trying to one-up each other with  excessive spending on P&A and awards campaigns that made very little financial sense.

Take Winter’s Bone, for example. The feted Sundance Film Festival prizewinner from director Debra Granik is a bleak, powerful film set in the Ozark Mountains which has in just five weeks grossed $2.5m though Roadside Attractions. Two documentaries - Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work and Exit Through The Gift Shop have crossed the $2m mark; Anchor Bay has had a big specialised hit with City Island which is currently standing at $6.5m. And Sony Pictures Classics, the master of  targeted marketing, slow rollouts and conservative spending, has grossed $3.7m on Please Give and $5.9m with the Oscar-winning Argentinian film The Secret In Their Eyes.

Then of course, there’s Millenium. The bold Chicago-based newcomer Music Box Films scored a coup by winning US distribution rights to the three Swedish-language thrillers and the first - The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - has grossed a dazzling $9.3m in 17 weeks of release. The second, The Girl Who Played With Fire, opened last weekend at number 11 in the country with $0.9m on 108 screens. The success of the films had other distributors looking on jealously as the first film week by week built on its grosses through word of mouth and repeated bookings, only fuelled by the concurrent explosion of the books’ popularity in the US.

I only bring these films up because the untrained eye looking at these numbers might think them unspectacular.
After all, from 2006 to 2009, high profile art movies like Revolutionary Road, No Country For Old Men, Milk, There Will Be Blood, Into The Wild, Gone Baby Gone, Everybody’s Fine and A Mighty Heart were regularly grossing over $20m. In the case of Paramount Vantage/Miramax co-venture No Country, the final gross was a whopping $74.3m.
But what the untrained eye fails to register is the hefty production costs and enormous P&A expenditure these films entailed, which for the most part rendered their profit margin narrow if indeed there was a profit margin. Studios were spending millions to keep A-list stars happy, finance length awards campaigns and reach pay-TV gross triggers. There’s not that much value in spending $40m to get a gross to $60m. No wonder the studios saw no sense in these divisions.
Fortunately P&A spending at this level has disappeared and is unlikely to reappear. When Summit Entertainment released The Hurt Locker last summer, it spent conservatively, somewhere in the $9m region to gross $16.4m. That didn’t feel like a hit at the time – after all, the film went on to win the best picture Oscar – but in retrospect, it made sense. Summit also hit $15m on The Ghost Writer earlier this year. Sure, the company could have invested many millions more to release these films, but the return would not have been significant enough to warrant the extra spend.
Another factor that is helping these new conservative indies is screen space and the fact that there is more of it. After the equity boom, there are fewer movies in the market for screens, not to mention the reduction in production volume that has been adopted by all the studios and should see a much more open market as of next year. Earlier this year, Apparition managed to surpass $10m on both The Young Victoria and The Boondock Saints II, but each did that over a period of over 12 weeks, allowing word of mouth to catch on.
A true independent environment has returned to the US; let’s not judge these new grosses by the inflated goalposts of the past.