There was more to this summer than just 'The Lion King'

By Mary Sollosi
August 31, 2019 at 10:30 AM EDT
Casi Moss/A24; Merie Weismiller Wallace/A24; Emily Aragones/Amazon Studios

It’s become a tired refrain in commentary on Hollywood — but true nonetheless — that we’re living in the era of the remake, the time of the sequel, the age of the franchise. Which makes it so refreshing, in a summer filled primarily with warmed-over decades-old IP, to find entirely original stories on the big screen, many coming from exciting new artists.

While the blockbuster-season receipts were still dominated by the Lion Kings and the Toy Story 4s (alarmingly, just about half of the summer box office haul went to Disney), some of the indies dotting the Avengers-covered landscape have also made their way into the cultural conversation — which has begun to veer toward Oscar prospects. Here’s how independent theatrical releases impacted the story of summer 2019. Let’s start with…

Risky releases

While in our loftier moments we all love to talk about filmmaking exclusively as an art form, it’s also an industry, which is never exactly great news for indies. In the age of Netflix, distributors are still figuring out the best way to get viewers with a taste for smaller films to venture from their couches and actually see these movies on the big screen. (All box office data from Box Office Mojo.)

Indie champion Annapurna’s domestic distribution model for May’s Booksmart and August’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette didn’t ultimately pay off for the struggling company. Both high-profile indies went wide right away, opening in more than 2,000 theaters, but disappointed expectations, with Booksmart collecting just $22.7 million and Bernadette currently at $7.3 million after two weeks (having opened to $3.5 million).

The strategy was surprising in the case of the critically beloved SXSW release Booksmart, which was directed by famous first-timer Olivia Wilde but had lesser-known stars in Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever — a recipe that would typically call for a slow expansion relying on word of mouth. Bernadette had the advantages of star Cate Blanchett, director Richard Linklater, and best-selling source material, but its many delays and mediocre reviews can’t have helped.

Annapurna wasn’t the only one trying a wide release on a specialty title (to less-than-stellar results); New Line and Amazon rolled out Blinded by the Light and Late Night, respectively, in similar fashion and to similar numbers (Blinded by the Light is now at $8.8 million after two weeks, and June’s Late Night collected $15.5 million). Both crowd-pleasing films inspired classic all-night bidding wars at Sundance, but failed to attract much attention once they hit thousands of screens outside Park City.

Faring a bit better was A24, which released Ari Aster’s disturbing Midsommar to 2,707 theaters in July, raking in $26 million — that’s in dollars, but the meme count is probably a comparable number. Which brings us to…

Building buzz

Perhaps a more interesting consideration than which indies people are paying for is which indies people are talking about. Midsommar is up there. A24’s long-game player, though, is likely Lulu Wang’s moving The Farewell, which debuted to raves at Sundance and could well carry the sophomore filmmaker — and her star, Awkwafina — all the way into awards season. The highly personal drama also performed nicely for a film of its size, earning $14.8 million from a gradual expansion to 891 theaters.

Also on the hip distributor’s summer slate were the critically adored arthouse titles The Souvenir and The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the former of which cracked $1 million in 145 theaters and the latter of which made a respectable $4.5 million in 207 theaters. Both films also introduced new talent, with Tilda Swinton’s daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne, making a breathtaking debut as the star of Joanna Hogg’s Souvenir, and Last Black Man marking the promising first feature from filmmaker Joe Talbot.

Once moviegoers recovered from Midsommar and ran out of flower-crown jokes to tweet, they rushed to see the horror-satire Ready or Not, a Fox Searchlight release that has rung up $14.5 million after 10 days in 2,855 theaters, garnered good reviews (especially for star Samara Weaving), and delighted social media.

With such metrics in mind, Booksmart’s success isn’t only measured in receipts — despite its middling box office, the raunchy comedy has been hailed as a new teen classic, and both cast and director have been lining up exciting new projects in the wake of its release.