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Indie horror film "The Wretched" is inching toward a milestone, eyeing the top spot on box office charts for the fifth weekend in a row. It's a rare feat that hasn't been achieved since Marvel's superhero juggernaut "Black Panther" debuted in 2018.
Notching this particular benchmark, in this case, comes with a pretty big caveat; "The Wretched" is one of the only movies on box office charts. But its relative dominance of a sparse field highlights what has become a winning strategy for IFC Films, the specialty label that behind the supernatural thriller.
At a time when Hollywood studios have delayed, amended, or scrapped plans to debut major movies, IFC Films has decided to keep release dates and continue rolling out films as scheduled. It's allowed the company to carve out a prime position at the few moviegoing venues - most of which are drive-in theaters - that have been able to safely remain open during the coronavirus outbreak.
The unusual circumstances have fostered something of an unlikely relationship.
Usually this time of year marks the start of summer movie season, offering up the big-budget comic book adventures or sequels in popular franchises that drive-in theaters rely on to draw sizable crowds. Drive-ins have still been playing classics like "Jaws" and movies that opened before the pandemic hit, such as Disney's animated film "Onward" and "The Invisible Man" from Universal and Blumhouse. But for fresh content, cinema owners have increasingly turned to indie titles that typically populate arthouses.
"Drive-ins traditionally play tentpoles," notes IFC Films co-president Lisa Schwartz. "The integration has been a nice moment because it made sense on both sides."
Since March, IFC Films has released a handful of new movies, including "The Trip to Greece," psychological thriller "Swallow," and "How to Build a Girl" with Beanie Feldstein. It has also dug into its library, re-releasing past hits like "Sleeping With Other People" and "Rust Creek" to make up double features. Because their films cost less to make than most studio movies, it's less of a financial risk to keep the content coming, even though traditional brick-and-mortar theaters across the country have been closed for months.
So far, those titles have collected over $750,000 from less than a dozen seasonal drive-ins. The bulk of those ticket sales have come from "The Wretched," which has earned $660,000 to date. For a low-budget movie, that's a solid result in any climate. In fact, in any other time, it would rank among the studio's biggest earners of the year. And IFC films have been available to rent at home the whole time - going against conventional wisdom that streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Disney Plus will keep audiences on their couches.
In the coming weeks, other studios will follow a similar path for movies like musical drama "The High Note" and Andy Samberg's romantic comedy "Palm Springs" - both of which are simultaneously launching on digital rental services and in drive-in theaters that are open. But the increased competition might not be a problem for IFC. At first, only a small number of drive-ins were able serve customers. Now that some states are beginning to relax stay-at-home measures, over 150 outdoor moviegoing spaces have gotten permission from government officials to open.
"There's a window of opportunity for success, and IFC is taking that risk and innovating," said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. "A studio like Warner Bros. can't take chances like that because they'd lose money, even if drive-ins were packed. There's not much expected for a film like 'The Wretched.' If it gets to $1 million, it's like another studio getting to $100 million."
It's taken some recalibration and innovation to get near those box office receipts. Smaller studios rely heavily on mom-and-pop movie theaters, whose owners come to learn and help cultivate the taste of their clientele, to get the word out about a new movie. They can't afford the same robust marketing spends that greet Marvel or James Bond films. For promotional efforts tied to "The Wreched," IFC leaned heavily into the old-school nature of outdoor moviegoing. But they've found that chatter throughout the community continues to be one of the surest ways to spread the gospel.
"We pivoted the marketing in cool retro drive-in ads. That was a fun way to get the word out," Arianna Bocco, the executive VP of acquisitions and production at IFC Films, said. "A lot of it has been through organic word of mouth because it affects the people who live there."
IFC has also made sure their filmmakers and actors have been closely involved with the process, a step that helps ensure creative talent on both sides of the camera that their films will get the same proper love and attention from the studio that would greet a traditional theatrical release.
"Filmmakers have been really amazing to say to us, 'We have the confidence you'll get the film out there,'" Bocco said. "That's a hard thing for filmmakers to say because it's such an uncertain time."
Even before cinemas across the country were forced to close to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, many indie movies had been struggling to make money in theaters. In 2019, the gap between commercial winners and losers widened dramatically. Some experts chalk that up to the explosion in popularity of streaming services, which have been a haven for the kind of comedies and dramas that aren't getting their due on the big screen. So then it's even more notable, executives point out, that they've been able to make such an impression on moviegoers during this time.
"It speaks to people's desire and commitment to wanting a social shared experience," said Schwartz. "To see everything old become new again has been a kick."
Adds Bocco, "It's really unprecedented that an indie horror film [like 'The Wreched'] could do that kind of gross solely from drive-ins. It would have taken a long time in hardtop theaters. It's really kept going and strengthening. We were able to expand [the theater count], which we didn't expect."
IFC Films is aware that drive-ins could be a short-term solution due to the unique circumstances of the pandemic. It's a success story that may not last in a post-COVID environment.
"Like everything else, it remains to be seen how much people will go in the future," Bocco said. "That's the crazy part of this whole situation is just the uncertainty."