In a summer movie season dominated once again by big-budget spectacles featuring grown men in tights, it might seem an unlikely time to talk about the resurgence of independent cinema. But a string of strong showings by modestly budgeted films this summer has offered glimmers of hope that the indies are not completely dead.
So far this season, four of the top-20 grossing movies were made on a budget of $20 million or under -- a pittance when you consider that the average tentpole costs more than ten times that amount. "Moonrise Kingdom," the latest from quirk-master general Wes Anderson, has taken in more than $45 million on a $16 million budget; "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," John Madden's comic drama about feisty English seniors, has netted $45 million on a $10 million budget; and "Madea's Witness Protection," the latest addition to the Tyler-Perry-in-Drag genre, earned $64 million on a $20 million budget. (Perry is known as one of the savviest independent filmmakers working today, and his movies' profitability helped land him on top of Forbes magazine's list of the highest-paid men in entertainment 2011.)
But the true breakout hit in the specialty market is Steven Soderbergh's "Magic Mike," which stars Channing Tatum as a male stripper gone wild in Tampa, Fla. The film so far has earned a whopping $112 million on a paltry $7 million budget.
The last time a summer movie made for under $20 million edged its way into the top 20 was in 2007 with Rob Zombie's "Halloween" remake, which cost an estimated $15 million. And despite positive buzz each year for anti-blockbusters such as "Midnight in Paris" and "The Kids Are All Right," neither of those films cracked the top 20 -- nor have most summer indie favorites stretching at least as far back as 2006's "Little Miss Sunshine."
But this summer's box-office tallies have so far shown a different trend, according to Landmark Cinema's Ted Mundorff, who told Variety on Monday that the specialty business is having a strong season. Meanwhile, numbers for this week show the trend of the small-budget wonders is continuing. While Universal's big-budgeted spy epic "The Bourne Legacy" was the top earner, taking in $40 million, two smaller films edged their way into the top five as well: "Hope Springs," starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as a couple of aging empty nesters, and "The Campaign," which represents the smallest budget for a Will Ferrell movie in five years -- proof that the once-bankable actor might be poised for a comeback after such disastrous offerings as "Land of the Lost" and "The Other Guys."
Writing last week on the unusual diversity of this year's summer fare, New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis said it's difficult to tell if the resurgence of small-budget hits are an isolated fluke or if they point to signs of a broader "blockbuster fatigue" among moviegoers. "It would be nice to think that audiences have started to weary of the same quips, big bangs and long underwear avengers," Dargis wrote.
Still, those underwear avengers are in pretty decent shape. The top three films this summer -- "The Avengers," "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Amazing Spider-Man," respectively -- are all superhero films, while the rest of the top 10 is dominated by the typical array of cartoon, sequels, prequels and reboots. Ironically enough, the one top-10 outlier this year is Seth Macfarlane's talking-bear comedy "Ted," which has raked in more than $209 million on a $50 million.
Any way you look at the recent string of small-budget hits, however, they represent a slight deviation for risk-averse Hollywood, which for decades has been moving toward a business model built almost entirely around sure things. Since 2000, the only top-grossing movie of the year that wasn't based on preexisting material was 2009's "Avatar." But with James Cameron at the helm, that could hardly be considered a risk.