The enduring life of the slow-burner

Previously, any mention of the word “sleeper” in connection with Woody Allen’s film career referred to his 1973 futuristic comedy of the same name. Today, however, it’s his latest release, Midnight in Paris, which has left his financiers as well as his audiences laughing in the aisles, that fits this billing.

Allen’s new time-travelling comedy has become the 75-year-old’s biggest US box-office success – its current $52m total cruising past Annie Hall, Manhattan and the previous champ, 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters. True, these figures are unadjusted for inflation, but other statistics are perhaps more telling. Opening at just six cinemas, the film’s first-weekend screen average ($99,834) was one of the best location averages of all time. Great reviews and word of mouth gradually expanded its release to in excess of 1,000 screens throughout America (hundreds more than usual for Allen), across the entire summer and it is still going strong: the traditional definition of a “sleeper hit”.

Now, more than ever, films tend to live or die on their opening weekend. Distributors use shock-and-awe tactics, flooding multiplexes with prints, blitzing the media to target as many prospective viewers as quickly as possible. A typical blockbuster regularly makes around 40 per cent of its takings in its first few days. Sleepers, on the other hand, need time to wake audiences up to their charms, a luxury seldom afforded any more. So does Midnight in Paris offer hope for a new dawn of slow-burn success? Or has it merely been granted, like Owen Wilson’s nostalgic lead, a one-off return to former glory days?

Once upon a time, Midnight in Paris’ steady-platform release was the rule, not the exception. Then, in 1975, Jaws chomped a huge chunk out of the box office by opening simultaneously on hundreds of screens across America, backed by a marketing campaign as relentless as its shark. It became the biggest moneymaker of all time, heralded the summer blockbuster and set cinema releases on a super-size track that keeps on swelling (the last Harry Potter debuted on 4,375 screens, almost 10 times as many as Spielberg’s thriller).

“The sheer volume of films released nowadays, practically 600 titles a year up from 300 just a decade ago, has changed things,” says Mark Batey, chief executive of the UK Film Distributors’ Association. “The reality is that you need to make an impact in that first weekend in order to hold over to a second because next week there’s another 10, 11 films coming.”

The result means movies – even blockbusters – very rarely last more than 50 days in UK cinemas. This creates a real dilemma for films that play to older audiences, who typically may not be able to attend the opening weekend. So, who holds sway when exhibitors’ screens simply can’t handle the demand for distributors’ films? It’s a constant negotiation, but in this back-and-forth, more powerful distributors like Warner Bros inevitably tip the balance in their favour.

“We’ve been around forever,” says Josh Berger, Warner Bros UK president and managing director. “And we have a steady stream of very strong product. We’re going to be the market leader again this year; next year we have The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit… That doesn’t mean that, if we show up with a terrible movie, exhibitors will say, sure we’ll give you a thousand prints for that, but at the margins, if you’re a strong player an exhibitor will make a move in your direction.”

Fortunate, then, for Woody Allen that Warner Bros will release Midnight in Paris in the UK. “Without a doubt we’ll be more aggressive on the marketing, on the number of prints in the market versus what we would’ve done,” confirms Berger. ” But it’s another matter when the film hasn’t been released and you really don’t know.”

Such was the uncertainty around another surprise summer hit, the motor racing documentary Senna. “We had a feeling early on that if we could get people in to see it they’d fall in love with him,” says British director Asif Kapadia of his film’s protagonist. “That was the challenge, because many people might feel a Formula One documentary isn’t for them.”

Positive reviews help, but Kapadia knows from personal experience that it isn’t enough. “The Warrior got lots of awards and nominations but it wasn’t on release when it was getting all that publicity,” he rues of his 2001 debut feature. Then again, unlike Senna, The Warrior wasn’t backed by industry heavyweight Universal, and Working Title’s marketing muscle.

“In week three [of release] on 21 June we did ‘Senna Day’,” explains Kapadia, “and put the film on 350 screens around the UK, so wherever you were, there was somewhere showing it. The cinemas sold out, so they kept the film on.” With more than $10m taken worldwide, Senna is now the most successful UK-produced documentary ever.

The importance of a strong distributor is clear but Kapadia cites more accessible, proactive ways to promote Senna. “Social networking, Facebook, Twitter enabled us to establish a direct connection with the audience. It was much more immediate – and there was no wasting money on TV ads.”

Berger argues that, given the brutal battle for screen space, modern technology plays an even more key role. “Growing up, I’d go see films multiple times in theatres – because you weren’t going to see them anywhere else. What we’ve lost in those extra months [in cinemas], we’ve gained in our ability to discover a film in different places – DVD, download, pay-TV…”

This shift and extension in a film’s life cycle seems to demand a different way of considering what exactly constitutes a sleeper hit.

“To my mind Batman Begins was a sleeper,” argues Berger. “It didn’t do the sort of numbers people were hoping for theatrically, but then got discovered on DVD and pay-television. So by the time The Dark Knight came out it became a phenomenon.”

Leigh Singer, The Independent


About Marc Leprêtre

Marc Leprêtre is researcher in sociolinguistics, history and political science. Born in Etterbeek (Belgium), he lives in Barcelona (Spain) since 1982. He holds a PhD in History and a BA in Sociolinguistics. He is currently head of studies and prospective at the Centre for Contemporary Affairs (Government of Catalonia). Devoted Springsteen and Barça fan…
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