CATEGORIES Comedy, Fandom, Distribution, Exhibition, 20th Century Fox, Indie Seen, Features, Movie News, CinematicalI'd like to introduce a new Cinematical column, IndieSeen, which will focus weekly on various aspects of independent filmmaking, distribution, and exhibition. Maybe I'll interview a woman who shot a feature in her basement for under $200, maybe I'll ruminate on well-known actors who built careers on non-studio films, or maybe I'll look at the latest alternate method of film distribution. But for my first column, I'm going to talk about a studio-produced film ... one that received a theatrical release that most indie filmmakers wouldn't envy. Perhaps it's a lesson about the virtues of making a film independently.
The Mike Judge film Idiocracy has had one of the weirdest theatrical releases ever. Twentieth Century Fox considered postponing the release indefinitely, then decided at the last minute to give the film an extremely limited run in only six U.S. cities, which did not include New York. The studio did not publicize the movie one bit: no trailers, no ads, and only two stills from 2004 that everyone on the internet used in their online reviews. Overall, the film did only moderate business after its Sept. 1 release, and quickly faded from the public eye.
However, Idiocracy is still playing in two theaters, at least for the next week: Regency Academy 6 in Pasadena, CA, and Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar in Austin, TX. My husband and I decided to see the movie again last Sunday night, figuring it might be our last chance, and assuming we'd be two of maybe a half-dozen people in the theater. We were amazed to have to stand in line to get in, and we estimated 50 people in the audience, which is a good count for any theater on a Sunday night at 9:45 pm. I noticed that a number of other people had seen the film before, because they were anticipating the gags -- is Idiocracy attracting a small cult of fans?
I asked Tim League, founder of the Alamo Drafthouse chain, about the film's staying power at one of his theaters. After a standard run (multiple screenings per day) for several weeks, Idiocracy has been screening once a night during the week and twice a day on weekends, on one of the smaller screens at the South Lamar location. League says the movie usually sells out on weekend nights and draws a good crowd on weeknights, comparable to the one I attended Sunday night. When I first saw the movie on its opening night at Alamo, the theater was indeed full, and that was one of Alamo's larger theaters (about 200 seats). League said the film grossed $11,000 at Alamo in its opening weekend, which was a strong opening for the theater.
Austinites love their hometown filmmakers, so a Judge film would naturally draw a larger crowd here than elsewhere, at least during the first week or two. Still, if the movie is still attracting audiences after seven weeks, why did Fox squelch its release? Several theories are floating around about why Fox gave Idiocracy such a limited, publicity-free release: that the film is just plain terrible (which hasn't stopped Fox before), or that the focus on how stupid people are in the future made the film impossible to market.
League subscribes to another popular theory -- that Judge and Fox had a dispute over the final cut of the film. He noted that Idiocracy does make fun of FOX News as well as corporate chains like Fuddruckers and Starbucks. In an interview with Esquire, Judge said that Fox had slashed his postproduction budget, causing him to ask Robert Rodriguez to help with some special effects ... and the occasionally slapdash effects in the finished film bear this out. League surmises that the budget cuts might have been part of Fox's retribution, and the studio might have released the film only to fulfill a minimal contractual obligation.
"I've never seen anything like this," said League. "A studio releases a movie and then doesn't want anyone to see it. Marketing it should be a no-brainer, with Mike Judge's pedigree and Luke Wilson starring."
League supports his theory with the details of the exhibition contract Alamo signed to show Idiocracy, which was unusual: a minimum theatrical run of one week, when new releases are usually required to be shown for two weeks, and a 35 percent take for the distributor, which is abnormally low. (Distributors usually take a high percentage of ticket sales in the first week or two, then a lower percentage in subsequent weeks.) In addition, League says that several film festival programmers have asked him for distribution contact information so they could show Idiocracy during their festivals, but that apparently Fox turned down these requests.
"As long as we're still making money, we'll keep playing the movie," League said. The rest of the country will have to wait for a DVD. Fox currently has no information about a potential Idiocracy DVD on any of the studio's websites, although the Home Entertainment site does feature a huge sidebar ad for the DVD of Office Space, another Mike Judge film. Will the studio's vendetta with Judge continue into an indefinitely delayed DVD release?
Since the announcement about Idiocracy's very limited release, Judge has refused all interviews, so it's impossible to confirm any of this with him. However, I remember hearing him speak to a University of Texas class in February about his future filmmaking plans. He wanted to make inexpensive films that wouldn't be financed or produced through a studio, citing Christopher Guest's films as an example of what he'd like to do. He was working on a script but wouldn't divulge details.
"I'm only going to make a movie again if I own it or have final cut," Judge told the class, obviously unhappy with the Idiocracy experience. I believe that Judge is on the road to indie filmmaking.