Nightcrawler has grossed nearly $31.8 million through the weekend and sits among the upper echelon of this year’s pack of crime dramas. That’s all the more impressive given its comparatively small budget estimated at about $8.5M. Distributor Open Road Films has championed the film since scooping it up after seeing a sizzle reel in Cannes, and a savvy marketing campaign has helped extend the Jake Gyllenhaal-starrer to a place where it will make more loot than many more high-profile (and high-budget) pics in its genre and is an awards player too.

The directorial debut of writer Dan Gilroy stars Gyllenhaal as a Los Angeles thief who falls into shooting footage of crime scenes and accidents and selling the images to news channels. He eventually stoops to altering shots in order to get hotter footage and problems quickly pile up. Rene Russo, Bill Paxton and Riz Ahmed co-star.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed in Nightcrawler“We’ve been big fans of the script since before production,” said Open Road CEO Tom Ortenberg. “In Cannes we saw four or five minutes of footage. We bought it off that footage…Dan is an accomplished writer and had written a terrific script. From the footage, we could tell that he was making the best film [it could be] — not just the most commercial version, but the ‘best’ overall version of the script.”

After premiering at the Toronto Film Festival, Nightcrawler rolled out in 2,766 theaters October 31, grossing a solid $10.44M its first weekend. Ortenberg said the Halloween bow was a risk, given the holiday fell on a Friday this year — normally a taboo slot given that revelers are more apt to find entertainment outside a movie theater. But there was a sense as the movie rolled out it was working with both mainstream commercial audiences and art house crowds, and Open Road began crafting its marketing to work both ends of the spectrum.

nightcrawler“From a marketing standpoint we had material that portrayed the picture as the commercial property that it is, but not while abandoning its indie roots…,” said Ortenberg. “We didn’t want to make the movie look like a poor man’s version of a studio movie. That’s not what Nightcrawler is and not what it’s supposed to be.”

The strategy paid off. Nightcrawler has stood up well against its studio counterparts — even exceeding star-driven crime dramas this year with far bigger budgets. Universal’s A Walk Among The Tombstones starring Liam Neeson reportedly had a $28M budget. It opened in 2,712 theaters in September grossing $12.75M and has cumed $26.3M stateside. Sony’s The Equalizer with Denzel Washington has cumed $101M from a pic that was budgeted at $55M, nearly six times Nightcrawler‘s total. “College kids, cinephiles, mainstream moviegoers across the country as well as critics and bloggers started taking possession of Nightcrawler as their own and championed it,” said Ortenberg. “It became a cause for people to promote it and get it seen.”

One film that performed on par (or slightly ahead) with Nightcrawler is Open Road’s own End Of Watch, which also starred Gyllenhaal along with Michael Peña and also is set in LA. The David Ayer pic had a smaller, $7M budget. Following its Toronto debut in 2012, it opened in 2,730 theaters, grossing $13.15M its first weekend ($4,818 PTA vs. Nightcrawler‘s $3,775). It went on to cume more than $41 million domestically as the distributor maxed it out at 2,780 theaters in its second weekend, shed locations through early December, then added 1,200 theaters ahead of the holiday rush.

Image (2) openroad__140210172228-275x46.png for post 680475Open Road will employ a similar release strategy for Nightcrawler: Theaters peaked at its initial 2,766 locales in its first two weeks and last weekend played 105 locations. Post-Golden Globe and Oscar noms, the plan is to add about 1,000 more theaters. It will still have momentum thanks to its 95% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes as well as a slew of nominations and critics group shout-outs, but that buzz will boost even more with a Golden Globe win (Gyllenhaal is up for Best Actor In A Film – Drama and also landed SAG and Indie Spirit noms) or if Oscar comes calling in mid-January.

“We’re hoping for the best, but we’re not counting on anything from anyone,” said Ortenberg. “Nightcrawler has been a terrific success and extremely rewarding. Whether or not we get anymore awards season recognition — and as much as we would like it — the movie is a huge success and we’re thrilled to have been involved with everyone on it.”