In an era when horror films are built to profit off their shoestring budgets, the genre’s titles often live fast and quick lives at the box office.
Then there’s David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, from Radius-TWC and Dimension, an art house/horror hybrid that has re-imagined the classic horror tropes with an auteurish flair. Call it highbrow horror. Typically by their fifth weekend, major studio horror films are down in the depths of the B.O. charts, but It Follows is just getting warmed up in the top 10.
Unlike the fright fare coming off the conveyor belt of late which tends to be star-driven, It Follows is a return to form in that it stars a cast of fresh faces. Pic tells the story of teenage girl Jay who is haunted by a shape-shifting spirit after having innocent sex with her boyfriend. It’s like she’s been inflicted with a supernatural venereal disease. To get rid of the spirit, Jay must have sex with someone else.
Critics are going nuts for the film — rare for a horror pic — awarding it a 95% fresh Rotten Tomatoes score and making it one of the best-reviewed films of 2015 to date (The New York Times went so far as to say that the scares in It Follows are akin to “the evil in a David Lynch film”).
Currently, It Follows is heading into its fifth frame with close to $6M against Furious 7, which is expected to pull every twentysomething out of their households and set an April opening record. However, after a four-theater New York-LA bow on March 13, It Follows has already cultivated faithful followers. After catching It Follows at Cannes Critics Week, Radius-TWC co-presidents Tom Quinn and Jason Janego saw its cult longevity and snapped the film up for a reported $650K.
Describing Quinn’s excitement when he acquired It Follows, David Kaplan, who produced the film alongside Erik Rommesmo, Laura Smith and Rebecca Green, explains, “Tom always referred to the film as being the exception, and he wanted that reflected in the distribution strategy.”
The film immediately reminded Quinn of another title he handled during his days at Magnolia Pictures, the 2008 Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In ($2.1M domestic B.O.), which followed a bullied teen boy’s relationship with a vampire teenage girl. The twist: She needs to feed on humans in order to keep alive.
“Like Let the Right One In, It Follows didn’t pander, it felt completely fresh,” said Quinn, “and we decided early on, that we were going to build a release that was incredibly special, organic and responded to what the marketplace wanted.”
So Quinn and Janego built a three-prong distribution plan for It Follows, which would ultimately proceed in one direction, contingent on how audiences responded at the B.O.
On the table was the possibility that It Follows would emulate a multi-platform release pattern similar to Radius-TWC’s summer hit Snowpiercer ($4.6M domestic B.O., $8.6M VOD), where it would be in limited theaters and on VOD two weeks after its theatrical release. Second, It Follows would get a platform commercial crossover like LTROI, where it would bow in four prime New York and Los Angeles venues and ultimately rise to 600 playdates without VOD (at its widest, LTROI topped off at 53 theaters). The last option, should It Follows resonate with moviegoers, entailed taking the film wide after its limited play, pushing the VOD/DVD release to a standard ancillary window.
Option 3 won out. After scoring the third-highest opening theater average to date this year with $40K and a $160K FSS from four theaters, Radius increased It Follows slightly in its second frame to 32 hubs where it made $345K and close to $11K PTA. At that point the distrib announced a wide expansion on March 25 for Weekend 3,where the pic made $3.8M at 1,218 theaters. This weekend, the film should siphon some teens away from Furious 7 with an estimated haul of $3M bringing, its stateside cume to just north of $9M.
While it’s not uncommon for micro-budget genre films to have theatrical and VOD releases, Quinn and Janego were quick to notice a certain tendency by the under-25 moviegoing crowd: When it comes to watching horror films, they’re a little old fashioned in their habits.
From the analysis they gathered, Quinn says, “VOD really doesn’t draw in an under-25 audience for horror”. Radius learned that the first place that the under-25 demo will watch a horror film is in the theater. The second place they’ll catch a movie? They’ll steal it. And the third favorite place for them to watch a horror movie is on DVD. VOD ranks fourth. Not to mention, a solid theatrical result at the box office also increases the value of a film’s life in broadcast, cable and premium TV.
Says Quinn, “With a great horror film for under-25 audience, you have to build its ancillary value, and that’s with a theatrical release moving into an ancillary window.“
Further making the film profitable has been Radius’ ability to keep its P&A low, at about a third of the $15M-$20M that a major studio label would ordinarily shell out to launch a horror film. Most of Radius’ media buys have been in the digital sphere on websites such as IMDb, Fandango, Rotten Tomatoes, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Spotify and Pandora. There was some targeted broadcasting spend — one scenario involved working spots around the NCAA Tournament.
Similar to the way the glossies and fashion mags catapulted then-frosh British star Carey Mulligan during the release of her 2009 indie film An Education, It Follows’ PR team led by Liza Burnett Fefferman is doing the same for 21-year-old actress Maika Monroe who has already been covered by People, Hollywood Life and Vogue, with the latter calling her “The New Indie Scream Queen.” She has led the charge with the film’s social media reaching out to close to 46K followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Building It Follows as a benchmark horror pic, Radius traveled the film after Cannes to what Quinn calls “the Bermuda triangle trifecta”: Toronto Midnight Madness, Fantastic Fest and Sundance Midnight, which spurred passionate word-of-mouth. Adds Quinn, “It’s a tried and true launch for genre films. I’ve been doing it for 10 years now which is why I call it the Bermuda Triangle of genre festivals. The more we show it the more valuable the film becomes.”
In addition, the cast and Mitchell’s tubthumping hasn’t ceased five weeks out: The director has traveled from Austin to the film’s location Detroit for Q&A screenings. This weekend Alamo Drafthouse is hosting a Skype Q&A of Mitchell and Monroe for attendees at its chain.
While some major studios’ release horror films wide for a big opening-weekend cash grab followed by a crash and burn on the charts within six weeks time, the final end destination for It Follows isn’t about topping the domestic B.O. records of Blair Witch Project ($140.5M) and Paranormal Activity ($107.9M). In addition to keeping It Follows profitable, Radius’ M.o. remains building a cult appreciation around the pic’s brand.
Says Quinn, “Already the success of It Follows has exceeded our goals. The ultimate goal for us: We want to see another sequel.”