Days before Warner Bros. unleashes its behemoth $250M-budgeted Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the studio is giving some TLC to what is essentially an arthouse release: Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi chase pic Midnight Special. Rather than make the typical major studio mistake we’ve seen lately by taking a niche picture wide, Warner Bros. is platforming Midnight Special bit by bit so that this under $20M budget pic finds a following. After all, the best time for arthouse titles to thrive are in the spring and summer.
This weekend, Midnight Special grossed $185K or a hearty $37K theater average off of five locations in New York, Los Angeles and Austin — the second best PTA of the year after Deadpool’s $37,222. Originally, Midnight Special was expected to hit screens around Thanksgiving, but then Warners took the initiative of moving the title out of the fall’s adult drama demolition derby at the B.O. and slotted it this weekend. Warners will widen Midnight Special on April in a dozen markets, and then again on April 15.
At a time when smaller films find themselves getting squashed by tentpoles like Zootopia and Deadpool, or worse, losing out to great TV programs at home, Nichols is a filmmaker who sticks to his guns when it comes to churning out eclectic adult fare and not sacrificing his vision. Nichols has a second adult drama on Nov. 4, Loving, about interracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving who were jailed in their home state of Virginia, and whose Supreme Court case became an important victory in the Civil Rights battle. Focus Features’ acquired Loving out of Berlin for $9M.
Midnight Special is inspired by the director’s relationship with his young son. Pic follows a young boy with special powers, who is on the lam from the feds and a Christian cult, assisted by his parents and former police officer. No one knows if he’s an alien or the coming of some Messiah-like figure, but he’s trying to get to specific location in the rural south so that he can realize his calling. Though Nichols had hammered out Midnight Special‘s budget to make it independently, he found himself in a boardroom at Warner Bros. “I said ‘Here’s the script, here’s Michael Shannon, here’s the past work I’ve done. This is how much I need [editor’s note: less than $20M]. I love how you market and sell your films,” says the North Carolina School of the Arts grad whose Take Shelter took home three prizes at the 2011 Cannes Film festival:the Critics Week Grand Prize, the SACD award and the FIPRESCI award.
“When I went to Warner Bros., it was before Mud opened. They told me ‘We make $100M films to make $400M, not $25M to make $50M. Luckily, Mud then came out and that helped them take a chance on me,” says Nichols.
One deal point on Midnight Special that Nichols stood firm in his negotiations with Warner Bros. was final cut. “I don’t talk publicly about this as a way to beat my chest. It was a calculated move because this was a strange movie, and I wanted people to know that the decision that went into this was mine, and that the studio didn’t tinker with it,” explains the filmmaker.
“I was sitting in a board room at Warner Bros. about to sign. They said yes to the money and yes to the script. In general the meeting was over, and should have been over. I took a deep breath and said ‘There’s a problem.’ ‘What’s the problem?’ asked the executive. I explained that I only work with final cut. I told them ‘I’m young and I know you studio guys don’t like that so I completely understand.’”
Nichols had nothing to lose. Between Nichols’ two meetings with Warner Bros, he worked with his Take Shelter and Mud foreign sales partner FilmNation on raising financing for Midnight Special just in case the WB deal went south. The weekend that Nichols was set to attend the Cannes market to sell the movie, Warner Bros. activated his deal, and in doing so, also took a number of overseas territories sans the U.K. (which E1 is handling). Ultimately, Warner Bros. considered how low Nichols’ budget was for Midnight Special, and as such had no qualms giving him final cut.
Warner launched Midnight Special at the Berlinale followed by a North American premiere at SXSW. Given the new age nuances and semi-Christian themes, Warner Bros. respectively retained faith-based firms Body/Mind/Spirit agency 360 to go after the national yoga aficionados and Grace Hill Media to hit the faith-based segment. In addition, there was a reach-out to the genre fan segment who obsess over UFO sightings. Essentially, the studio believes there’s a middle America appeal for Midnight Special.
“Audiences for better or worse seem compelled to spend money on the weekends on films that carry a genre label. I was picking up a genre wrapping with Midnight Special — a sci-fi chase film — and injecting it with a meditation and the love I have for my son, and that makes for a good time,” says Nichols.
Given his knack for genre, it comes as no surprise to hear that Warner Bros. once considered Nichols for the Aquaman directing job. During the course of walking the Warner Bros. halls with Midnight Special under his arms, Nichols says “it wasn’t hard to run into a conversation about the studio re-activating the D.C. universe.” But soon after, Nichols backed away from the directing gig.
“I’m a big comic-book geek, and I knew these characters pretty well. Warner Bros. and I talked about it. Aquaman has the father-son thing going on, and he’s got a pretty interesting plot line. But I’m in lucky position to be building my movies from the ground-up. There’s so many moving pieces to the DC universe, it turned out I was trying to jump on a moving train. I’ve only made scripts that I like from the ground-up,” explains Nichols on turning down Aquaman. (The Conjuring director James Wan is now scheduled to helm Aquaman).
With The Screening Room the main topic of cocktail conversations last week, we asked Nichols his thoughts on Sean Parker and Prem Akkaraju’s controversial concept that would have major studio films premiere in-home on the same day they hit the multiplex. Nichols’ response? “Can I totally flip the question and talk about something that I want to talk about?” asked the director as he began to explain what should be a more pressing concern for Hollywood filmmakers, before they even consider a day-and-date revenue strategy.
“Why aren’t there any HDTVs so that when you stream a certain type of content, they automatically turn off that crappy over-turned frame rate?” asked Nichols. A number of the HDTVs on the market broadcast programs with such a high fps rate, the on-screen action looks like a Keystone Cops movie.
“That rate is great when you’re watching NASCAR or football. But there should be a digital signature or code in the cable box or TV, so that it presents a movie at the frame rate the filmmaker intended. I’d be open to the home-premiering of movies if these TVs became standardized. I grew up in an age where Martin Scorsese flipped out when Hollywood started cropping the edges of films. I watched Lawrence of Arabia in the sixth grade and understood what he was talking about. Please do not watch my movies on an over-scanned TV!,” explains the director.
“I spend weeks in a DI suite and spend tens of thousands of dollars just to make the frame rate and filters look right,” adds Nichols, “Before we stream the latest blockbuster in our homes, let’s figure out how to make the TVs present our films better. Then, I’ll get on board with the (day-and-date) idea.”