Thursday, Aug. 27, 2009

Send a Get-Well Card to Indies

Ten years ago, a little company released a horror fakeumentary called The Blair Witch Project. Shot for just $60,000 and smartly promoted online, the film grossed $141 million and was the sensation of summer 1999. Since then, the so-called indies have launched small-budget movies as hot-weather palate-cleansers between the courses of big-studio Big Macs. That strategy paid off handsomely with the comedies My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Little Miss Sunshine and the documentaries Fahrenheit 9/11 and March of the Penguins. Even the occasional foreign film, like La vie en rose, could find a warm summer reception.

Not so this season. The docs Food, Inc. and The Cove were full of entertainment value and nutrition, but they've languished at the box office. The Hurt Locker, critically acclaimed and with enough stuff that blows up to keep the action-film crowd alert, had to run a mine field just to reach $10 million in its first two months of release. The summer's most popular indie, the mega-ingratiating (500) Days of Summer, has earned more than $22 million (on a $7.5 million budget), but it's no Juno. The only indie-type movie to become a flat-out hit is the South African apartheid morality play District 9, which cleverly masqueraded as a sci-fi alien thriller under Peter Jackson's imprimatur. As for foreign-language films, they made no noise at all — until late August, when Quentin Tarantino stormed the box office with Inglourious Basterds, whose dialogue is mostly in French and German.