It has grossed three times as much as Joe Gould’s Secret. Its per-screen average is higher than that of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. But want to see God’s Army in New York City, Philadelphia, or Chicago? You haven’t got a prayer.
The drama about struggling Mormon missionaries, made for $300,000, is just one of a new breed of stealth features — independently financed and distributed, and seen by audiences largely ignored by Hollywood — that have been climbing the box office charts without any national awareness. They’re the indies of the indies — movies that make Kevin Smith and Harmony Korine look like cigar-sucking fat cats. ”These films go out hunting with a rifle, not a shotgun,” says analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations. ”They go after a niche market, track the box office, and expand into communities [with] a similar demographic.”
Warren Miller, the graybeard of specialty-movie marketing, has been making snow-sport documentaries (such as 1999’s Fifty) for half a century — renting out theaters and racking up grosses as high as $3.3 million per film. ”We target people 18 to 34 who love ski movies,” says Miller’s director/son Kurt. ”Our films will be No. 1 on a per-screen basis, because [people] pay a premium — $12 to $15 — to see them.”
Which underscores an emerging indie truth: ”We don’t have to make movies for everyone anymore,” notes Richard Dutcher, who wrote, directed, produced, and starred in God’s Army, which recently hit No. 37 on Variety’s ranking of the week’s top 60 films and has grossed $1.7 million to date. Not only did he raise the money, but Dutcher personally convinced theater owners in Salt Lake City to show his film, going door-to-door with publicity materials and prints. Already profitable, God’s Army is now expanding to other Mormon enclaves (it opens in Anchorage on June 2).
Mitch Goldman took a similar route to get The Other Conquest — a Mexican epic about the Spanish subjugation of the Aztecs — into theaters. ”I had screenings in my home,” says the distributor, a former New Line exec. ”We got 72 theaters around L.A., made $900,000, and now we’re getting calls from everywhere with big Latino communities.” The film has already recouped most of its U.S. costs, and analysts predict it may outgross New Line’s recent Latino boxing drama Price of Glory. It’s the kind of success a film like Luminarias — a Latina Waiting to Exhale that has already earned $300,000 — would love to imitate.
Another under-the-radar distributor, Eros Entertainment, makes its money bringing Indian movies to North America. Last November its Hum Saath-Saath Hain even managed to debut in the top 20. ”We release 25 to 40 movies a year,” says director of marketing Trupti Desai. ”If you don’t live in a place with a big Indian population…well, they won’t show.”
”The Mormon audience occurred to me because I’m Mormon,” says God’s Army’s Dutcher. ”But more people are targeting their own communities: Latino, gay, Native American…. And you gotta wonder: How many audiences are out there?” Apparently enough to assure that Mormon Latina snowboarders in Bombay won’t feel neglected much longer.