- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 20, 2009

Now that major film studios have fired their heaviest artillery of the summer, smaller studios are battling back with their cinematic pop guns - independent features.

Indie films typically earn a fraction of what a mainstream sequel, remake or toy-inspired production rakes in. Over the past few weeks, however, a number of independent features have shown some box-office muscle.

Leading the pack is “(500) Days of Summer,” a romantic charmer starring Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt ($17.9 million in just five weeks of release as of Aug. 16, according to boxofficemojo.com).

“The Hurt Locker,” that rare Iraq war drama that didn’t alienate audiences, has brought in more than $10 million so far despite the lack of bankable stars. The quirky pregnancy story “Away We Go” also has earned roughly $10 million.

Are audiences blockbuster-ed out now that August is here?

Brandon Gray, president of boxofficemojo.com, says it’s more likely that the studios’ best films tend to be released in May through July. That leaves August as a dumping ground for films less certain to hit the cultural zeitgeist.

“We just haven’t had many signature ‘event’ pictures since ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,’ ” Mr. Gray says.

Some of the recent independent hits, such as “Away We Go,” benefited from sizable marketing muscle - by small-studio standards, he says. “Away” featured an ad campaign that drew heavily on the look and feel of the former indie smash “Juno.”

“There was a huge marketing push behind ‘(500) Days of Summer,’ ” he says. “If you chart it by its marketing push, you might say it’s a disappointment.”

The media also played a part in these modest success stories, he says. Films such as “The Hurt Locker” were discussed “nonstop” in the press.

“The media wants to find something else to talk about rather than Harry Potter, so they turn to something like ‘The Hurt Locker,’ ” Mr. Gray says.

David A. Weitzner, director of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts’ summer program, agrees audiences aren’t “tent-poled out.”

Blockbusters “tend, with few exceptions, to go through their audiences really quickly,” Mr. Weitzner says. Independent films typically thrive with slow but steady word of mouth aligned with a gradual release schedule.

Tej Desai, vice president of global marketing for New Video, an entertainment distribution company featuring independent fare, says many small studios work at the grass-roots level to push a particular film to its niche audience.

“They don’t need to reach everyone,” Mr. Desai says. And these studios leverage social marketing outlets like Facebook and Twitter to goose word-of-mouth interest.

“People want to be a part of a community, and they’re more apt to spend dollars to see [a buzzed-about movie],” he says.

Nick Jasenovec, director of the new indie film “Paper Heart,” says the rise of social media sites is helping smaller films break through.

Sometimes, a Facebook or Twitter page is crucial just to let audiences know if a particular indie film will be playing in a city near them soon, says Mr. Jasenovec, whose film has earned $500,000 in just two weeks on a tiny number of movie screens.

Mr. Weitzner cautions that the entertainment value of the films in question, which have received mostly favorable reviews, is playing a key factor in their box-office fate.

“The quality of certain independent films has just been terrific,” he says. “Quality always will win the day.”

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