The 3rd July 2013 saw the release of Disney’s The Lone Ranger, its larger-than-life western starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer. Its theatrical debut marked the end of a lengthy and difficult production, stories from which had been hungrily served up by the media – the previous summer was dominated by news stories of its spiralling budget, which was thought to have crossed $250m. Nevertheless, the 2013 blockbuster season should, in theory, have marked a fresh start for Disney, as it spent a reported $150m on marketing The Lone Ranger. But the House of Mouse hadn’t counted on the popularity of another film launched on that exact same day in July: Universal’s animated sequel, Despicable Me 2.
The Lone Ranger, a film with an ill-starred shoot (the crew was subject to rain, fire, sickness and some tragic deaths) had the misfortune of appearing alongside one of the most profitable animated films of all time; Disney’s western went on to make just over $260m, while Despicable Me 2 made a little under $970m. When studios bring out their biggest films each year, the result is a marketing clash of the titans, and it’s a sad fact that some will lose out – which is precisely what happened to the flawed yet entertaining Lone Ranger.
In the face of these cinematic behemoths, smaller films sneak around in the gaps, garnering what attention they can and philosophically musing that, well, at least they don’t have to make $500m to break even. Which is where the list below comes in: a series of smaller, less glitzy films that happened to share the same American release date as some of the biggest blockbusters of recent times.
Some fared well, like David against Goliath, in the face of mainstream competition, while others were sorely overlooked. All are worth seeing.
Released on the same day as: The Dark Knight (July 18, 2008)
In 2004, Christian Bale starred in the intense, atmospheric mystery thriller The Machinist. Bale famously shed a considerable amount of weight for the part, only to have to pack all the muscle back on again when he landed the leading role in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.
What a strange twist of fate, then, that The Machinist’s director Brad Anderson should find his next film, Transsiberian, appear in American cinemas on the exact same date as The Dark Knight. The latter became one of the most profitable films of all time; Transsiberian garnered great reviews at film festivals earlier in 2008 before appearing in a small number of theatres on July 18.
That Transsiberian didn’t get a better marketing push behind it is disappointing, because it’s an absorbing and sometimes blackly funny thriller with a great cast. A 30-something American couple make a train journey from China to Moscow, only to become embroiled in a drug smuggling conspiracy when they meet a furtive pair of backpackers. Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer play the American couple, Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara are the backpackers, while the great Ben Kingsley stars as a Russian detective who arrives to heighten the tension still further in the second half.
Harrelson is oddly cast as nerdy, startlingly naive train enthusiast, but like just about everything in Anderson’s thriller, it’s the unexpected elements that work the best – Emily Mortimer might not be the obvious choice to play a backside-kicking American heroine, but she puts in a great performance here. Superbly shot and laced with unabashed Hitchcockian overtones, Transsiberian is well worth tracking down on VOD.
Released on the same day as: Frozen (Nov 27 2013)
Frozen is, of course, a true cultural behemoth – an animated film that keeps breaking records as its profits soar past the billion dollar mark. Our neighbours are currently singing the song Let It Go as we type these words, and it’s just possible that yours are doing the same.
What kind of counter-programming could you possibly put up against a marketing avalanche like that? Well, there was Stephen Frears’ drama, Philomena, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan for one. Based on the novel The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, it was actually a sizeable hit in its own right; from a budget of $10m, it made a shade over $100m at the box office, thus proving that large and small films can coexist in theatres to some extent.
Released alongside them both was Homefront, Gary Fleder’s action thriller starring Jason Statham and written by his Expendables mentor, Sylvester Stallone. Statham stars as a former DEA agent who lives with his daughter in a sleepy American town, and somehow manages to get on the wrong side of a local drug dealer named Gator (James Franco) and his assorted band of heavies. Homefront didn’t make a huge showing at the winter box-office, but it’s an entertaining, tongue-in-cheek thrill-ride, and Statham remains as ice-cool as always.
Released on the same day as: Iron Man 3 (May 3, 2013)
On the topic of ice-cool actors, here’s a film with a particularly chilling performance from the great Michael Shannon. He plays true-life hitman Richard Kuklinski, who for years led a double life as an ordinary husband, father and a contract killer for the mob. With a great supporting cast – look out for Robert Davi, David Schwimmer, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta and Winona Ryder – The Iceman deserved to find a bigger audience, yet it was snuck out on the same day as Iron Man 3 with little fanfare.
Some might be repelled by the story’s violence, or the reality that, even though the screenplay digs beneath Kuklinski’s murderous surface to uncover the violence in his childhood, he remains a monstrous and unsympathetic character. Shannon’s performance is, however, a true marvel, as he charms and manipulates those closest to him and brutally takes down anyone who dares cross his path. Tony Stark may have science and armoured suits at his disposal, but we wouldn’t fancy his chances against Shannon’s glowering, thuggish Kuklinski.
The Queen Of Versailles
Released on the same day as: The Dark Knight Rises (July 20 2012)
“There’s a storm coming, Mr Wayne,” warned Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises. “You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”
The final film in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was a superhero story for the post-financial crisis era, with its plot focusing on the gradual stripping of Bruce Wayne’s millionaire status and a Tale Of Two Cities-like uprising in a wintry Gotham City.
Interestingly, a documentary released on that very same day in July 2012 explored similar themes. Directed by Lauren Greenfield, The Queen Of Versailles introduced improbably rich multi-millionaire couple Jackie and David Siegel, who in the late 2000s planned to spend a fortune on building the biggest house in America – a 90,000 square foot mansion modelled after the 17th century architecture of the Palace of Versailles.
Unfortunately for the Siegels, there was a storm coming. The financial crisis saw Mr Siegel’s timeshare property empire crumble, and with it, he and his wife’s dream of building their dream mansion. As critics noted at the time, The Queen Of Versailles is both wryly amusing and surprisingly compassionate, depicting both the excess of its subjects’ pre-crash lifestyle and the gradual stripping away of their extraordinary wealth.
In a strange sort of way, The Dark Knight Rises and The Queen Of Versailles complement one another, with each showing what happens when a financial crisis bursts the bubble of a millionaire’s comfy lifestyle. You could even watch them together for a particularly weird post-crash double-bill.
The Killer Inside Me, Cyrus, I Am Love
Released on the same day as: Toy Story 3 (June 18 2010)
As Toy Story 3 completed Pixar’s masterful trilogy about friendship and childhood imagination on the 18th June in the US, three wildly different movies vied for a bit of audience affection. Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me was perhaps the most difficult to love – a wayward, cold and unspeakably brutal drama starring Casey Affleck. It remained true to the bleak spirit of Jim Thompson’s source novel, about a small-town sheriff (Affleck) who maintains a veneer of charm even as his urge to kill repeatedly bursts into the open. Reactions to this exceedingly grim film were mixed, but most could at least agree that Affleck’s studied, disquieting performance was difficult to fault.
The comedy Cyrus fared a little better in theatres, thanks in part to an impressively manic turn from Jonah Hill. He plays the staring man-child of the title, who seemingly exists solely to sabotage the relationship between his mother (Marisa Tomei) and her new boyfriend, John (John C Reilly). In some ways, Hill is just as scary as Affleck in The Killer Inside Me; the only difference being that the violence Cyrus wreaks is psychological rather than physical.
With both Cyrus and The Killer Inside Me leaving audiences squirming uncomfortably in their seats for different reasons, the third film released alongside Toy Story 3 served as an even more marked change of pace. I Am Love is a luxurious, bittersweet Italian drama, stylishly directed by Luca Guadagnino. Tilda Swinton’s performance is a true highlight, even when the drama around her threatens to become cloyingly melodramatic.
Interestingly, none of these films quite managed to mix moments of peril, drama, comedy and romance to the same degree of brilliance as Toy Story 3, even if they are all still worth checking out. Sometimes, even the most expensive and hyped films really are capable of bringing us the kind of depth we’d associate with a hand-crafted indie film.
The Secret Of Kells, Brooklyn’s Finest
Released on the same day as: Alice In Wonderland (March 5 2010)
There was a time when the early months of the year were something of a graveyard slot for major Hollywood films, yet Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland came along in March 2010 and promptly made over a billion dollars at the box office. With escapist entertainment now the go-to choice for most cinemagoers, it’s perhaps little surprise that Antoine Fuqua’s thriller, Brooklyn’s Finest, didn’t exactly do the same numbers.
Flawed and disjointed though its plot is – it’s about the experiences of cops in Brooklyn, unsurprisingly – Fuqua’s film is wonderfully cast, with Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, Ethan Hawke and Wesley Snipes all turning in great performances. Just about doubling its budget with a worldwide gross of $37m, Brooklyn’s Finest didn’t do badly under the circumstances, and along with 2001’s Training Day, remains one of Antoine Fuqua’s best features.
Brooklyn’s Finest certainly fared better than The Secret Of Kells, a beautiful animated film based on Irish myths. Drawn to life with a minimal style which relies on shape and colour father than fluidity of movement, The Secret Of Kells is an exquisite creation, with a simple story about a young boy helping to complete an illuminated manuscript (the true-life Book of Kells).
The Secret Of Kells was directed by Tomm Moore, whose next film is the equally beautiful-looking Song Of The Sea, due out this year. We’re hoping that feature gets the attention it deserves.
The Next Three Days, Made In Dagenham
Released on the same day as: Harry Potter: Deathly Hallows Part 1 (Nov 19 2010)
As Harry Potter enjoyed his penultimate cinema outing in the chilly month of November 2010, a pair of movies appeared alongside him. Paul Haggis’s The Next Three Days was arguably the biggest, with its $30m budget and its starry cast, which included Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Brian Dennehy and Liam Neeson. A remake of a French film called Anything For Her, it saw Russell Crowe’s normally risk-averse professor attempt to break his wife (played by Elizabeth Banks) from prison. Reviews were mixed, but Paul Haggis kept the somewhat implausible plot thundering along like an express train.
The British feel-good drama Made In Dagenham, about women seeking equal pay in a 60s motor plant, was another film released on the 19th November. Made for a mere £5m, and featuring a great cast (Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson to name a few), it received extremely good reviews, more than made its money back, and has even spawned a musical adaptation – Made In Dagenham: The Musical is scheduled to open in the West End this November.
Hours, The Last Of The Unjust
Released on the same day as: The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug (December 13 2013)
It’s a sign of how crowded our cinema’s schedules are becoming, perhaps, when some relatively high profile films are released on the same day as Peter Jackson’s sure-fire hit, The Desolation Of Smaug. Just before Christmas in 2013, you’d have had to choose between Jackson’s latest Hobbit instalment, David O Russell’s 70s drama American Hustle, and John Lee Hancock’s making-of-Mary Poppins biopic, Saving Mr Banks.
That both American Hustle and Saving Mr Banks managed to do so well when placed alongside Smaug is no doubt thanks to some canny marketing and their sheer star power – American Hustle made a shade over $250m (a remarkable showing for an adult drama these days) while the more saccharine Saving Mr Banks made $112m.
The trick, perhaps, is to choose the right film to counter-programme against, and also to choose an opportune month for release; both American Hustle and Saving Mr Banks were helped by their considerable Oscar buzz. And in the grim month of December, what else was there to do but go to a local cinema and bask in the warming glow of Christian Bale, Tom Hanks, or the scorching breath of Smaug?
Two other films fared less well on the 13th December. One was the thriller Hours, starring the late Paul Walker, and the other was The Last Of The Unjust, a documentary by filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, who made Shoah. The former is taut and eminently watchable, with an extremely good performance from Walker, who tragically died not long after filming. The Last Of The Unjust is, like Shoah before it, a lengthy, beautifully-made and desperately sad account of the Holocaust, as told by its survivors.
Although wildly different films, both suffered from a lack of marketing exposure, and both are, once again, more than worth your attention.
Released on the same day as: Fast & Furious 6 (May 24 2013)
Here’s proof that, with the right word-of-mouth positivity and maybe a bit of advertising support, a low-budget film can at least make a dent at the box-office when released alongside a major studio film. Fast & Furious 6, the slam-bang car-crashing sequel which took its action to new heights (not to mention financial success) may have had the weight of a successful franchise, big star names and a devoted following behind it, but then, Before Midnight had a fair following of its own.
The third film in director Richard Linklater’s Before series of dramas, Before Midnight once again caught up with central couple Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy respectively). Astutely observing the quirks and tenderness of a long-term relationship, the film was met with the same acclaim as its predecessors, which is perhaps why it managed to do so well at the box office. Off the back of a $3m budget, Before Midnight made almost $21m – quite an achievement for a relatively low-key release.
If there’s any justice, Linklater’s latest film, the superb drama Boyhood, will make a similarly strong showing in cinemas this summer. Surrounded by bombastic summer films like Age Of Extinction thought it is, Boyhood should, like Before Midnight, go on to make a profit thanks to the deserved acclaim it’s already received.
Honourable mentions: William Friedkin’s Bug, released on the same day as Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End (May 25th, 2007). Fantastic Mr Fox, The Boat That Rocked and The Messenger – all released on the same day as 2012 on November the 13th, 2009.
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