Billy Soistmann

10 Theaters to 2,890: The Story of Slumdog Millionaire

In Awards, Box Office, Danny Boyle, Distribution, Features, Foreign Language, Fox Searchlight, Independent, News, Reviews, The Forum, Warner Brothers on February 23, 2009 at 8:12 AM
(This is an article I wrote earlier in the year for another publication. I have estimated a date and added it here late so please excuse any time discrepancies.)

Three months ago, a relatively small film opened in only ten theaters. As of March 9, it has earned 222 million dollars worldwide and is playing on 2,890 screens in the US. How did a movie with such humble beginnings go on to become such a smash?

Slumdog Millionaire is the story of Jamal Malik, who grew up in the slums of Dharavi, India with his brother Salim. He is one question away from winning 20 million rupees on India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? when he is arrested under suspicion of cheating.

The movie debuted at the Telluride Film Festival on August 30. On September 7, it played at the Toronto International Film Festival where it won the People’s Choice Award.

After playing at several other festivals, “Slumdog” opened on November 12 and earned 33 thousand dollars on opening day. As positive word-of-mouth spread, the film was expanded and, by Christmas, “Slumdog” was playing in 614 theaters and had grossed 15 million dollars. Positive reviews and many awards, including four Golden Globes, generated even more buzz and it continued to perform well throughout January, even though theaters had begun to drop off. On January 22, it was still playing on 582 screens. Then it was nominated for the 81st Annual Academy Awards – ten times. The very next day, “Slumdog” expanded to 1,411 screens and grossed almost 3 million dollars. So what was the key to its success?

Let’s get one thing straight. Slumdog Millionaire is a fantastic movie. Beyond the intriguing story, the editing and score really make this film stand out. However, there are many great movies that did terribly at the box office. What made “Slumdog” different?

First of all, there are four major groups of people that saw this movie. First are the committed independent film fans who try to see any good movie outside of the mainstream. This group would have seen “Slumdog” either at a film festival or early in its theatrical run. The second group contains the movie buffs. This group just loves movies and probably started to hear about SM in November or December. The third group are the more casual movie fans who went to see the movie as award season really picked up. The fourth group is composed of the “normal” people who heard about “Slumdog” on the news or the internet and were intrigued enough to see the movie. This group is most interesting due to the fact that they usually don’t see anything outside of the mainstream. What special qualities caused so many people to go see this at the theater?

The unique storyline is definitely the prime contribution to this “X-Factor.” The use of flashbacks is particularly well-designed in the film, unlike many flashback sequences. Usually, flashbacks break continuity or appear too corny. On the other hand, a well-implemented flashback is hard to come by. Citizen Kane, Forrest Gump, and The Godfather Part II all use the tecnique to great effect.
Further, the blend of a mainstream, English movie with the novelty of a foreign film makes “Slumdog” much more accessible to a mainstream American audience. Finally, a much more Hollywood-esque story [a classic romance], while still a good one, separated Slumdog Millionaire from many other independent films that focus on more complex subject matter.

These factors not only led to fantastic box office performance, but to a stunning eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Slumdog Millionaire is a unique movie that blends independent filmmaking with a captivating storyline, foreign elements, Hollywood-style romance, and one Bollywood-style musical. It is also an example of a relatively small movie which blossomed into both a critical and box office hit.

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