Film industry: is Manchester by the Sea the only original thing out there?

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This weekend the blogosphere was abuzz with speculation as to how Amazon-owned indie box office hit Manchester by the Sea would do in wide release, after a promising limited release in New York and LA over the weekend, and a fantastic opening day take. The review embargo for film critics was lifted at 5pm on Thursday afternoon, giving eWeek, Indiewire, Huffington Post, KCRW and others a brief window to post their reviews. And as expected, reviews of the film arrived within minutes of the embargo. At the end of the day, Manchester by the Sea was winning the film festival wars with a brilliant first weekend. This weekend, it will win the year’s best-reviewed film battle with no major competition in wide release.

The question is, why the sudden critical tenor shift? The big releases this weekend were big, blowout Hollywood-style blockbusters. The Bye Bye Man, a remake of the 1978 horror classic directed by Eric Bana and starring Dan Stevens and Scott Foley, flopped across the board; so did the $40 million movie A Walk In The Woods. The first big blockbuster of the year is, by every projection, a mega-buzzy, popular franchise comedy. And yet our first review on Manchester by the Sea was yet another dissenting opinion, a handful of negative reviews in critic circles as reviewers across the internet questioned Amazon’s decision to release the film on 28 October, just a week before Oscar-nominated films begin dominating the race. Again, so what? The answer: $1.5 million.

Manchester by the Sea debuted on just 250 screens this weekend, during an election year when the country is not exactly boiling over with optimism for the future. Yet, it played to standing room only audiences of people clearly moved by a movie about a grieving, difficult man struggling to reclaim his life, and there is no reason to think it won’t play well when it expands to over 1,000 screens.

What are the bright spots in a shrinking box office culture, a landscape populated by Netflix, Hulus, and a host of indie films which don’t make a million dollars in a weekend, but that are competing for the attention of people who are full of meaning? Simply, they’re homegrown, original movies that connect with audiences in ways that corporate-made blockbusters can’t always – or even rarely. For several years now, numerous films have opened on limited release only to see their expanded momentum overtaken by a date or at least a comparable release date announced by their big studio distributor.

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