How Matthew McConaughey's 'Mud' Became a Breakout Indie Hit

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How Matthew McConaughey's 'Mud' Became a Breakout Indie Hit
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How Matthew McConaughey's 'Mud' Became a Breakout Indie Hit

The breakout box-office success of the Matthew McConaughey movie "Mud" has surprised everyone -- except independent film company Roadside Attractions, which has been nothing if not systematic in its marketing and release. 

The Mississippi River-set coming-of-age drama has made nearly $17 million since opening back on April 26 and is easily the highest-grossing movie in the seven-year history of the company. All the more impressively, it's never played in more than 960 theaters.

"it's been an amazing ride," said Howard Cohen, co-president of with Eric D'Arbeloff at Roadside, which with Lionsgate Entertainment acquired and is distributing "Mud."

That ride isn't over yet. The PG-13-rated "Mud" broke into the top 10 in its second week and remains there, five weeks later. And Roadside's box-office grosses for 2013 are already up to $19.8 million -- better than 2012's total of $19.4 million.

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What's more, with four movies still to come this summer, starting Friday with Joss Whedon's modern-day Shakespeare adaptation "Much Ado About Nothing," and three more due in in the fall, Roadside looks like a lock to top its best year ever. That was 2011 when "Conspirator," "Margin Call," "Biutiful" and Oscar Best Picture nominee "Winter's Bone" helped them take in roughly $28 million.

"Mud" was written and directed by Jeff Nichols ("Take Shelter"), and co-stars Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepherd and Nichols regular Michael Shannon. It was financed by Everest Entertainment and produced by Everest and FilmNation Entertainment for about $12 million, and competed for the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year, which is where Roadside picked it up.

It follows two teenage boys (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) who encounter a fugitive (McConaughey) and form a pact to help him evade a bounty hunter and reunite with his true love (Witherspoon).

"Mud" quickly caught the eye of Roadside and Lionsgate executives at Cannes.

"We've focused primarily on intelligent, upscale movies with significant casts that have commercial elements, not pure art films, and 'Mud' certainly fit that profile," said Howard Cohen, co-president with Eric D'Arbeloff at Roadside.

Once the deal closed in July, the next questions were the timing of the U.S. release and how to market the film.

"At the time, there was a lot of Matthew out there," Cohen said. A revived McConaughey was on screen throughout 2012 in "Bernie," "Killer Joe" and "Magic Mike." So the decision was made to go with a spring 2013 release, which allowed Roadside and Lionsgate to take the film to the Sundance and South by Southwest film festivals.

"It was very well received and reviewed at both,' Cohen said, "and that gave us a lot of buzz ahead of the opening." "Mud" rolled out on 363 screens in late April -- more than a month after Focus Features debuted "Place Beyond the Pines," an arthouse-thriller which targeted a similar audience and had Ryan Gosling in the title role.

When it came to the marketing, Cohen said that they pursued a more commercial, rather than arthouse, strategy.

Also read: 'Mud' Review: Lovely Coming-of-Age Tale Zigs Where Zagging Would Suffice

"The trailer (at end of story) pushes the genre elements -- the thriller aspect, the gunplay -- while at the same time emphasizing the reviews, and mentioning Cannes. It presents the film not as a standard thriller and not as pure arthouse either, and that was because we wanted to go to a wider demographic," Cohen said. "That's how we went with the TV spots, too."

"Mud" has played to a primarily -- 60 percent -- female audience, despite its gritty story line, and very well in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

But set on the Mississippi River, it also has played very strongly in the South -- particularly so in Austin, where McConaughey and Nichols live, and throughout Texas. In terms of box office, the No. 2-grossing theater for the film (behind the Arclight Hollywood) is in Little Rock, Ark., where it was shot.

"It's a Heartland story," Cohen said, "and Matthew McConaughey is very popular in those regions, but mainly the film speaks for itself."

 

Roadside doesn't develop or produce movies; it buys the rights, does the marketing and puts them in theaters. It's a lean operation, with just 18 full-time employees, well below the numbers employed by other specialty labels.

It's a formula that is working better than it ever has before, in part because it's found a groove with partner Lionsgate, which bought a 43 percent stake in 2007. The two companies have developed a reputation for being aggressive on the festival circuit, where Cohen and d'Arbeloff, along with Lionsgate's Jason Constantine, are familiar faces.

Last year, they left the Toronto International Film Festival with the rights to Stuart Blumberg's "Thanks for Sharing," Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's "Imogene," Whedon's "Much Ado About Nothing" and Sarah Polley's family documentary, "Stories We Tell."

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The company doesn't list its releases on Box Office Mojo or Exhibitor Relations' slate of upcoming film, so you have to be paying particularly close attention -- or check in on their clever and occasionally sardonic Twitter account -- to know what's coming.

First up is "Much Ado About Nothing" in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. No one is expecting superhero-sized grosses from this one, but anything "The Avengers" director is involved in is bound to draw attention, and a nationwide rollout is planned for June 21.

Also read: 'Much Ado About Nothing' Review: The Fault Lies in the Co-Star

"Redemption," a thriller starring Jason Statham, is set for June 28. Steven Knight ("Dirty Pretty Things") wrote and directed the tale of a man on the run from a military court martial, who descends into London's underworld, assumes another's identity and becomes an avenging angel.

On July 19, the company will roll out the Kristin Wiig comedy "Girl Most Likely" on roughly 300 screens. Annette Bening, Matt Dillon and Darren Criss co-star in the film, which follows a failed New York playwright transitioning from Next Big Thing to Last Year's News. That one's probably the one with the most commercial appeal.

"In a World …," in which Lake Bell makes her writing and directing debut, will close out Roadside's summer on Aug. 9. In the comedy, Bell plays a voice coach who ventures into the competitive all-male race to land the voiceover gig for the trailer of a massive blockbuster trilogy. Rob Corddry and Nick Offerman co-star.

It's a diverse slate, which will get even broader in the fall.

First there is the Gwyneth Paltrow-Mark Ruffalo sex-addiction comedy "Thanks for Sharing," on Sept. 20. That's followed by the Lionsgate production "Grace Unplugged," starring Disney TV star AJ Michalka as a young Christian singer whose faith is put to the test when she gets her big break.

That one will debut on about 500 screens -- about as big as Roadside ever goes with openings -- on Oct. 4. And two weeks later, Roadside will debut its recent Cannes pickup, the Robert Redford shipwreck saga "All Is Lost," which looks sure to draw awards attention.

All that adds up to a year that will be the company's best and could actually change the way Roadside does business.

"We may have to add a couple of people," Cohen said.

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