The pandemic is giving smaller films a chance to shine without blockbuster competition

Small movie, vast impact.
Small movie, vast impact.
Image: Amazon
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Not many people in Denmark are going to the movies right now. The ones that are, however, are going to see Little Women.

The 2019 Oscar-nominated drama topped the Danish box office over the June 12 weekend, bringing its international total to $100 million. Little Women was also the highest-grossing film in Japan, where theaters recently reopened after the coronavirus pandemic forced their closure.

On a typical June weekend, Little Women would not have won the box office—nor generated the subsequent media headlines—if it ran against the franchise blockbusters and superhero sequels that dominate the summer movie schedule. But with most blockbusters postponed until later in 2020 or 2021, smaller films have managed to steal the summer spotlight.

Potential blockbusters generally need the revenue from theaters in order to be profitable. While studios get to keep a larger percentage of the profits when those films are released digitally instead, they’re drawing from a much smaller pool of cash, since on-demand releases command less revenue than theatrical ticket sales.

That’s not always as big of an issue for low-budget movies, which may not expect very much revenue from theaters. So while virtually every would-be summer blockbuster was postponed this year, many smaller, independent films have come out online on schedule, either for digital rental or direct to streaming services like Amazon or Hulu.

One such film is the quiet sci-fi period drama The Vast of Night, which critics are calling one of the best films of the year. It has been reviewed 190 times on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes—an astounding number for a film of its size. For comparison, Fast Color and I Am Mother—two indie sci-fi films from 2019—were reviewed only 85 and 72 times, respectively. But film critics suddenly have a lot more attention to give to the few films that are still being released this season.

Audiences are taking notice, too. Dark Waters, an overlooked 2019 legal thriller, is currently ranked second on the US iTunes rental charts, ahead of franchise films like Birds of Prey and Bad Boys for Life. The British dramedy Emma remains the 13th highest-grossing film of the year around the world, after debuting in theaters in February, shortly before they shut down. And Judd Apatow’s original comedy The King of Staten Island topped the charts over the weekend on a variety of on-demand platforms, including Amazon, Google Play, Apple TV, and Comcast Xfinity.

Mixed in with the usual suspects of franchise films on Google Play’s most popular movies are films like the legal drama Just Mercy and horror flick The Lodge. The indie films Judy and The Assistant are both among the 20 best-selling movies of the year on iTunes, according to rental tracker Pop Vortex. Others, like Shirley, are generating a torrent of think-pieces by writers discovering they have the bandwidth to cover it now that their editors can’t demand coverage of Fast & Furious 9 and Top Gun: Maverick, which have both been delayed from their early summer release dates.

Apparently not content with these films, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences extended the eligibility window for next year’s Oscars by two months (and moved the ceremony itself from February to April), in order to give the bigger, traditional “Oscar bait” movies more time to qualify after the pandemic forced their delays. But that won’t change the fact that this summer, for the first and maybe only time ever, the little movies stole the show.