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When Shia LaBeouf’s Honey Boy made a buzzy premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the semi-autobiographical indie pic sold for $5 million to Amazon Studios, igniting talk of a comeback for its writer and star.
Elsewhere, Armony Films’ Christopher Lemole and Tim Zajaros were finding it impossible find a distributor for The Peanut Butter Falcon, starring LaBeouf as a down-and-out fisherman who befriends a young man with Down syndrome determined to attend a famous wrestling school.
Their big break came when Peanut Butter Falcon won the Audience Award at SXSW in March, despite being shut out of other festivals. Armory convinced the company’s silent investors to put up additional money for marketing. Soon, they signed a deal with Roadside Attractions to release the film, also starring Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes and newcomer Zack Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome.
“It was devastating when the buyers weren’t able to see what we were seeing,” said Zajaros. “They wondered whether people would be interested in seeing a movie starring a person who actually has Down Syndrome.”
They were. Through Sunday, Peanut Butter Falcon — a modern-day twist on Huckleberry Finn — has grossed $20 million in the U.S. to become the top platform release of the year to date and lead a much-needed uptick at the specialty box office after commencing its slow rollout in mid-August.
Peanut Butter Falcon is a major win for Armory, whose past credits include Mudbound. (Armory isn’t involved with Honey Boy, directed by Alma Har’el.)
Early on, Armory hired veteran Hollywood distribution executive Dan Fellman to help find a distributor. He was introduced to Zajaros and Lemole by fellow Peanut Butter Falcon producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, the duo behind such specialty hits as Little Miss Sunshine and Nebraska.
America’s heartland fueled Peanut Butter Falcon, said Fellman, who is the go-to adviser for the likes of Christopher Nolan, Steven Soderbergh and Netflix. “I’m not embarrassed by what we grossed in New York and Los Angeles, but the truth is, we did better in smaller markets. When one town ran out, we moved to another,” he added, noting that the film’s top-grossing metropolis was Salt Lake City.
The film’s directors, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, had met Gottsagen at a camp in Los Angeles, where he told them of his acting ambitions. “He told them, ‘Why don’t you guys write a movie, and I’ll star in it?’ And that’s what they did,” said Lemole.
When Armory boarded the project, Ben Foster and Josh Brolin were attached to star, but both actors subsequently dropped out. LaBeouf was soon presented as a replacement for Foster.
“To be honest, it gave me pause because I’d heard the stories about him. But Shia was amazing and this movie wouldn’t have been the same without him,” said Zajaros.
During production of Peanut Butter Falcon in July 2017, LaBeouf was arrested in Savannah and charged with public drunkenness, disorderly conduct and obstruction. Soon after, he went into rehab, where he said he wrote the script for Honey Boy, which debuts in select theaters Nov. 8.
“There is a wonderful parallel between Shia’s real life and the character he plays in Peanut Butter Falcon. Shia says the film, and Zack, saved him and got him sober,” said Lemole, whose brother-in-law, Dr. Mehmet Oz, helped promote the pic. “And his public persona was very different from the person I got to know.”
Roadside is also riding high on the success of the Judy Garland biopic Judy, starring Renee Zellweger. The film, released in partnership with LD Entertainment, finished Sunday with a domestic total of $19 million (Judy opted for a wider footprint than most platform titles, starting off in 461 theaters).
As awards season gets underway, other recent highlights at the specialty box office include Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, which has earned north of $17 million to date for indie distributor A24.
A24 is also home of New Regency’s The Lighthouse, which debuted to a pleasing location average of $52,471 from eight cinemas over the Oct. 18-20 weekend. From filmmaker Robert Eggers (The Witch), the chiller stars Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as 1890s Maine lighthouse keepers locked in a battle of wills as a storm rages.
Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit — an irreverent comedy about a German boy (Roman Griffin Davis) whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler (Waititi) — also launched over the weekend to an impressive location average of $70,000 from five cinemas. The Fox Searchlight picture stars Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Thomasin McKenzie.
And, in its second outing, Bong Joon-ho and Neon’s Parasite moved up the chart to No. 11 as it expanded into a total of 33 theaters. The critically acclaimed South Korean film earned $1.2 million for a winning 10-day domestic total of $1.8 million.