Box-Office Analysis: How 'Hell or High Water' Became an Indie Summer Success

CBS Films

The critically acclaimed heist pic and modern-day Western — starring Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster — is prospering in both art house theaters on both (blue) coasts and commercial theaters in flyover (red) states.

Specialty films are having a tough time at the box office these days, but CBS Films and Lionsgate's critical darling Hell or High Water is beating the odds as the gritty heist film makes off with money at the indie box office.

The modern-day Western, starring Chris Pine and Ben Foster opposite Jeff Bridges, has grossed $8.6 million in its first three weekends, one of the best showings of 2016 to date for an indie film and the No. 2-grossing summer specialty feature behind Love & Friendship, a Jane Austen-themed tale which earned $14 million following its release in mid-May.

Generally speaking, a specialty film begins its life in art house theaters in New York and Los Angeles before expanding into similar cinemas in other top markets, such as Chicago and San Francisco. 

But CBS Films, which is releasing Hell of High Water via its distribution deal with Lionsgate, decided to pursue a dual strategy. In addition to the usual cinemas on the two coasts, CBS Films also brought the movie to theaters in Texas and Southwest because of the movie's storyline. In effect, it bowed in both red and blue states.

The move paid off. In its first two weekends, Hell or High Water did just as well in Dallas, Houston, Austin and Phoenix as it did at the ArcLight Hollywood, the Landmark in Los Angeles and Lincoln Square in New York City, all cinephile strongholds.

"The fact that it is working in both art houses and commercial theaters is unheard of, whether you are talking about Los Angeles, San Diego or Las Vegas," says Steven Friedlander, exec vp distribution for CBS Films.

Strong word of mouth is no doubt helped by stellar notices. Hell or High Water, which had its world premiere in May at the Cannes Film Festival, boasts a 99 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the best reviewed films of the year so far.

Directed by David Mackenzie from a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), the indie film was co-financed and co-produced by Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and Gigi Pritzker's OddLot Entertainment. CBS Films president Terry Press and acquisitions chief Scott Shooman led the effort to prebuy U.S. rights to Hell or High Water in early May 2015 just before production commenced (it initially was titled Comancheria).

The story follows two brothers, played by Pine and Foster, who rob several banks in order to save their family's Texas farm. Soon, they find themselves pursued by a Texas Ranger (Bridges) and his team.

So far this year, the top-grossing specialty release in the U.S. is Bleecker Street's drone drama Eye in the Sky ($18.7 million). Hello, My Name is Doris, released in March by Roadside Attractions and Sony's Stage 6 Films, is second with $14.4 million.

In third position is this summer's Love & Friendship, from Amazon Studios and Roadside. Woody Allen's Cafe Society, another Amazon title released in partnership with Lionsgate, currently ranks as the summer's No. 2 specialty feature title behind Love & Friendship with a domestic cume of $10 million as it winds down its run. 

Hell or High Water, which will continue to expand, is widely expected to soon overtake Cafe Society. And it has already collected just as much as A24's summer title The Lobster ($8.6 million) did during that film's entire run.