'Me and Earl' and the Dying Box Office: Why the Sundance Hit Fizzled

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl Still - H 2015

Alfonso Gomez Rejon’s YA dramedy — which won the festival's grand-jury prize and audience award — has grossed only $6.2 million since its June 12 release.

A version of this story first appeared in the July 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

It was the toast of Sundance in January. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl scored the festival's grand jury prize and audience award, as well as a unique high-seven-figure deal with Fox Searchlight that included better-than-usual financial upside for backer Indian Paintbrush if the film became a hit. One problem: It didn't. Earl has withered in the U.S., grossing only $6.2 million since its June 12 release.

Many cite two reasons why Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's critically adored teen dramedy based on Jesse Andrews' young-adult novel has floundered, failing to become a crossover indie hit with mainstream audiences.

First, the film's core audience, teens, has been occupied by blockbuster commercial fare this summer (Jurassic World, for example). Last summer, young girls pushed the similar YA death tale The Fault in Our Stars to $124.9 million domestically. The big difference — Fault was based on John Green's runaway best seller and boasted an established star in Shailene Woodley. Fault in Our Stars also was a wide studio release from 20th Century Fox.

Searchlight might have overplayed its hand, opening Earl in 15 art house theaters and expanding to 68, then more than 350 cinemas. The film went nationwide during the July 4 holiday, grossing a disappointing $1.2 million from 870 theaters (by comparison, the adult-skewing indie Mr. Holmes, starring Ian McKellen as an elder Sherlock Holmes, opened to $2.4 million from 361 locations during the July 17 weekend for Roadside/Miramax).

Second, the word "dying" in the title made it a tough sell. 

Earl isn't alone: Dope, another 2015 Sundance favorite about teens, likewise has fizzled this summer, grossing $16.1 million to date, despite a nationwide rollout from Open Road Films. In terms of platform releases (such as Earl), the top-grossing indie films of the 2015 summer season so far are Searchlight's Far From the Madding Crowd with $12.1 million, followed by Roadside/Lionsgate's Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy with $11.8 million. 

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Searchlight still plans to make an awards play for Earl, but the lesson might be that targeting older moviegoers in the summer with such specialty fare as Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris ($56.8 million), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ($46.4 million) and Moonrise Kingdom ($45.5 million) might be more effective these days than courting teens.

Says box-office analyst Phil Contrino, "If you look back at summer indie breakout hits, they were all going after adult audiences. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl doesn't seem to have caught on in the way everyone thought it would."

That's not to say that Earl, or Dope, are unusual in being the first high-profile Sundance acquisitions to disappoint at the box office. Focus Features paid $10 million for rights to Hamlet 2, which only earned $4.9 million in summer 2008.

Conversely, Napoleon Dynamite, likewise following the adventures of a teenager, fetched $44.5 million for Fox Searchlight in summer 2004 after Searchlight acquired the film at Sundance. But that was more than a decade ago; it appears times, and tastes, have changed.