Finding a summer film sleeper amid the blockbuster noise isn’t easy. You know the type of movie: warmhearted, human, well-reviewed but not too art house, funny but not overly broad. And with no branded character in sight.
Every few years, the film world gets one – a “Big Sick” or “Little Miss Sunshine,” a “Crazy Rich Asians” or “Crazy. Stupid. Love.” These movies find their core pocket of fans early, ride a wave of word-of-mouth and before you know it they’ve made $60 million (or $175 million).
Well, one of these movies may have just landed in 2019.
The film is “Yesterday,” a whimsical music-themed take on a world a little different from our own. When it was promoted at CinemaCon, the annual movie-theater convention in Las Vegas that wrapped up last week, it garnered the kind of reaction studios – and filmgoers – live for.
The setup is this: A young musician in England discovers, after a set of freak occurrences, that he is the only human on Earth to have heard of the Beatles or any of their songs. From there flow implications both moral (should he release the tracks as his own?) and comedic (Ed Sheeran shows up to suggest that, you know, maybe “Hey Dude” is a better title). There’s also a timeless cinematic arc: the overwhelmed overnight sensation.
At CinemaCon, studio Universal Pictures teased the movie with director Danny Boyle talking it up using words such as “sweet” and “magical,” drawing one of the most enthusiastic receptions of the convention.
Then the studio brought out star Himesh Patel to strum a little tribute to the Fab Four on his guitar. While hearing an unknown play “Yesterday” may not have had a resounding effect – we, after all, live in a world where the Beatles did exist – the overall impact was strong. Theater owners, who make decisions on which movies to book and for how long, anecdotally put the film atop their list of breakouts from the convention.
So can the film really match “Sick” or “Sunshine” box-office levels? Or even start approaching the “Asians” stratosphere? There’s certainly a case to be made.
With Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and screenwriter Richard Curtis (“Love Actually”), “Yesterday” sports some of the most crowd-pleasing filmmakers out there.
In Universal, it has a studio that has worked the summer-music angle effectively in two “Mamma Mia” movies.
Also, Patel will offer the real-life possibility of discovery, always key in a word-of-mouth movie.
And the film’s June 28 opening means it will play against “Toy Story 4” (opening one week earlier) and the latest live-action “Spider-Man” installment (one week later), giving it exactly the counterpoints it needs. There’s very little, literally, quite like it.
And here’s why it could not be a shoo-in.
Small, handcrafted movies aren’t Universal’s specialty – it’s Focus Features’s, the company’s separate prestige division that nurtured the summer’s documentary sleeper “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Caring and feeding for a film with smaller pleasures isn’t something big studios do much of these days.
Also risky – the date. Most summer sleepers come later in the season, after the franchise movies have finished storming the castle. Nearly all of the above examples opened in mid-July or later. (“Big Sick” was an exception.) The advantage to going so early is you have many, many rich summer weeks ahead of you if the movie works. The disadvantage is you may never get out of the gate.
But after all that, here’s the biggest surprise factor in the movie’s favor: “Yesterday” is the kind of film that can play in the summer not despite its differences from a franchise movie but precisely because it shares some DNA with it. After all, the movie is predicated on a high, even science-fiction-y, concept. Heck, there’s even an alternate timeline in it. A hook like that can make up for a lot of lost brand awareness.
What happens next will be telling for the film industry. This is a curiously hybrid approach: Universal has already begun advertising the film in broadcast media, using its studio muscle to back a small Britain-set picture. But it’s also deploying niche tactics, premiering the movie at the indie-minded Tribeca Film Festival next month.
If the film succeeds, that will mean big studios can still make smaller movies work. And that boutique films can come out in June, not in September, as Universal originally planned. It will mean that we should – fittingly – forget everything we know about film releasing.