If you need further proof we're living in strange times, just take a look at the box office: A Southern Oregon-shot indie was the No. 1 movie in the country last weekend.
Phoenix, Oregon—which was not actually filmed in the titular town just north of Ashland, but about 80 miles to the east in Klamath Falls—was set to open in theaters across the U.S. and Canada on March 20 following debut screenings last year. But then the COVID-19 pandemic closed virtually all businesses catering to crowds of people, including movie theaters, derailing the movie's expansion.
"We felt dead in the water," director Gary Lundgren tells WW. "So much time and work had gone into our scheduled platform release, but we couldn't put it on hold and afford to go down. So we had to adjust our plan organically."
That meant bringing the comedy to audiences online. Ashland-based production company Joma Films and Levey Distribution quickly pivoted and made the movie available to watch at home through a private link.
For $6.50—a new-release ticket price you may not have seen in 20 years—viewers get a one-time screening, plus a free digital copy when Phoenix, Oregon is officially released this summer.
The deal, along with a campaign promoting the movie, was apparently enough to propel it to the top of the box office, the Klamath Falls Herald and News first reported.
According to Box Office Mojo, the movie brought in nearly $4,000 April 3-5, putting the gross earnings at $10,314 so far. Normally, numbers that small would guarantee flop status, but not for a small-scale project about two guys who quit their service industry jobs to restore an old bowling alley with a goal to serve the world's greatest pizza.
"I was concerned our film was too character-driven and perhaps too quirky for the multiplexes," Lundgren says. "I also knew it wasn't a perfect fit for the art houses, either. It's a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve, but the storylines and themes are a little unorthodox and unexpected. But after film festivals and summer screenings, we had confidence in our audience. They were out there. They relate to these characters—both their regrets and their dreams."
Viewers will notice they can choose a brick-and-mortar theater to support from a drop-down list when they buy access to Phoenix, Oregon, including a handful across Oregon. A portion of the profits will go toward venues that were set to show the film—a move to support those businesses when dozens of larger movies are delaying their releases indefinitely.
Lundgren hopes his film's unexpected boost in popularity will help make it easier for him to get to work on his next project this fall. But he is also happy to provide a temporary escape for everyone stuck in quarantine.
"It's been very gratifying to see the film finding its way during the lockdown," he says. "It's kind of a win-win-win: For us, for audiences stuck at home, and also for independent cinemas who have shut their doors."