Hello, My Name Is Doris started as an NYU short, became a scrappy production, and got rejected from Sundance. So how did it rake in 15 times its budget?
Best known for co-writing Wet Hot American Summer, Michael Showalter is not exactly famous for his complex characters or indie sensibility. Yet that’s exactly what shines in his latest directing venture, Hello, My Name is Doris. Showalter wrote Doris as a collaboration with Laura Terruso who was, at the time, a student at NYU film school, where Showalter taught. The film was based on Terruso’s thesis project Doris & the Intern.
Despite its charming concept, nobody was expecting Doris to be quite as successful as it was. After a long ride from inception to theatrical release, the film’s producer Jordana Mollick sat down with Janet Pierson, Head of Film at SXSW , to reflect on the journey at a panel at IFP Film Week.
"Everybody always says that the first weekend is so important for indie movies, and it’s the truth. It’s so important."
To establish some perspective on what it means to be an indie hit, Mollick listed off some stats: So far, the film has grossed $14.5M domestic box office which, Pierson added, is the “4th highest-grossing indie film of the year.” That’s after The Witch, Eye in the Sky, and Hell or High Water, all of which were made for significantly more money. Here's how it all happened.
Casting an Oscar winner
"The first crucial decision was who our Doris was going to be," said Mollick. "When we got Sally [Field], who was really our first choice, everyone stepped up their game." Mollick reflects on how young the crew felt, and how the decision to cast Field solidified the reality of the film for them. "We grew up so we could support her," Mollick added.
So what did Doris have going for it in the beginning? Mollick had Haven Entertainment, a management and production company that came together in 2012. “This was exactly what we wanted our brand to be,” said Mollick, explaining her reaction when the script was sent to her. "Red Crown had committed to financing the movie." She said that they wanted to make it for "$750,000 or less," but that wasn't going to happen. "We made the movie for $1.3M. Once we got Sally, we were working on the budget and were like, this is not possible." But even a $1.3M budget is tight with an A-lister.
"I was wondering, 'Are we going to be fancy enough for this two-time Oscar-winning woman?’ And ultimately, she really trusted us."
"This is not something [Field] usually does," said Mollick. "It’s a teeny movie, shooting every single day. Six-day weeks.” For budgetary reasons, they had to shoot LA summer for New York fall and winter; costuming was rough on their lead actress. "You forget that she’s a 70-year-old woman because her energy is amazing," said Mollick.
Pierson remarked that Field doesn’t actually work so much anymore. “Was it hard to get to her? And, was it hard for her to say yes?”
Because of Showalter's agents, Mollick said that getting to Field wasn’t the hard part—it was convincing her that they were legit.
"Surprisingly, there are not a ton of great roles for women her age out there," Mollick joked. "She was really charmed by [Showalter] and the script, but I remember writing up a document about all the crew we had hired. She wanted to make sure this wasn’t amateur hour, and that she wouldn’t be made a fool of. It was really nerve-wracking because there are people I love to work with and I was wondering, 'Are we going to be fancy enough for this two-time Oscar-winning woman?’ And ultimately she really trusted us."
The festival premiere
Mollick said she’s never been on a set where she didn’t feel like the team was making the best possible product. So when the rejection came in from Sundance, it was devastating. "As a producer, you’re the first to find out. I take like 12 hours by myself to cry, get angry, decide I’m leaving the business, and then pull myself together and call the directors."
But it wasn’t long before the film got into SXSW, where it made its world premiere, thanks in part to Pierson herself. But the challenges didn't end there. The festival premiere of an unsold feature is a notoriously stressful and emotional time.
“As a producer, you’re the first to find out if you get rejected from Sundance. I take 12 hours by myself to cry, get angry, decide I’m leaving the business, and then pull myself together and call the directors.”
The first feeling: total confusion. None of the team knew anything about SXSW or how to approach it. With some UTA agents on their side and a hired publicist, their plan was "to sell this movie for as much money as we possibly can to the distributor that’s best for it," said Mollick. "And we didn’t know what that would look like at all."
Another challenge Mollick mentioned is that of controlling the film's press. "You have to get press, but specific press," she said. Other than the trades, “you want to save most of your reviews for when you’re releasing into the world.”
Bottom line: the Hello, My Name is Doris team didn't have a plan. "We went in just hoping. It was a little bit like, just close your eyes and jump and hope that people are gonna catch you."
"Festivals each have their own personalities and their own strengths, as well as weaknesses," said Pierson. "People bring their Sundance expectations to SXSW and you can’t do that. It’s a different event.”
Mollick agreed. “It’s not the same distributors; it’s not the same press. Excuse my language, but, it’s not a star-f*ckery… everyone is there as an equal, which makes you feel special and like you’re a part of the community."
On opening night, at SXSW's fanciest venue, Doris exceeded all expectations. Pierson says that “it was one of the best openings that anybody had. It was a very warm room and the movie played particularly well.” But then the adrenaline starts to fade, and doubts seep in. “The next day, there’s another movie that does well, and there’s a bad review that you dwell on. And you think, 'Oh my god, what if people start seeing my film like this one critic does?'"
“It feels so mean,” Mollick says of their negative Hollywood Reporter review. “Someone just saw it the way that you hope nobody sees it, and it ends up being okay, as long as you don’t have tons and tons of those. At the time it was the one bad review.”
Making the distribution deal
“The night before the premiere was the best night of our lives, and then that morning was a big reality check,” Mollick remembered. The team realized they might not make the biggest sale in festival history, something that had seemed so possible just hours prior. "Now, we have to sell this movie before anything else influences it," she had decided.
“So, how did the deal go down?” Pierson asked.
"Hire a bunch of people that know more than you."
Mollick described the offers that started to come in. There were many, and not all of them were as appetizing as they’d hoped. "We were versed enough to know that a traditional theatrical release is not right for every movie, but we really felt like it was right for this one," she said.
“Roadside made an offer with Sony Worldwide, and we got it to $1.75M, which is really exciting," said Mollick. "Though there really was a point where we thought we were going to get $5M.” Adjusting their expectations was hard— not only for the sale but also for awards season.
Where's my Oscar?
"Roadside 's plan was to release the film the following early spring, and we were crushed," said Mollick. "Because we were coming off of this festival high where we thought, 'But we want to win an Oscar. Why are you releasing us after the Oscars?’”
But, as Mollick has learned over her years as a producer, you have to trust the experts. "You hire a bunch of people that know more than you," she said.
"Comedies don’t win Oscars."
Roadside gave the Hello, My Name is Doris team the reality check they needed. In a meeting, Mollick explained, executives came in and laid it all out: "Comedies don’t win Oscars. So stop thinking that."
Roadside didn’t want to release the film in the fall, where it might get lost in the fray of heavy-hitting awards contenders. "We released almost exactly a year after SXSW, and they were right," said Mollick. "The strategy worked really well and we stayed in theaters for a while."
Finding the audience
On the topic of release strategy, Pierson asked about which audiences Roadside targeted. Many different demographic angles exist within the film: women, the elderly, and even the youth element (represented by the presence of Jack Antanoff’s character).
The team sat down with Roadside, who proposed focusing on the older crowd. Using comparable titles like I’ll See You In My Dreams and Grandma as models, the company had a strong feeling that Doris would ring true in this arena. "Roadside’s whole thing is the 'smart-house audience'—it’s going to be women who are older or middle-aged," said Mollick.
They were right. Mollick told a story about one of Roadside's test screenings where she ended up sitting next to a woman who was 100 years old. “She turned to me, and she was filling out the form, and it didn’t have her age,” Mollick said. The oldest box you could check was 85-99. That was proof enough. The next screening they did was at Mollick’s grandmother’s senior living center in Milwaukee, "and it went almost as well as SXSW."
Clearly, this was going to be a hit with the elderly audience, but what about everyone else?
The film opened in four theaters with a commitment for 150. Soon, it expanded to almost 1,000 screens. "That first weekend determines so much," said Mollick. "Everybody always says that the first weekend is so important for indie movies, and it’s the truth. It’s so important. We had a good per-screen average, and they knew it was going to be a success."
"So, what’s your takeaway from all of this?" Pierson asked.
To Mollick, it was having a character that resonates with audiences. "People were coming up to me and saying, 'I’m her, I’m Sally Field.' And that was a big moment for me." And the free publicity that comes with a star doesn’t hurt.