It's been 20 years since Donnie Darko debuted. Without Christopher Nolan, you may never have seen it.
Donnie Darko had a special place in my heart growing up. It was the first true indie film I ever saw, and it was that cool title I could recommend to people and feel smart and like a real film buff. But I never knew how close we were to never seeing the movie.
It turns out, when it debuted at Sundance, it was overshadowed by titles like Memento, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and In the Bedroom.
In fact, those movies buried it so much that Donnie Darko left Sundance that year without distribution. And it languished for months afterward. The movie just could not find anyone to distribute it...
Until Christopher Nolan stepped in.
In an oral history of Donnie Darko courtesy of The Ringer, we learned that Richard Kelly, director of Donnie Darko, was beside himself. People were confused by his movie and wanted him to cut out extensive parts of it to find a way to make it easier to understand.
Meanwhile, the indie talk to the town was Memento. Newmarket Films had turned that small film into something that grossed $25 million. And Nolan was becoming the director every studio wanted to work with.
At the time, Aaron Ryder was an exec at Newmarket and riding high on Memento. When he received a cut of Donnie Darko to view, he invited the whole Memento team to screen it with him. After the film ended, Nolan was enthusiastic. He loved every part of it, and his enthusiasm made the Newmarket execs think.
Maybe there was something to this little movie after all.
After some prodding from Drew Barrymore, who was a producer of the film, they agreed to distribute the film in the fall of 2001. Of course... 9/11 happened and the little movie about a plane falling from the sky bombed at the box office. It went on to achieve cult status on home video (where I first saw it).
Of course, this may have never happened without Nolan cheering the movie on during an early screening.
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