What happened to diversity at the box office? What happened to thinking outside the box? Instead of spending $14.50 to see a trite blockbuster at nearby L.A. Live, think Outside the Box Office. The Outside the Box Office event series isn’t new by any means, but continues to be one of USC’s underappreciated treasures. And now, it feels all the more important amid this year’s summer slump.
An event series produced by the USC School of Cinematic Arts and Alex Ago, director of programming and special projects, Outside the Box Office provides cinephiles and casual moviegoers with a much-needed respite from the mind-numbing entertainment Hollywood spews out. There are weekly screenings that feature a wide array of upcoming international, documentary and independent films from the prestigious Sundance, Cannes, Berlin, SXSW and Venice Film Festivals.
This summer’s marquees boasted epic titles promising action and adventure supplemented by star-studded casts and yet these films still fell flat. The upcoming autumn forecast offers no break in the monotony either, when the thrilling, suspenseful and horrifying flicks will dominate the silver screen. If the thought of being challenged or inspired by something different doesn’t pique any interest, maybe this additional incentive will leave an impact: All Outside the Box Office screenings are free, and all that’s required is a reservation.
“You can see a ton of independent movies and big-hit movies before they’re available to the public,” senior Ben Meissner, who has been working for the event staff for OTBO for more than a year, said. “We get a lot of movies that are only released pre-showing at the cinema school so it’s a unique opportunity to get ahead on a lot of movies you wouldn’t be able to see in L.A.”
And washed-up action films are ubiquitous in Los Angeles. To be clear, however, this summer trend is no new phenomenon. In 2012, audiences flocked to the theaters for Marvel’s The Avengers and Christopher Nolan’s Batman finale, The Dark Knight Rises. Though not as popular as the two superhero blockbusters, the box office also invited The Bourne Legacy, The Expendables 2, Total Recall and the disastrous Battleship. This lapse in creativity was easy to overlook due to the overwhelming success of The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, but now the lack of options at the movies becomes glaring in the absence of quality entertainment.
As the weather turns, so will the films circulating theaters. Major distributors promise thrillers, including Closed Circuit and Getaway with Selena Gomez, and horror films such as Satanic and Insidious 2. This year, going to the movies felt tired and stale. Audiences yawned at action flops such as The Lone Ranger with Johnny Depp, R.I.P.D. with Ryan Reynolds, After Earth with Will Smith and son Jaden Smith, and White House Down with Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx.
That’s why USC’s own Outside the Box Office is such a valuable resource. Ago curates films that challenge the predictable and formulaic Hollywood norm. This summer alone welcomed documentaries, television episodes, festival favorites, award winners but also did not shy away from the big production movies that can be caught in most major theatres. There’s a bit of everything for everyone—or at least anyone who closely follows the event calendar.
Highlights this summer included The Way, Way Back, a touching drama comedy in which a teenage boy must survive the summer with his mother’s stern boyfriend. The film, which originally debuted at Sundance before being picked up by Sony, is driven by an impressive cast including Steve Carrell, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph and Toni Collette. It has since become a quirky box office favorite, a la the charming Little Miss Sunshine.
Outside the Box Office’s summer season also showcased critically acclaimed films such as The Spectacular Now, a coming-of-age romance and Fruitvale Station, a chilling drama based on the true events of a young black male’s death at the hands of a transit cop in Oakland. Other films that have been screened during the series include smaller gems such as Prince Avalanche and In a World… and bigger box office hits, such as 2 Guns with Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington and the apocalyptic comedy This Is The End with James Franco and Seth Rogen.
Outside the Box Office also welcomes guest speakers from the night’s showcased film who can offer firsthand insight into the moviemaking process after the screening. The speakers include directors, producers and actors. This summer, Ago interviewed Academy Award-winning screenwriter and Community star Jim Rash and Prince Avalanche actor Emile Hirsch.
When the summer Outside the Box Office showcase winds down in the coming months, the public can look forward to The Grandmaster, a cinematic and visual wonder that captures China’s beauty with sweeping landscapes and delicate camerawork as it tells the epic tale of kung fu master Ip Man, who trained Bruce Lee.
Other feature films include The Teacher, about a high school teacher who gets tangled in an affair with one of her students and Otelo Burning, about a teen surfer embroiled in the political controversies of South Africa when Nelson Mandela is released from prison. Also, Outside the Box office screened two documentaries: one that traces the lives of three families who struggle to acclimate to rapid globalization in Cambodia (A River Changes Course) and the Don Cheadle-narrated documentary about a Haitian man who returns to the country to supply clean water in the aftermath of the earthquake (La Source).
These films aren’t all guaranteed to be hidden jewels, but they’re innovative and experimental, or can at least give the casual viewer a different experience than going out to the movies. It all comes down to this: Deferring to big-name movies requires paying a considerable chunk of money to experience exactly what was anticipated. Taking advantage of Outside the Box Office is an opportunity to watch a film that’s unconventional or challenging without dropping a penny.
“Outside the Box Office broadens your horizons,” Meissner said. “You get to see a lot of movies that don’t even sound like they would be up your alley before you go. You show up just knowing a line or two about the plot and end up really liking it.”
Follow Alexa Girkout on Twitter @Girkout