Juno – the ‘indy’ that defeated Hollywood

Juno (Ellen Page) with the potential adopters of her baby, Veronica (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman)

Juno (Ellen Page) with the potential adopters of her baby, Veronica (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman)

It’s not quite true of course. Juno, although officially an independent production, was produced from within a network of Hollywood relationships between two smaller production companies, Mandate Pictures and Mr. Mudd, and Fox Searchlight, the independent brand of the major studio 20th Century Fox. Nevertheless, Juno works as a case study for any analysis of what the demarcation lines between studio and ‘independent’ might mean and also the cultural differences between mainstream and more specialised cinema and their audiences.

In business terms, the bald facts are there to see on www.the-numbers.com. Juno cost under $10 million to produce. The marketing and promotional budget will have been large – bigger than the production cost probably. But the revenue has been substantial with $230 million worldwide (nearly two-thirds from North America) and DVD sales of $50 million in North America alone. On top of this, the film’s soundtrack has been a No1 bestseller.

The producers

Mandate Pictures is a Los Angeles based independent production company formed in 2005. In 2007 it was bought by Lionsgate, the independent studio-distributor, but Mandate continues to operate as an independent brand. Mandate’s pictures have included a number of low-medium budget pictures, some, like The Grudge, being made with Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures. Others include comedies such as Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay. Mr. Mudd is also an independent producer and involves producers Lianne Halfon and Russell Smith, in partnership with the star actor John Malkovich. Mr. Mudd was also a co-producer of Ghost World and John Malkovich has helped to produce a range of films, some outside Hollywood including The Terrorist (India 1999). To further emphasise the network of independents, Mandate, now in a two year ‘first look’ deal with Mr. Mudd, is also planning to make a film with erstwhile teen star Drew Barrymore. Whip It!, starring Ellen Page is scheduled for 2009 with Barrymore directing and executive producing through her company Flower Films. Earlier, Barrymore had co-produced and starred (as an English teacher) in Donnie Darko, like Ghost World a smart film, but not a mass audience crowd pleaser like Juno.

An indy sensibility?

Juno reached a mass audience. In North America it was given a platform release – steadily growing over several weeks. The US distributor was Fox Searchlight. In the UK, the film was released as a mainstream wide release under the 20th Century Fox banner on 363 prints in second place on the UK Top 10 and with a screen average higher than any other film except for the (platformed) release of There Will Be Blood. So in the UK, it was ‘mainstream’ not specialised. Did it keep any sense of being ‘indy’? Probably not for UK audiences. In the UK we tend to see only ‘quality’ US TV on terrestrial channels and overall UK understanding of US teen culture is limited by both access to aspects of the culture and alienation from US politics and especially conservative social values. Nevertheless, Juno did receive some flak for seemingly promoting the ‘pro-life’, ‘anti-abortion’ cause. I’m not sure about this. Though I am firmly behind every woman’s ‘right to choose’, I think it’s problematic to see the choice to keep the baby in narratives like Juno as supporting the anti-abortionist stance. It is argued that the overall positive message of Juno and adult (i.e. not ‘teen’) comedies such as Knocked Up leads to complacency in the audience because no real moral dilemma is explored.

If Juno is an indy film that appeals to audiences willing to reflect on how characters approach life, there shouldn’t be a problem. But if the film is mainstream entertainment, does the viewing context change how the audience is asked to view the film? I don’t think the mainstream audience is less intelligent or less perceptive, but the context is different. It’s this quandary that makes Juno interesting for me.

I think it’s a shame if the wonderful language of Juno puts off audiences in other, non-English speaking countries. I’m waiting to see attendance figures across Europe, but the film generally did not do anywhere near as well outside the US/UK. The current figures suggest only 37% of box office was outside North America (when the norm is more like 55-60%). How well did the subtitling/dubbing convey Juno‘s use of language?

Useful Links for studying Juno:

An interesting blog with lots of comments on the film: http://www.pajiba.com/juno.htm

Scroll down this blog from Filmbrain to find some juicy comments on Diablo Cody and Juno (re the critiques in Cineaste)

Reverse-shot, another blog with a distinct downer on the film and some interesting comments on how indy film is attempting to be accepted by the mainstream – not a good idea?

Ellen Page – the biggest fansite

Official Juno website

An interesting Guardian article by Tom Porretta (author of Election) on the 1980s ‘Brat Pack’ teen movies by John Hughes

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