‘The Big Sick’ Director Michael Showalter Talks Moviegoing, the State of the Rom-Com, and What It’s Like to Make a Word-of-Mouth Hit

The Big Sick is one of the biggest theatrical success stories of 2017. Moviegoers and critics alike connected with the adversity-filled love story between a Pakistani-American stand-up comedian (Kumail Nanjiani in a breakthrough role, playing himself) and an American grad student (Zoe Kazan, playing the film’s co-writer—and Nanjiani’s real-life spouse—Emily V. Gordon). The Big Sick had staying power after its limited release in June—eventually finishing with more than $40 million domestically. The autobiographical project, which Amazon acquired at Sundance 2017, was recently named one of the 10 Best Films of the Year by AFI, and it also received SAG Award nominations for Best Ensemble Cast and Best Supporting Actress (Holly Hunter).

The fact that The Big Sick was directed by Michael Showalter should not come as a surprise. Ever since co-writing 2001’s cult hit Wet Hot American Summer, Showalter has poked fun at genres and mocked lazy conventions. 2014’s They Came Together, which he co-wrote with frequent collaborator David Wain, parodied romantic comedy clichés. With The Big Sick, Showalter managed to shake up the romantic comedy genre in a more serious way. 

I spoke with Showalter via phone right after the AFI announcement to talk about the impact his film has had. 

Have you prepared yourself mentally for having a movie that’s in the awards race, or are you just taking things as they come?

I’m taking things as they come. My expectations aren’t super high. I’m excited that we’re in the conversation and being nominated for stuff, but I’m trying to keep my expectations at a normal place. The whole experience of The Big Sick has been beyond my wildest imagination. You kind of get to this great place—and for me it happened at the end of the summer—where you’ve been through the insanity of having something be received in a great way, the way that this movie has. I think after the summer and into the fall, in order to normalize it, I started to think that this is just what happens when you work really hard on a movie.

The Big Sick was in theaters for over four months. Even when it was available to watch at home, people were still seeing it in theaters. What was it was like to watch the movie maintain so well?

It’s really gratifying to see an audience react to something that you’ve made. To me it’s still something that I worked on for a long time, and I look at it and there are some choices I wish I’d done differently, but that’s the amazing thing about a movie: once it’s done and out in the world it has a life of its own.

It was a roller coaster ride every weekend as it added more theaters, and each week I thought it was going to fall off a cliff and it didn’t. It just became a movie that people intended to see. It reached a certain place among the moviegoing audience—and I’m a moviegoer myself—where we talk about a bunch of movies that we intend to see. That’s the ultimate place you want to get to.

In addition to the word of mouth, it’s clear that the marketing campaign worked really well. How did Amazon and Lionsgate nurture the movie to make sure it realized its potential?

We knew some things about the movie and how audiences were responding to it. We did a whole bunch of screenings prior to Sundance, and then with the reception it had at Sundance there was a sense of what we’ve got as a product. It was gratifying to know that we could promote the movie as we did. Amazon did a good job of marketing the film as exactly what it was, and that was really important to us. We could have focused on it more in the advertising as a big comedy, and we could have downplayed the heart and the drama as a play for a wider audience. We felt strongly that when they went to the movie it should be we what we said it would be, and that would help the word of mouth. Sometimes the advertising doesn’t match up to what the movie is—it focuses on one element of a movie to get people in opening weekend, but then you go see it and say, “Well, that’s not exactly what the marketing promised.”

When the marketing is manipulative, that’s when big drops happen at the box office.

Exactly. I think you get people there on opening night, but then the audience talks to each other and they say they thought it was going to be a certain way, and it wasn’t. We felt we had a good thing to promote. The advertising for the movie was serious: we showed our good reviews, we showed there were dramatic scenes in the movie, and we all felt that we wanted to bet on ourselves and on the movie we had made rather than manipulate it in some way.

You’re in a unique position in terms of your place in the industry: you’ve made movies that play theatrically, content that goes straight to Netflix [Wet Hot American Summer spawned two 10-episode limited series], and a television show on cable [Search Party on TBS]. What are the distinct advantages of getting a movie in theaters?

As someone who loves going to see movies, it’s a very unique and special experience to go see a movie in a movie theater. It’s an opportunity to go out and be among other people, and you experience a movie differently. There are memories attached to the whole ritual of going to see a movie in a theater and getting popcorn and a drink. Those are all things that I look forward to and love. As a storyteller working in different mediums, there is an opportunity with a movie to create a bigger experience for an audience. Each project is different, but for myself there is nothing that can compete with the feeling of seeing your film in a movie theater and experiencing the audience reaction to it. You never get that feeling with television. We don’t screen our TV shows in front of huge audiences. Moviegoing is a really special thing.

When people talk about the type of movies that play in theaters, they say “What happened to the mid-range romantic comedies?” Big Sick seemed to prove that the genre isn’t “dead,” it’s just people want to see it revitalized. Do you think we’re due for a resurgence in the genre?

Yeah, probably. I’ve never been very good at understanding audience trends, but it feels to me like people will go to see something if it’s good. They want to see things that feel new. I’ve never felt like the romantic comedy genre was dead, but there’s really been a need for a reinvention of it. We know the old rules so well, and we need to tell that story in a new way. People will always come out for a good story.

This year there have been a lot of “death of movie theater” articles, but beyond the blockbusters there are so many small movies that have connected, like The Big Sick or Get Out or Lady Bird to name a few. Do you think the movie theater experience really is doomed the way reporters would have us believe?

It seems like it’s not. People still really like going to the movies, and young filmmakers are getting out there and telling stories. As there are options for other things people could do instead of going to the movies, the industry needs to adapt a little bit to catch up to where the needs are. It’s exciting that there are small movies with small budgets that audiences are really responding to.

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