Why Donnie Darko Almost Didn't Make It To Theaters

"28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds... That is when the world will end." It's wild to think that "Donnie Darko" just celebrated its 20th anniversary. Written and directed by Richard Kelly, the movie is still sparking discussion amongst viewers two decades after its release. The film made a little splash at the box office, but did very well on DVD, and in the years since its release, "Donnie Darko" has gone on to become a much-debated cult classic.

Set in 1988, the story centers on the titular character played by Jake Gyllenhaal as he attempts to navigate the tricky waters of adolescence. These are tumultuous times for anyone, but Donnie is struggling with hallucinations that certainly present like mental illness, though they might in fact be the key to saving the world as he knows it. At least, that's what his new friend Frank (a mysterious figure in a bunny suit) is telling him. While it's easy to get wrapped up in the logistics of time travel that Kelly employs (which the director's cut attempts to expand upon), the film's themes are universal, which is why it resonates with so many people, particularly those of a certain age. It also has a pretty awesome soundtrack and a fantastic cast.

"Donnie Darko" didn't have an easy journey to the screen. It was tough to secure funds and Kelly told The Ringer that while there was interest in the script, no one really had faith in the then-25-year-old filmmaker to direct. Even once the movie was made, there were plenty of difficulties getting a theatrical release. Thankfully, Kelly never relented on his vision, and with substantial effort, "Donnie Darko" did eventually find its way to the big screen.

Drew Barrymore Signs On

The struggle to bring "Donnie Darko" to theaters began long before the film was even made. Finding funding proved quite difficult. Interestingly, Jason Schwartzman (fresh off of "Rushmore") was originally attached to play Donnie, and that, in conjunction with Jena Malone signing on to portray Gretchen, began sparking more interest in the movie. Schwartzman soon dropped out, but Drew Barrymore not only wanted to be in the film, she also wanted her company Flower Films to produce. The movie was made with a budget of around $4.5 million. Producer Adam Fields told Screen Rant that Barrymore's name alone helped secure an extra million for the film and that the role she wound up playing, Karen Pomeroy, was initially quite different. He explained:

"The Drew Barrymore part was written for an older teacher who was about to get tenure and retire. Her dilemma was, 'if I support this, I could lose my tenure.' And then when Drew got hold of it and wanted to be in it, Richard changed it to a younger and newer teacher."

TV Movie Or Straight To DVD?

Troubles in financing were just the beginning for "Donnie Darko." The movie was not only accepted at Sundance, but was the planned opener for the festival. Fields told ScreenRant he had very mixed feelings, initially thinking they shouldn't do it. The position came with a ton of pressure, but in the end, it was an impossible offer to turn down. So, the film premiered at Sundance, and while there was some positive buzz, no one at the festival offered a single penny for "Donnie Darko." Fields felt the film's original whopping two and a half hour runtime was at least partially to blame.

There would eventually be offers, the best being from HBO, who offered $1 million for a HBO World Premiere. At the time, Fields thought they should take the money. After all, Kelly told NME

"Sundance Film Festival was a rough ride. No one wanted to buy it, no one wanted to distribute it. The financier didn't understand the movie, and we were scared it was going to go in the straight-to-DVD wastebasket. We got into cinemas by the skin of our teeth."

Despite this uphill battle, Kelly remained adamant the movie have a theatrical release and refused HBO's offer. He recut the film, but as the months ticked by, things grew increasingly dire. They were even in danger of losing the music, which would've been devastating.

An Important Screening

Barrymore wasn't the only vital supporter of "Donnie Darko." Christopher Nolan was also instrumental in the film being bought. Kelly told The Ringer that Nolan and his wife Emma Thomas attended a screening with Newmarket execs and afterwards, "When the lights came up, Chris and his wife both turned to the Newmarket executives, Chris Ball and Will Tyrer, and they both looked over at them and they nodded. They were like, 'You guys should distribute this.'" "Memento" had just done well for Newmarket, so Nolan's opinion definitely held some major sway. Apparently, Nolan and his wife also suggested adding the parenthetical to the movie's title cards.

Even after "Donnie Darko" landed at Newmarket, the plan was still to go straight to DVD. Barrymore herself practically begged the company to give the film a proper theatrical run. Finally, the series was set for Halloween release ... and then 9/11 happened.

From Box Office Failure To Cult Classic

Very few people saw "Donnie Darko" in the theater. This was at least partially due to lack of ad support. It's difficult to market a movie not even two months after the tragedy of 9/11 when the trailer features a jet engine crashing through a roof. Fields told ScreenRant:

"We opened in 58 theaters in I think 5 markets and we grossed $110,000 the first weekend . The second weekend we lost half the theaters and we grossed $58,000. The third weekend we were down to 17 theaters and that was the end of it."

But that wasn't the end of it. Many discovered "Donnie Darko" through Netflix (which, at that point, was a mail-in DVD service), and the movie was incredibly successful in terms of DVD sales. The film also made some money and saw renewed interest with the UK theatrical release. Its cult status eventually led to the director's cut, which came out in 2004. In fact, there have been plenty of re-releases for the movie on DVD, even a box set. The film has been re-rereleased in theaters as well, with some running regular midnight screenings.

"Donnie Darko" may have bombed at the box office, but continues to build a devoted fanbase two decades later. Kelly has hinted there may be a sequel in the works and whatever happens, it's going to be better than the straight-to-DVD sequel that was made without the auteur's involvement.