It’s hard to think of a more memorable film from the 2000s than Donnie Darko. Richard Kelly’s 2001 sci-fi apocalyptic coming-of-age story remains one of the most beloved cult films of all time. But despite the success it found in the years after it was made, it almost seemed destined to fail when it first premiered at Sundance on January 19th, 2001. Starring Jake Gyllenhall in one of his first film roles, the cast also includes huge stars like Jena Malone, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Katharine Ross, and Patrick Swayze.
Donnie Darko almost never made it to the big screen. It was headed for a straight-to-video release until Drew Barrymore, who also acts in the film, signed on to release the film theatrically through her company Flower Films. Its premiere at Sundance was met with a mediocre response, which along with the coinciding events of September 11th lead to the film having a very limited theatrical release.
Once the film made it to DVD in 2002, it slowly started gaining a devoted cult following. Theatres like the Pioneer in New York City’s East Village began showing screenings of the film. The Pioneer Theatre ran Donnie Darko for twenty-eight consecutive months. Soon after, cinemas in the United Kingdom acquired the film and sold 300,000 tickets in the first six weeks based almost entirely on word-of-mouth marketing. Donnie Darko went on to earn over $15 million in DVD sales.
The film’s soundtrack re-introduced several 80s songs to a new generation, like “The Killing Moon” by Echo and the Bunnymen, “Notorious” by Duran Duran, and “Head Over Heels” by Tears For Fears. The film even spawned a surprise hit song. Composer and multi-instrumentalist Michael Andrews, who scored the film almost entirely by himself, hired his friend Gary Jules to sing on a cover of Tears For Fears’ “Mad World”. Stripping down the 1980s new-wave sound, Andrews transformed the song into a somber piano ballad. Twenty years after its original release, “Mad World” found itself on the charts, reaching as high as #1 on the UK Singles Chart for three weeks.
Despite its humble beginnings, Donnie Darko still stands as one of the most beloved indie films of all time.