Box Office Battles: A Look at 2003 for 25 Indie and Specialty Distributors
by Eugene Hernandez
A survey of film distributors emphasized that times remain competitive
and tough in the independent and specialty film marketplace. Looking back at
2003’s box office numbers, indieWIRE is profiling the performance of films
from 25 independent and Indiewood theatrical distribution companies that
were active this year. We sent an email requesting comments on their
performance to people at each of the 25 companies. We asked reps to react to
their own company’s performance as well the broader state of film
distribution this year.
“It was a tough year,” THINKFilm distribution head Mark
Urman told IndieWIRE. “Among the factors: there are more indie
distributors who are not, in fact, independent and who are spending way too
much money to buy and release films.” Urman said that this adds to the
audience’s expectations as well as the overall cost of putting a film out in
theaters. Continuing he added, “Also, indie films are drifting more to the
mainstream in tone and subject (creating a new genre — the “feel-good
indie”) while some studio films are drifting more towards the edgy.”
“The core economics of the business are getting progressively tougher,”
said Wellspring chief Al Cattabiani. “Theatrically, it’s
harder than ever to break through the clutter and find a niche.”
“Attaining successful results is getting tougher all the time,” offered
Focus Features distribution head Jack Foley. “Since the
competitive environment that smart films seek is also targeted by more
commercial product that opens wider with huge budgets that facilitate their
openings, i.e. ‘Intolerable Cruelty,’ ‘Kill Bill’ etc., the Baby
Boomer is the smart film and commercial film core.” Continuing, Foley added,
“Attracting that group to a film is challenging and critical to the
commercial success of every film whether art, smart or commercial.”
“In 2003 there were approximately 180 independent or specialized releases
in New York and Los Angeles – an average of over 3 new films every week from
the independent world,” offered IDP’s Michael Silberman. “The
challenge is to break through the crowd and clutter and find your
“Not to get lost in the political world of ‘The Weather
Underground,’ but, simply, each year is increasingly competitive because
capitalism is terminally competitive,” said Ken Eisen who distributed
the “Underground” doc. “A great, painfully underappreciated jazz genius
named Horace Tapscott led a cooperative, community group in L.A. whose motto
was ‘Our music is contributive, not competitive.’ Some wonderful people in
the film distribution community have this sort of knowledge of our mutual
interdependence and solidarity — far too many others don’t.
“Every year the marketplace is becoming more crowded with specialty
product which puts available screens at a premium,” said Michael
Sergio and Isil Bagdadi of the small Cavu Pictures, in
comments to indieWIRE. “Even though ‘The Holy Land’ was outgrossing
the competition, a major distributor actually threatened to hold back future
films from an exhibitor if they did not pull our film [off a screen] instead
of theirs. But because our film continued to be successful we always managed
to get it back on screen. You can’t get much more cutthroat than that!”
“There’s an adage that applies well to this year: hard times don’t build
character, they reveal it,” said Wellspring’s Cattabiani. “We’ve seen some
odd behavior from some competitors, it’s true, but nothing that won’t sort
itself out over time.”
“Core art films are constantly being reduced to a modest commercial level
since fewer people are making up the dedicated art film core or are going at
all,” noted Focus’ Foley. “There were many disappointing box office results
in the art film sector throughout 2003. Paradoxically, the core art film
patron remains an important factor and influentially helps with word of
mouth advocacy, but alone they don’t generate big grosses.”
VIEWERS MAKE SAFE CHOICES
“I think the biggest challenge is still reaching an audience resistant to
challenging films,” noted Palm Picture’s Ryan Werner. “I was
particularly disappointed by the box office on ‘Demonlover.’ I’m not
saying that I ever thought this film would be a break-out hit, but the film
had the sort of reviews that were provocative and should have been
“The greatest challenge (this year) was trying to get the once-daring
indie audience to step up and try true alternatives,” Mark Urman echoed.
“(The) worst case scenario is worse than ever while the best is not that
much better than it ever was. Except for documentaries! There, the best is
yet to come.”
Looking ahead, some envisioned change on the horizon, “In many respects,
our business is at the cusp of another round of substantial change — from
new technologies, to consolidation among companies, to an uncertain overall
economy,” said Cattabiani from Wellspring.
25 DISTRIBUTION COMPANIES:
Consolidation hit Artisan, the mini major that was purchased by competitor Lions Gate this year. Ahead of the large anticipated staff cuts, the company released a handful of movies. Artisan picked up Dana Brown’s surfing doc “Step Into Liquid” at the Tribeca Film Festival and made more than $3.6 million with the movie after opening it in August. The doc “Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony” made nearly $400,000 after debuting in late February. “Dummy” with Adrien Brody made only about $70,000, while “The House of the Dead” topped $10 million.
The small New York indie distributor earned nearly $400,000 with its release of Elia Suleiman’s “Divine Intervention” which opened in theaters in mid-January. The outfit also handled Ben Coccio’s acclaimed fest feature “Zero Day,” but captured just over $7,000 at the box office with the high school violence film that debuted in September, ahead of Gus Van Sant’s Cannes winner, “Elephant.”
Eitan Gorlin’s “The Holy Land” drew solid crowds this summer. The film, about a young man’s coming-of-age set against the tense backdrop of Arab-Israeli politics, earned nearly $600,000 for this NYC based micro-distributor. Company president Michael Sergio and head of distribution Isil Bagdadi cited an opening week of more than $31,000 at the Angelika Film Center in Manhattan in July.
“We attribute the success of the film to our extensive hands-on grass-roots marketing including word-of-mouth screenings, targeted outreach, numerous Q&As with the director and cast, a provocative trailer and a truly controversial poster,” Sergio and Isil said in their comments.
The well-regarded indie founded in the ’90s by Noah Cowan and John Vanco closed its doors earlier this year after a troubled partnership with Greg Williams’ Lot 47. Its release of “Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns,” a doc About They Might Be Giants, made more than $160,000, while “The Slaughter Rule” made just $13,000 after opening in January.
FINE LINE/HBO FILMS
In a swift move that seemed like corporate synergy, Fine Line nabbed HBO’s “American Splendor” after it debuted at Sundance 2003, later announcing a pact with HBO to create the HBO Films distribution imprint and tapping Dennis O’Connor from United Artists to handle the releases. The partnership yielded more than $6 million for “Splendor” after its August debut, while Van Sant’s “Elephant” has earned more than $1.1 million since debuting in late October.
FIRST RUN FEATURES
The company’s biggest new release was clearly Martin Doblmeier’s “Bonhoeffer,” a dramatic look at the life of German theologian and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The film has made more than $260,000 since its debut in late June. Matteo Garrone’s “The Embalmer” made more than $50,000 after opening this summer, while Gabrielle Baur’s “Venus Boyz” made about $14,000. “Kira’s Reason” and “Suspended Animation” did not break $10,000.
Focus celebrated top Oscars for its late 2002 release, “The Pianist” and made more than $30 million with the film. In 2003, Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” marked the critical and financial high-point for new Indiewood outfit Focus Features (the specialty division of Universal Studios). The film made nearly $30 million after opening in mid-September. It has thus far outpaced Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “21 Grams” which has made nearly $5 million since its November debut. Francois Ozon’s “Swimming Pool” earned over $10.1 million this summer, while “Sylvia” has made just $1.3 million since opening in October. The company’s biggest disappointment was clearly “The Guys,” an adaptation of a 9/11-themed play that made only $16,000 in theaters.
Focus distribution head Jack Foley told indieWIRE that the division made more than $101 million in box office revenue in the U.S. and Canada in 2003. “Focus Features had a great year in 2003,” Foley told indieWIRE, “We had wonderful product and planned the release of that product very carefully. We always remained respectful of the opening date competition. We also were very cognizant of the power of the subsequent competition that would bear down on our films weeks into their release.”
Gurinder Chadha’s “Bend It Like Beckham” was a major specialty hit of 2003, reaching more than $32 million in grosses after debuting in mid-March. The film was topped by Fox Searchlight’s much wider release of Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” which made more than $45 million. “Thirteen,” the Sundance acquisition, has made just under $5 million, while Jim Sheridan’s “In America” has earned more than $3 million since debuting in late November. The company saw small results from “Garage Days,” which made just $20,000.
The IDP partnership, which handles Samuel Goldwyn releases among others, was active in 2003. “Mambo Italiano” has made more than $6 million, most of that from the Canadian release, while Peter Sollett’s “Raising Victor Vargas,” a Cannes 2002 pick up that was a hit on the fest circuit, made more than $2 million. Dan Ireland’s “Passionada” earned more than $500,000 for the company.
“We had a phenomenal run with ‘Raising Victor Vargas’ at Landmark’s Sunshine Theater,” said IDP distribution head Michael Silberman. “The film was shot on the Lower East Side so it was like the ultimate home movie… we did countless Q and A’s with the director Peter Sollet and the cast and the film ran for 4 months. It was a totally satisfying engagement.”
One year after the success of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” IFC Films saw more modest earnings in ’03. This summer’s “Camp” earned $1.6 million, while John Sayles’ “Casa de los Babys” has made just just $500,000 so far since debuting in September. The company made more than $700,000 with the documentary “Lost in La Mancha,” but only $34,000 with the doc about ’70s cinema “A Decade Under the Influence.”
Genre films topped Lions Gate’s list as the top earners of 2003 with the Toronto 2002 acquisition “Cabin Fever” making more than $20 million and Rob Zombie’s “House of 1000 Corpses” nabbing more than $12 million. Critically acclaimed films from the company have faced a tougher time but are also buzzing this awards season. Billy Ray’s “Shattered Glass” has made over $2 million since its late October opening, while “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and “The Cooler” are still early in their runs. The acclaimed and controversial “Irreversible” made nearly $800,000 after opening in March. Steve James’ doc, “Stevie” made more than $100,000.
The buzz doc of Sundance ’03, Andrew Jarecki’s “Capturing the Friedmans,” was the leader for indie Magnolia in ’03. The film made more than $3 million in theaters. Its release of “Bollywood/Hollywood” and “Under the Skin of the City” were each much smaller, grossing about $30,000 each.
Alan Rudolph’s “The Secret Lives of Dentists” was a critical hit for the mini-distribution outfit headed by Paul Cohen. It made more than $3.7 million ahead of late year awards notice that could give the film a boost in attention.
As usual, the range of films released by Miramax, the specialty division owned by Disney
but run by Harvey and Bob Weinstein ran a wide gamut. While the company is gaining pre-Oscar
steam with its release of the big budget, star-studded “Cold Mountain,” it also released the
indie favorite “The Station Agent”
which it nabbed at Sundance. The small film has made over $4 million for the Indiewood company.
A Miramax rep noted that the company has topped its company record in worldwide box office, earning more than
$1 billion from more than 30 films in release this year (some were handled by the Dimension genre label).
Worth noting is the ongoing release of “City of God,”
which has made almost $5 million as it nears a full year in theaters. Tarantino’s “Kill Bill: Volume 1” is at $70 million.
Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things”
made more than $8 million, while Peter Mullan’s
“The Magdalene Sisters” earned about $4.5 million. “Bad Santa” has nabbed about $51 million, while Daniele Thompson’s “Jet Lag” made just over $500,000 and Karen Moncrieff’s “Blue Car” made just under that number. Daniel Algrant’s “People I Know” was a weak entry for the company, despite its cast (Al Pacino and others), earning more than $125,000.
Dan Talbot’s stalwart distribution outfit in Manhattan has seen solid numbers from a pair of docs in 2003. Nathaniel Kahn’s “My Architect” has already made more than $250,000 since its mid November launch, while Nicolas Philibert’s “To Be and To Have” from France has earned more than $480,000 since opening in September. “The Son” earned about $65,000 for the company, while “Warrior of Light” made only $2,700.
The release of “Whale Rider” solidified the emergence of a new distribution outfit headed by recent IFC Films distribution chief Bob Berney. “Open Hearts” with about $135,000, “Lilya 4-Ever” with about $180,000, and “Spun” with more than $400,000 ushered in 2003 quietly at Newmarket, the company unleashed a crowd favorite in “Whale Rider.” The Toronto 2002 acquisition made more than $20 million after winning at major film festivals around the world. Debuting to critical acclaim as the year ends is Patty Jenkins’ “Monster” which has actress Charlize Theron tipped as a shoo-in for acting honors for her starring role in the movie.
Mogul Chris Blackwell’s small film company, with a young distribution team led by former Magnolia exec Ryan Werner, emerged as an active buyer in 2003 and released a roster of art and foreign films. Surprisingly it was artist Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster Cycle,” a series of challenging but visually arresting films, that rose to the top of their list. “Cremaster” earned more than $500,000 in theaters. The Pang Brothers’ “The Eye” made about the same about of money, while Olivier Assayas’ “Demonlover” earned more than $200,000, but Baltasar Kormakur’s “The Sea” earned only about $61,000.
“Palm has always been a forward thinking company and the DVD has always been a major component of what we look for. We’re really proud that we got our distribution division off the ground this year with an incredibly challenging slate,” said Palm’s Ryan Werner, “While we didn’t have any major breakouts, we are proud that we were able to get films like ‘The Eye’ and ‘Fulltime Killer’ out and then do very well on DVD with them.” Werner noted his happiness with the release of Barney’s “Cremaster.” Continuing he quipped, “Perhaps it is the highest grossing seven-hour experimental art film of all time? I guess that’s pushing it, but I’m trying to stay positive.”
Patrice Leconte’s “Man on the Train” was a solid foreign-language hit for Paramount’s specialty division. The film made more than $2.5 million. The unit also handled the MTV Films release of “Better Luck Tomorrow” and made about $3.8 million. “Northfork,” which debuted at Sundance, made more than $1.4 million, while Andrei Konchalovsky’s “House of Fools” earned just $57,000.
The notable release for Ken Eisen’s Maine-based outfit was Sam Green & Bill Siegel’s acclaimed doc, “The Weather Underground.” The film has made made nearly $500,000 in its release. The company opened the Hungarian film “Hukkle” in November and has made more than $10,000 so far.
“With ‘Weather Underground,’ the challenge was to reach both the audience that came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, and the audience that wasn’t even born then,” Shadow’s Eisen told indieWIRE. “With ‘Hukkle,’ the challenge is… well, it’s a wordless Hungarian film. If that doesn’t define tough sell in the current commercial climate, I don’t know what does!”
SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
A doc about birds was the top new film for Sony’s specialty division headed by vets Michael Barker and Tom Bernard. Jacques Perrin’s “Winged Migration” made more than $10 million after opening in April, while Aki Kaurismaki’s acclaimed “The Man Without a Past” came in just under the $1 million mark. All eyes are on the release of Errol Morris’ latest doc, “The Fog of War,” while the company is finding favor with the release of the French animated film “The Triplets of Belleville.” It has made more than $300,000 so far. Among the films that found a tougher time wooing an audience were “Once Upon a Time in the Midlands” which made about $170,000, “The Cuckoo” with $250,000, “My Life Without Me” with $400,000, and “Levity” with a gross of $200,000.
The solid LA-based indie distribution outfit led by Marcus Hu and Jon Gerrans found success with Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato’s “Party Monster.” The film made more than $720,000. The company earned about $190,000 in its release of the Israeli army film, “Yossi & Jagger.”
Hu told indieWIRE that films still tough times despite critical acclaim. “The market was just filled to the brim with product forcing titles that didn’t perform to come off screen very rapidly,” Hu said.
The small Canadian/U.S. company’s distribution unit, headed by Mark Urman formerly of Lions Gate, rode a wave of success with its solid release of the spelling bee doc, “Spellbound,” which made more than $5.7 million in theaters after opening in late April. The company’s continuing release of “The Gospel of John” has earned more than $3 million so far. Less successful were the releases of “Bus 174” and “Teknolust,” which made $160,000 and $29,000 respectively, and “Gerry,” which made about $250,000.
“‘Spellbound’ was a success by any standard, whether straight indie or documentary. By our standards, it was a smash,” Urman told indieWIRE. “I attribute its success not only to the quality of the film and its satisfaction rate — the word of mouth was terrific — but also to our focused and dedicated campaign which was multi-tiered, imaginative, and ceaseless.” However Urman reacted to the challenges faced with a tougher film. “Gus Van Sant’s ‘Gerry’ was certainly a special film and we never expected crossover or breakout business,” Urman said, “But art film enthusiasts and fans of the avant garde and experimental seem to be a vanishing breed and ‘Gerry’ didn’t perform up to my (conservative) expectations. Thank god for DVD!”
While UA lacked a new runaway hit to follow-up on the success of “Bowling for Columbine” which debuted in 2002 and made a total of $20 million, MGM’s specialty division had a handful of films top the million dollar mark. “Pieces of April” which debuted in October is at more than $2.3 million since its October debut, while Robert Duvall’s “Assassination Tango” made about one million and Chen Kaige’s “Together” came in with a disappointing $1.1 million. Matt Dillon’s “City of Ghosts” made about $325,000.
Indie distributor Wellspring had an unqualified hit that opened at the end of last year, Aleksandr Sokurov’s “Russian Ark.” While the movie opened in mid-December 2002, it made the vast majority of its $3 million this year. Karim Ainouz’s “Madame Sata” has made about $200,000, while a series of Fassbinder films earned about $160,000 after launching in the spring and Claire Denis’ “Friday Night” made about the same amount. Delphine Gleize’s “Carnage” has earned about $50,000 since opening in September and Marina de Van’s “In My Skin” has earned about $25,000 since opening in November.
“‘Russian Ark’ was clearly a breakthrough for us,” Cattabiani told indieWIRE. “Honestly, no one here expected it would exceed $3 million in North American box office. We did love the film, however, from the start — and figured it would find an audience.”
As Nancy Gerstman and Emily Russo celebrated 15 years in business as a stalwart NYC indie distributor they also marked the success of their Oscar winner “Nowhere in Africa,” from Germany, which won the statue for best foreign film. It made more than $6 million at the box office. Abbas Kiarostami’s “Ten” earned a bit more than $100,000, while Guy Maddin’s “Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary” made about $40,000.
[Rania Richardson and Brian Brooks contributed to this article.]