2011 may be remembered as the year that failed to attract audiences, but the year also brought some very clear — and surprising — winners and losers.
In the second part of two articles (you can check out the first one here), Indiewire is taking a look at some examples of both on the specialty side of things. From Lars von Trier and Susanne Bier to Kevin Hart and Sarah Palin, 2011's specialty box office in a nutshell:
Winner: Lars von Trier
After a hugely controversial appearance at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival (where his Nazi-related comments resulted in a persona non grata from the festival), Lars von Trier wasn't exactly having a good spring. But the controversy didn't seem to effect the performance of "Melancholia" come fall. Despite a simultaneous VOD release, the film has so far totalled $2,539,787 for U.S. distributor Magnolia. That's over five times what "Antichrist" made back in 2009 and von Trier's highest-grossing film since "Dancer in the Dark" took in $4,184,036 in 2000.
Loser: Susanne Bier
Von Trier's fellow Dane Susanne Bier — who he infamously dissed during his Cannes rant — started off the year just fine: She won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film for "In a Better World." But then come April, the film was released to the lowest gross of any foreign-language Oscar winner since 1998's "Character." Taking in just $1,008,098, it was also the lowest grossing of Sony Pictures Classics two nominees in the category, with Canada's "Incendies" managing a much more potent $2,071,334 in the U.S.
Winner: "Our Idiot Brother," "Margin Call" and "The Guard"
Who knew as the 2011 Sundance Film Festival came to a close that the three acquisition titles that would perform the best would be The Weinstein Company's "Our Idiot Brother," Roadside Attractions' "Margin Call" and Sony Pictures Classics' "The Guard"? Grossing $24.8 million, $5.3 million and $5.2 million respectively, these three were arguably the only narrative films picked up at the festival to perform beyond expectations (although considering "Brother" was released wide, that might be a questionable designation).
Loser: Pretty much every other narrative film picked up out of Sundance.
The big story of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival was the remarkable amount of deals that went down. But one by one — from "The Future" and "The Art of Getting By" to "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "Like Crazy" to "Bellflower" and "Another Earth" — the films disappointed. Not one of them grossed over $4 million (outside of, of course, the three listed above).
Not to say some weren't respectable performers. "Martha" and "Like Crazy," which many saw as the MVPs coming out of the fests, managed grosses around $3 million. But surely that's not what distributors Fox Searchlight and Paramount Vantage had in mind when they bought the films.
Also notable is how little the Sundance slate will factor into this year's Oscar race (which might have something to do with the low grosses). After two consecutive years of acquisition titles like "Precious," "An Education," "The Kids Are All Right," "Winter's Bone" and "Blue Valentine" all going on to healthy grosses and major Oscar noms, it's highly unlikely any film from Sundance '11 will get a best picture or acting nom.
Winner: The Anglophiles
What a year it was for British cinema in the U.S. After dominating the Oscars with "The King's Speech" (a 2011 specialty success story in itself, as it grossed a big chunk of its $135 million this year), a parade of other British imports made waves at the U.S. specialty box office.
In the Spring, it was UK/US co-production "Jane Eyre," which managed to rake in $11.2 million stateside for Focus Features.
Then there was summer doc hit "Senna" from the U.K.'s Asif Kapadia, which grossed $1.6 million for Producers Distribution Agency to become the third highest-grossing indie doc of the year (after "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" and "Buck").
Finally, a trio of late-year releases: "My Week With Marilyn," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and (though the jury is still out somewhat) "The Iron Lady." "Marilyn" has grossed $9.3 million and should easily see its number climb to $12 million or more; "Tinker" has had four rather stunning weeks of release so far, totalling $4.4 million without going over 57 screens; and "Iron Lady" just debuted to a $55,102 per-theater-average, just behind "Tinker" as the year's fourth best.
Loser: British films about kids fighting aliens.
One of the big headscratchers of the year is why Joe Cornish's British import "Attack The Block" — which had youth appeal, was a big crowdpleaser and had glowing reviews — managed to gross only $1,024,175 in its mid-summer release. Hopefully it finds due cult status in the years to come.
Winner: "The Way" and "I Am"
Grassroots campaigns proved hugely successful for two of the most surprising indie hits of the year – Emilio Estevez's "The Way" and Tom Shadyac's "I Am."
"The Way" made its way to theaters on October 7th via a partnership between Estevez, Elixir Films, Producers Distribution Agency and ARC Entertainment.
Similar to its approach with "Exit Through The Gift Shop" and "Senna," PDA assembled a team who included Richard Abramowitz, Mark Schiller, Dennis Rice and Cynthia Swartz.
"We set out to prove what a traditional distributor would do," Sloss said in a story that ran on Indiewire last month. "Or maybe even a little better."
It worked. After 12 weeks of release, it has grossed $4.2 million. In a true testament to its word of mouth, it saw its per-theater-average rise four consecutive weekends — particularly rare given that it was the film's 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th weekends, respectively.
With "I Am," Paladin slowly expanded the film — a very personal documentary on life's meaning by Shadyac (best known for films like "The Nutty Professor" and "Liar Liar") — city by city, with the director taking the stage at each city's first weekend of screenings. The strategy paid off in spades with "I Am" taking in $1,591,034 over 24 weeks. For a tiny documentary from a distributor who had never had a film gross over $200,000, that's extremely impressive. Read more on the success of the film here.
Loser: "Atlas Shrugged, Part I"
Another grassroots effort, and one that didn't go over so well. Rocky Mountain Pictures released "Atlas Shrugged, Part I," based on Ayn Rand's final novel, in April. The film details a dystopian United States that collapses as government asserts control. It received significant backing by Tea Party groups, with FreedomWorks, the Tea Party-allied group headed by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, among the groups supporting the film.
But after a respectable debut on an aggressive 299 screens, "Atlas" shrugged in the following weeks, totalling $4.6 million. While that seems like a good number by indie standards, considering its $20 million budget and the sky-high expectations asserted by its backers, it's actually a big disappointment.
Winner: Kevin Hart
Perhaps the least expected presence on the list of the top 10 highest-grossing indies of 2011 was comedian Kevin Hart. His stand up film "Kevin Hart: Laugh at My Pain" found stunning numbers this past fall, continuing the trend Hart set with the tour it's based on. Hart's two-day performance of the tour at LA Live's Nokia Theater earlier this year broke Eddie Murphy's long-standing record for an African-American comedian by raking in over $1.1 million.
The film version of "Laugh at My Pain" was produced for only $750,000 by Jeff Clanagan, chief executive of independent production company Codeblack Entertainment, which distributed the movie domestically in AMC Theaters. Without ever going over 300 screens (or screening outside AMC), "Laugh at My Pain" grossed a remarkable $7,705,965. That's more than "Like Crazy" and "Martha Marcy May Marlene" combined. It's also the seventh highest-grossing standup film of all time (a list which, interestingly, consists of all African-American comedians).
Loser: Sarah Palin
Not one but two Sarah Palin-themed documentaries made their way to theaters in 2011; neither suggested America cared enough about Palin to head into a movie theater.
The first, Stephen K. Bannon's unabashedly pro-Palin "The Undefeated," grossed only $116,381. Notably, the film was rushed to select digital theaters in only three weeks and was marketed almost entirely through social media and grassroots efforts, with virtually no traditional media spend. But that doesn't make its final gross much more impressive.
Then there was Nick Broomfield's anti-Palin doc "Sarah Palin – You Betcha!," which proved there's little interest in Palin on either side of the political spectrum when it grossed just $10,935 in September.