For Hollywood, it was a hit-and-miss summer. Audiences flocked to a handful of films in a very big way (most notably "The Avengers" and "The Dark Knight Rises," both among the ten highest-grossing films of all time), but there also were more major disappointments than a summer had seen in quite some time, from "Dark Shadows" to "Battleship" and "Total Recall."
Perhaps it was the low quality of many of these wannabe blockbusters that led audiences to specialty options in an arguably unprecedented manner. Over the past ten years, the summer season has usually managed just one breakout $20 million-plus specialty hit. Fifteen summer specialty releases have hit that mark since 2003, and three of those came from this summer: "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," "Moonrise Kingdom" and "2016: Obama's America." The only other year to manage this many $20-million summer-specialty-grossers was 2006, with "Little Miss Sunshine," "The Illusionist" and "An Inconvenient Truth" (notably, 2006 was also a disappointing summer for the studios outside of a handful of major tentpoles).
The summer of 2012 has exclusively managed another feat: Two $40 million-plus grossers. Reportedly budgeted at $10 million and $16 million respectively, "Marigold" and "Moonrise" impressively became two of only six summer specialty films to gross more than $40 million in the past decade. The other four are "March of the Penguins," "Little Miss Sunshine," "Midnight in Paris" and "Napoleon Dynamite" — two of which became best picture nominees. Not bad company.
"Marigold" and "Moonrise" are huge success stories that led the specialty box office over the season and made clear a few things. In essence, the former showed the considerable, often-ignored market that is the senior citizen demographic, and the latter showed how strong Wes Anderson's fan base is (plus the power of opening a film with Cannes buzz right after the festival, which "Midnight in Paris" and "The Tree of Life" also made clear last year). But these two films are only part of the unique puzzle that was the summer specialty box office of 2012.
Joining "Marigold" and "Moonrise" in the $20-million club is the anti-Barack Obama documentary "2016: Obama's America." Already the highest-grossing conservative documentary of all time — not to mention one of the 10 highest-grossing documentaries ever, on any subject — the film marks a success story even more unique than a film made for and starring senior citizens. Timed cleverly to expand just as the Republican National Convention was about to get underway, it managed to get itself onto a whopping 1,747 screens by its eighth weekend, a feat very few documentaries have ever achieved. When all is said and done, the film could have a final gross around $30 million. Only four other documentaries have done the same: "Fahrenheit 9/11," "March of the Penguins," "Earth," and, yep, "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never."
Just below "Obama's America" on the summer box office chart are a quartet of films that performed exceptionally well. Woody Allen's "To Rome With Love" overcame generally dismal reviews to become one of only twelve Allen films to gross more than $15 million (out of more than 40 movies) and one of the ten highest-grossing films ever for distributor Sony Pictures Classics.
And while it doesn't compare to the $355 million the film grossed in other parts of the world, The Weinstein Company had by far the summer's biggest foreign-language hit in North America with French import "The Intouchables." The film took in $11,111,807 ($8,125,000 of which came from the United States; the rest mostly came from the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec), making it one of the top 30 highest-grossing foreign-language films ever in North America.
Then there's "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "Bernie," both of which are inching toward $10 million. The former exceeded all expectatins out of Sundance ("It's too experimental to make any money," many a Sundance-goer said back in January) and could end up pushing $15 million. Not too shabby for the $1.8 million-budgeted film, which has confirmed its status as a major Oscar contender with these grosses.
"Bernie," meanwhile, became director Richard Linklater's highest-grossing independently produced film ever (topping "Dazed and Confused") via an impressive slow-and-steady release strategy care of Millennium Entertainment (which had previously never had a film gross more than $1 million).
Collectively, these noted films — "Marigold," "Moonrise," "Obama's America," "Rome," "Intouchables," "Beasts" and "Bernie" — were the summer's magnificent seven in terms of specialty box office, helping the season exceed the milestones of the past three summers:
Specialty films grossing $20 million-plus:
2009 – 1
2010 – 1
2011 – 1
2012 – 3
Specialty films grossing $10 million-plus:
2009 – 2
2010 – 1
2011 – 2
2012 – 5
Specialty films grossing $1 million-plus:
2009 – 15
2010 – 14
2011 – 19
2012 – 20
There's another hopeful trend embedded in this summer's specialty box office performance that doesn't involve dollar signs. Of the top 20 highest-grossing specialty films of the season, 12 had a woman featured either as one of the main characters (including the season's top grosser "Marigold Hotel") or the primary subject (in the case of documentary "The Queen of Versailles"). That's 60% of the list. Moreover, six of the top 20 films were directed or co-directed by a woman: "Girl in Progress," "Your Sister's Sister," "Ruby Sparks," "Hysteria," "The Queen of Versailles" and "Take This Waltz."
Compare this to the studio top 20, where just one film was co-directed by a woman ("Brave," though that's not exactly an example without issue) and only four had a female lead or co-lead character ("Brave," "Snow White and the Huntsman," "Prometheus" and "Hope Springs").
The top three highest-grossing films of the summer — "The Avengers," "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Amazing Spider-Man" — certainly had strong female presence thanks to Scarlett Johannson, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard and Emma Stone. But none of their characters were really co-leads, and championing films that were otherwise considerable boys clubs seems unproductive. What hopefully will be productive, however, is the message that the success of films such as "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" sends to the studios. In a summer where films starring Tom Cruise, Adam Sandler, Vince Vaughn, Johnny Depp and Ben Stiller crashed and burned, Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith proved to be the real box office draws.
Continue to the next page for a rundown of the top 20 highest-grossing specialty films of summer 2012. For a look ahead to what may top next season's list, check out Indiewire's recently published fall preview.
Summer's Top Twenty Highest-Grossing Specialty Films*:
1. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Fox Searchlight)
2. Moonrise Kingdom (Focus Features)
3. 2016: Obama's America (Rocky Mountain)
4. To Rome With Love (Sony Pictures Classics)
5. The Intouchables (The Weinstein Company)
6. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Fox Searchlight)
7. Bernie (Millennium Entertainment)
8. Safety Not Guaranteed (Film District)
9. Girl In Progress (Lionsgate)
10. Ruby Sparks (Fox Searchlight)
11. Celeste and Jesse Forever (Sony Pictures Classics)
12. The Queen of Versailles (Magnolia Pictures)
13. Crooked Arrows (Branded/Peck Entertainment)
14. Hysteria (Sony Pictures Classics)
15. Your Sister's Sister (IFC Films)
16. Killer Joe (LD Entertainment)
17. Robot & Frank (Samuel Goldwyn)
18. Take This Waltz (Magnolia)
19. Farewell My Queen (Cohen Media Group)
20. Headhunters (Magnolia)
*Grosses through September 3, 2012, and only including films that opened on or after April 27, 2012; also note that "specialty film" is defined as a film that opened on fewer than 500 screens and was released by an independent distributor or studio subsidiary.