With 2012 a memory, it's time to take a look back at a year at the indie box office. Yesterday, we ran down the top 50 grossing specialty films of 2012 in a simple list format, and noted that generally the year was a big improvement over 2011 in terms of specialty-market milestones. Today we'll take a more detailed look at the biggest success stories, from "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" to the many films co-starring Matthew McConaughey that weren't "The Paperboy" (which, speaking of, will be a part of tomorrow's less friendly take on 2012's box office disappointments).
The top 10, ranked somewhat subjectively, all things (budget, content, etc) considered:
1. "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"
The highest-grossing specialty film of 2012, John Madden's "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" proved (once again) there's a huge market for older audiences. After averaging $27,298 from 27 screens in its first weekend, the film — which stars Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy as a group of British seniors that head to a retirement hotel in India — chugged along at an incredible rate. It spent 14 weeks in the overall top 20, despite never going over 1,300 screens. In the end, the $10 million-budgeted Fox Searchlight release took in $46,377,022 in North America, adding to the $87,976,766 it had already grossed overseas (including a whopping $32.5 million in the UK). Word is that a sequel is already in the works, and who can blame them? With a rapidly aging population in the Western world, old could indeed become the new green.
2. "2016 Obama's America"
Barack Obama might have ended up winning last fall's Presidential election, but his opponents won the box office race. The anti-Obama doc — written and directed by John Sullivan and “The Roots of Obama’s Rage” author Dinesh D’Souza — was intially released on a single Houston screen back in July. It grossed a promising $31,610, but no one would have guessed it would have turned into the $33 million hit it was by summer's end. Eventually expanding to over 2,000 screens and hitting the overall top 10, "Obama's America" is now the fourth highest-grossing documentary of all time — ahead of "Sicko," "An Inconvenient Truth," "Bowling For Columbine" and "Religulous." Clearly, there's a huge market for right-wing documentary that few besides Ben Stein have really tapped into.
3. "Moonrise Kingdom"
For the second year in a row, the Cannes Film Festival's opening night slot proved a huge box office launching pad. Following the same trajectory as last year's "Midnight in Paris," Focus Features released Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" a week after it premiered at the fest, capitalizing on the buzz and finding North American audiences clearly appreciative of not having to wait until the fall to take in the Cannes selection. It broke a per-theater-average record for a live-action film, grossing $130,749 per its four theaters (that record would be broken in September by a different Anderson, Paul Thomas' "The Master") before going on to take in $45,507,865 without ever being in more than 1,000 theaters. It was also Anderson's highest-grossing film since "The Royal Tenenbaums," and could very well become his first best-picture Oscar nominee.
4. "The Intouchables" (and French-language cinema in general)
The French are certainly on a roll Stateside. A year after France-set "Midnight in Paris" dominated the specialty box office and France-produced "The Artist" dominated the Oscars, a French-language film became by far the highest-grossing foreign language film in America. Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano's "The Intouchables" came to America via The Weinstein Company after already becoming a massive, massive hit in Europe (most notably France, where it grossed a staggering $166 million). The Weinsteins played it slow and steady with the release, waiting 10 weeks to expand it beyond 100 screens (and never putting it on more than 200). The word-of-mouth strategy paid off, and it still managed to average over $1,000 per-theater on the last weekend of 2012 — 32 weeks into its release. It's grossed $10,140,608 in the US so far, topping all other foreign- language releases. Notably, many other French language films also did quite well: "Monsieur Lazhar" ($2 million), "Kid With a Bike" ($1.4 million), "Farewell My Queen" ($1.3 million), "The Other Son" ($1.2 million), "Rust and Bone" ($700K so far, but just getting started), "Holy Motors" ($500K and counting) and "Amour" ($300K so far, but even newer than "Bone" and likely to do very well). In the end, 2012 could easily see 8 French language films gross over $1 million. C'est magnifique!
5. "Silver Linings Playbook"
After winning its second straight best picture prize for "The Artist" and then having another big French produced hit in the aforementioned "The Intouchables," The Weinstein Company went into the fall with three big plays: "The Master," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Django Unchained." The first out of the box was "The Master," which had a massive opening in 5 theaters ($147,262 average!) but then underwhelmed when The Weinstein Company pushed it wide the following weekend, ending up with just $15 million to cover its reported $35 million budget. Perhaps due to this, The Weinsteins decided to release David O. Russell's family dramedy "Silver Linings" much more slowly. On 16 screens, it grossed a so-so $443,003 during its first weekend, only to turn things around as it slowly expanded, even seeing its average rise in its 7th weekend. By the end of the year, it had taken in nearly twice what "The Master" made ($27.3 million) with a whole lot more where that came from. The $100 million budgeted "Django," which was released wide on Christmas, doesn't exactly qualify as a specialty release so isn't really eligible on this list. But kudos to the Weinsteins for pulling that off so well also.
It was a very good year for documentary beyond just "2016: Obama's America," with a eclectic quintet — "Bully" ($4.1 million), "Searching For Sugar Man" ($3.1 million), "Samsara" ($2.6 million), "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" ($2.6 million) and "The Queen of Versailles" ($2.4 million) — all crossing the $2 million mark (not to mention late 2011 release "Pina," which grossed most of its $3.7 million in 2012). That might not seem like a lot, but makes them all part of the 70 highest-grossing docs of all time. "Bully" was the overall top grosser among them amidst a fight between distributor The Weinstein Company and the MPAA after the latter rated the film "R," effectively keeping it out of the schools where it could the most good. The Weinstein Company ended up winning the fight, and whether the controversy helped or not, ended up up with the 30th highest grossing doc of all time. Other strong docs at the B.O.? "Marley" ($1.4 million), "First Position" ($1.1 million) and "The Imposter" ($900K, though it did massive business in its native UK).
7. "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
Sure, it won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, but that's not always necessarily an assurance of box office success (see "Like Crazy," "Sangre de mi sangre," "Primer," etc). In fact, "The Brothers McMullen" and "Precious" are the only winners of that prize in the festival's entire history to gross over $10 million. Until now. Despite an unknown cast and an experimental narrative, Fox Searchlight showed you can never underestimate the power of excellent filmmaking when it released Benh Zeitlin's $1.8 million-budgeted "Beasts of the Southern Wild" in late June and saw it gross $11.2 million without ever being in more than 318 theaters.
8. Films starring Matthew McConaughey that aren't "The Paperboy."
You can't win 'em all, but Matthew McConaughey certainly tried in 2012, starring in 4 releases — "Killer Joe," "Magic Mike," "Bernie" and "The Paperboy" that were 3/4ths box office successes, 1/4th box office bomb. And success is certainly a relative term. "Magic Mike" was released wide as a summer studio picture, even though technically it was an independently produced film with a $7 million budget. It shouldn't really count here nonetheless, but you have to hand it to that film for ending up with $113 million at the domestic box office. You also have to hand to "Bernie," which starred McConaughey alongside Jack Black and was directed Richard Linklater (who also helmed McConaughey's breakout, "Dazed and Confused"). That film grossed $9.2 million for tiny distributor Millennium Entertainment, becoming its first film to even gross $1 million. William Friedkin's "Killer Joe," meanwhile, took in $2 million, though that notably made it the 11th highest grossing NC-17 rated film of all time (the rating is often a box office kiss of death). Next year, McConaughey has another batch of films set for release, including indies "Mud" and "The Dallas Buyers Club." We'll see if he can improve on his batting average that time around.
9. "The Perks of Being a Wallflower"
Summit could have gone the wide route Stephen Chbosky's coming-of-age film (based on his own novel) "The Perks of Being a Wallfower," but instead reaped the benefits of a platform approach. After opening to a huge $57,090 per-theater-average on 4 theaters (suggesting fans of the book came out in full force), the film built steady word-of-mouth, having seven straight weekends of $1 million+ grosses without ever going over 800 screens. In the end it eclipsed "The Master" as the highest grossing specialty release of the fall, taking in $17,311,829 en route to what will likely be a long and healthy life in home viewership.
10. "To Rome With Love"
Sure, it was no "Midnight in Paris," but despite significantly less positive reviews, Woody Allen's Rome-set follow up, "To Rome With Love," made it clear that Sony Pictures Classics has figured out the best way for Woody Allen's films to make money: As a summer alternative to big studio releases. Surely aided by a cast featuring Penelope Cruz, Ellen Page, Alec Baldwin and Jesse Eisenberg, "To Rome With Love" grossed $16.7 million Stateside (and another $56 million overseas) to become one of Allen's 12 highest grossing films (in a filmography that now features 40+ films).
Honorable mentions: Despite a lack of awards love, Focus Features has already grossed $10.7 million from "Anna Karenina" (and should add a few more million); Surprise Golden Globe nominee "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen" was also a surprise box office sleeper hit early the year, grossing $9 million for CBS Films; "Arbitrage" followed up "Margin Call" as another Roadside Attractions-released financial world-set film to do very well on both VOD and in theaters, grossing $7.9 million; Christian audiences came out in force for anti-abortion narrative "October Baby," which grossed $5.2 million; Sony Classics got $4.1 million out of Indonesian martial arts action "The Raid: Redemption," which was the highest grossing foreign language film behind "The Intouchables."