If it were only about the numbers, the top specialized movies of 2016 would be a simple story: “Hell Or High Water” earned the most at $27 million, but “La La Land” will wind up making a magnitude more. Both are released by Lionsgate. The end.
However, if 2016 taught us anything it’s that the landscape for specialized releases is incredibly complex. Is Lionsgate a specialty distributor or minimajor? Should we only look at those films that were independently made? (Then we can fight over what that means.) Is it only for films that opened in limited release, then expanded slowly? Should we only consider theatrical releases? Do all documentaries qualify? What about subtitled films?
The top-grossing documentary was “Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party,” released by the faith-and-family label Quality Flix; it took in $13 million, more than triple Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next.” The short IMAX film “National Parks Adventure” made even more, but it was released mostly in museums. The year’s most-acclaimed documentary was “O.J. Simpson: Made in America,” but at 450 minutes it had only a one-week, two-theater release for awards qualification. Its main exposure was in a miniseries format on ESPN.
The biggest foreign-language releases? Well, the biggest release among traditional art house distributors was Sweden’s “A Man Called Ove;” released by Music Box Films, it’s earned $3.3 million and is still in release. However, it’s topped by Mexico’s “No Manches Frida” ($11.5 million) and India’s “Sultan” ($6.2 million), “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil” ($4.3 million) and “Kabali” ($3.9 million).
In 2016, five specialized titles grossed more than $15 million: “Hell or High Water” ($27 million), “The Witch” ($25.1 million), “Eye in the Sky” ($18.7 million), “The Birth of a Nation” ($15.9 million) and “Manchester by the Sea” ($16.1 million and rising). Soon they’ll be joined by “La La Land,” which will exceed $15 million and beyond by the end of the year.
By comparison, this time last year saw seven titles reach $15 million, with “Woman in Gold” and “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” each earning over $30 million. And in 2014, “The Imitation Game” earned $91 million across its release; “The Grand Budapest Hotel” scored $59 million.
Here’s the current list of top grossing 2016 released independent films, as defined by IndieWire. And here are some takeaways on this year’s results:
— Specialized film faces multiple threats.
The elevation of original dramas and documentaries on cable and streaming services continues. “Game of Thrones,” “The Crown,” and dozens of other programs create an instant-gratification zeitgeist that hits the core of would-be ticket-buying customers. Whereas “Pulp Fiction” and “Brokeback Mountain” captured imaginations in recent decades; in the current climate, “Moonlight” and “Manchester by the Sea” have less impact.
Then there’s the studio element. With domestic moviegoers an aging sector, studios develop titles that appeal to older and more sophisticated audiences. It’s an uneven process, but you see it even in expensive, mass-audience Christmas releases like “Passengers” (from Morten Tyldum, director of “The Imitation Game”) and “Assassin’s Creed” (from Justin Kurzel and star Michael Fassbender, who teamed on “Macbeth”). Shifting directors like these to studio fare, cable, and streaming originals means they aren’t making specialized films.
And of course, there’s the sheer mass of titles now available at home.
— Older female audiences are crucial for crossover success; add older men, and it gets better.
“Eye in the Sky” starred Helen Mirren; “Love and Friendship” revived fan favorite Jane Austen; “Hello, My Name Is Doris” starred Sally Field. But “Eye In The Sky” got to double dip, with a military angle that appealed to older men. The old truism applies: Women are more willing to see male-centered films than men are to see those with mainly female characters.
— Younger audiences remain a challenge.
The year is full of noteworthy films with strong festival debuts and edgy, younger appeal. Distributors worked hard to find a wider audience for “The Edge of Seventeen,” “Swiss Army Man,” “The Green Room,” and “Hardcore Henry,” but they were disappointed. The idiosyncratic “The Lobster” defied expectations, reaching $8 million. And “La La Land” is particularly strong among viewers close to the age of its stars. But for the most part, specialized film has more appeal for their parents.
— Be familiar, but different.
The 50 films that fared best on IndieWire’s national CriticWire survey include only two studio films that went wide from the get go: “Arrival” and “Hail, Caesar!” And the combined grosses of these 50 films represents a tiny three percent of total domestic box office. (There’s your difference between specialized and mainstream in stark relief.)
However, so many of the top-grossing specialized entries have familiar casts and genres. There’s western/crime (“Hell or High Water”), military (“Eye in the Sky”), romantic (“Hello, My Name Is Doris,” “Love and Friendship”) — it’s apparent what works for so many wide releases is also true of specialized. The key is to take the familiar and provide fresh elements. To vary from this (aka “La La Land”) is a risk that leaves little margin for error, but the rewards are massive.
One often common thread, though, is many of the top performers have one difference from mainstream releases. In many cases, they are meant to appeal even mostly to North American audiences, not China or Russia or the rest of the world (perhaps some other English speaking upscale audiences at most). So with their lower budgets and often top people willing to work for less money (and possible award recognition), they get thrown into the specialized arena. That’s no big change — it has been a common factor since at least the mid-1980s. It just has never been so dominant.
— Smart distributors avoid awards season.
Apart from the prestige of awards, there’s no reason for specialized distributors to hold their movies for year-end play. One only has to look at the glut of late-year films and see how many, despite acclaim (“Loving” is a clear example) will fall short. There are just too many films fighting for the same audience. And even if audiences wanted to see them, there aren’t enough screens to accommodate them.
Going earlier allows a top film or two to prosper with few other alternatives. The audience is there year round. And earlier dates bring financial advantages. An awards-parallel release often needs sustained, multi-month advertising, along with the extra costs of ads specifically for voters. A film that grosses $20 million midyear likely has a much higher return than the same figure earned around the holidays.
— Amazon and Netflix Make an Impact
Amazon continues to give theaters priority, dividing their releases among several distributors. Roadside Attractions has been their leading partner, led by the successful and growing “Manchester by the Sea,” but they have also gone out through Magnolia, Bleecker Street, Broad Green, Open Road, and Lionsgate (and soon, Cohen Releasing).
That’s a big endorsement for non-studio distributors, which are helped by additional product with less risk (if lower rewards). But it’s an even bigger boost for theaters. No one made a bigger statement for theaters than Amazon.
Netflix isn’t nearly as bullish. They certainly are committed to movies, though not with the same attention as their original series. Their interest in theatrical is limited mostly to documentary awards-qualifying runs. And they never release grosses; they’ll even block theaters from reporting them.
Meanwhile, their eclectic lineup remains an algorithmic potpourri. Their original documentary programming is stellar with “Amanda Knox,” “Audrey and Daisy,” and “13th,” but their original narrative productions have yet to soar (Christopher Guest’s “The Mascots,” “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday,” the initial Adam Sandler film). But they’re also becoming a major source of hard-to-see foreign films. Some of the top distributors of subtitled films, including Kino Lorber and Strand, have their releases show up quickly, including ones placing high on critics’ 10-best lists (“Cemetery of Splendor,” “Chevalier,” “Sunset Song”).
Increasingly, Netlix present films with limited or even no theatrical exposure. The top Israeli film of the year, “Sand Storm,” is touted as a Netflix original; also showing is the Cannes Camera d’or winner and Golden Globe nominee “Divines” from France (which never had any theatrical play). It takes a major amount of effort and initial awareness to discover these, but at least they provide some revenue to distributors to lower their risk in acquiring these films.
— The Indie-Indie Distributors Did Best
The most successful distributors — Roadside Attractions, A24, and Bleecker Street — aren’t attached to studios. They have less of a safety net in ancillary and foreign deals, but also don’t have the restrictions that can limit VOD requirements for their cable and other partners. However, none of these companies can claim a market share close to one percent. Focus Features claims close to two percent, but mostly from two wider releases (“London Has Fallen,” “Kubo and the Two Strings”). They used to regularly provide $20 million-plus specialized releases.
Fox Searchlight, the gold standard in recent years with three Best Picture winners and multiple $50 million+ grossers, suffered through the controversy of the expensive acquisition “The Birth of a Nation.” The often foreign-language dependent Sony Pictures Classics did best with “The Lady In The Van,” but its varied and smart-sounding schedule will rank among the lowest grossing in their recent history. The Weinstein Co. has fared worst of all: Not a single 2016 opening grossed over $5 million. (However, the recently opened “Lion” will likely pass that mark.)
— VOD remains pervasive, but not persuasive
Something close to 250 films opened to at least minimal theatrical runs while also available on VOD or similar outlets. The cachet of having some theatrical play remains essential for “also in theaters” cable listings.
Most of these films aren’t well known, but many have major stars. They often have top film festival pedigrees. Seven of the 14 Sundance American Dramatic Competition films this year were VOD from their initial release. The days when a distributor could find success in parallel releases (i.e., “Margin Call”) appears to have passed. The current model of VOD is a backstop for films not quite able to justify substantial theatrical play.
However, two of the most successful documentaries this year had alternative viewing availability. “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week”(Abramorama) and “Weiner” (IFC) were available at home (the former on Hulu only), proving that older audiences seeking top non-fiction films are still open to theaters.
The elasticity of what is specialized is likely part of what keeps theaters and distributors going. The next year could see strategies change with theatrical windows, but those are decisions that will be made by the major circuits and studios. As always, flexibility and willingness to adapt remains key to survival.