2013 is officially only a memory -- though for many folks in the independent film world, it should be a happy one. Comparatively, this year had more $20 million grossers (six vs. last year's four), $10 million grossers (12 vs. 10) and $5 million grossers (23 vs. 18) than 2012 did when it came to the specialty box office.
Led by Lionsgate and Pantelion's massive Spanish-language hit "Instructions Not Included," this year's biggest hits were a refreshingly diverse mix (certainly compared to the studios), with the top 10 including four films with female leads (two of whom were over 75 years old!), two films with black leads and one with a Latino lead. Wait, that's nearly representative of the actual public -- a public that clearly turned to the specialty market in 2013 to find films actually representing themselves. And here are 10 success stories that resulted from their cinematic decisions:
1. Pantelion and "Instructions Not Included"
There was no specialty box office success story in 2013 like Panetlion Films' "Instructions Not Included." The film -- which tells the story of Valentin (played by director Eugenio Derbez), a former playboy who is forced to change his ways when an ex-girlfriend leaves a baby on his doorstep and takes off without a trace -- clearly made a huge impression with the grossly underserved Hispanic market.
After opening with a massive $7,500,000 from 347 theaters for a jaw-dropping $21,614 average, the film went on to gross $44.5 million. That not only topped "12 Years a Slave" and "Blue Jasmine" as the highest grossing specialty release of 2013, but beat out "Pan's Labyrinth" to become the highest grossing Spanish-language film ever at the domestic box office. It is now one of the four highest-grossing foreign-language films ever in the U.S., ranking behind only "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (Taiwan), "Life is Beautiful" (Italy) and "Hero" (China).
The film marked a big moment for Pantetlion, which is a partnership between Lionsgate and Videocine established in 2010. Aiming to provide Hispanic moviegoers with "a steady source of exciting and original films, which include top-rated Latino actors, directors and writers," the company not only had huge success with "Instructions," but also had a $5.9 million grosser with "Pulling Strings." And notably, both films got a very rare "A+" Cinemascore from filmgoers.
2. "12 Years a Slave"
After opening to a $48,617 average from 19 theaters, Steve McQueen's Solomon Northup biopic "12 Years a Slave" has spent 12 weekends averaging over $1,000 per theater, boosting up above $2,000 the last two weekends thanks to its mammoth awards season haul so far. While the $38 million Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" has now grossed could be seen in comparison to many recent major Oscar contenders as mildly underwhelming, when one considers the hardly marketable content (a dark, sometimes brutal exploration of slavery), its $20 million budget, and the fact that there could be a good $10-20 million where that came from once the Oscar nominations come out, "12 Years" stands firmly in the success story column (and should end up topping the aforementioned "Instructions" as the year's highest grossing specialty film by the end of January).
3. "20 Feet From Stardom"
From "12 Years" to "20 Feet," upstart RADiUS-TWC found its first major theatrical hit in Morgan Neville's "20 Feet From Stardom," which was far and away the highest grossing documentary of 2013 (and among the 40 highest grossing of all time). Things started out strong but unspectacular for the backup singer doc, which averaged $18,199 from three theaters in its first weekend. But then the film rather remarkably held up in theaters for 30 weeks (its actually still playing in five), taking its total to $4.8 million. That made it the highest grosser ever for RADiUS, which typically puts focus on digital releases, but made "20 Feet" its first exclusively theatrical film. It definitely paid off.
4. "Blue Jasmine" and the continuing box office might of Woody Allen.
Sony Classics decided to opt out of the festival circuit entirely with Woody Allen's latest, which made some wonder if it was critically more of a "To Rome With Love" than a "Midnight in Paris." The former managed decent box office despite negative reviews, while the latter soared to a Woody Allen record after opening Cannes to strong ones. But come July, "Blue Jasmine" opened to good notices (particularly for Cate Blanchett, who is the frontrunner to win the best actress Oscar) and arguably even better box office (without the added cost of heading to festivals). It averaged a stunning $102,011 per theater in its first weekend, going on to gross over $33 million. That's the fifth best gross for an Allen film, after "Midnight in Paris," "Hannah and Her Sisters," "Manhattan" and "Annie Hall," and makes it clear that Sony Classics has figured out a strategy to maximize Woody's potential: As summer counterprogramming to blockbluster fare.