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10 Big Winners at the 2013 Indie Box Office

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire January 6, 2014 at 1:09PM

The 10 biggest winners at the 2013 specialty box office were...
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"Instructions Not Included"
"Instructions Not Included"

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. 

READ MORE: The 30 Highest Grossing Indies of 2013

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. 

'12 Years a Slave'
'12 Years a Slave'

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.

Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins in "Blue Jasmine."
Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins in "Blue Jasmine."

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.

'Spring Breakers"
'Spring Breakers"

5. A24
Perhaps the biggest success story for an individual distributor this year was Daniel Katz, David Fenkel, and John Hodges's A24. Back in February 2013, you would have not expected this to be the case. Their first film, Roman Coppola's "A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III," tanked at the box office, ending up with just $45,350. But a month later, A24 released both "Ginger & Rosa" and "Spring Breakers" on the same weekend. The former did quite nicely, grossing just over $1 million. The latter, however, was a bonafide specialty blockbuster, averaging $87,667 from 3 theaters in its first weekend before going on to gross $14.1 million. And it was followed up nicely by "The Bling Ring" and "The Spectacular Now," which grossed $5.9 million and $6.9 million respectively. That gave them three films on the overall top 20 specialty grossers of 2013. Not too shabby for a first year out. Oh, and did we mention they also saved a ton of cash by focusing their marketing on social media over traditional methods? The spectacular now, indeed.

6. "Mud," "The Place Beyond The Pines" and "The Way, Way Back"
On the list of the highest grossing specialty films of 2013, the three films that ranked from four to six (after "Instructions," "12 Years" and "Blue Jasmine") were separated by less than $200,000 in their final grosses.  And more over, they each -- in different ways -- are about young men and their father figures.  Jeff Nichols' "Mud" ($21,590,086), Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's "The Way, Way Back" ($21,502,690) and Derek Cianfrance's "The Place Beyond The Pines" ($21,403,519) all turned into sizable hits after distributors Roadside Attractions, Fox Searchlight and Focus Features picked them up out of Cannes, Sundance and Toronto, respectively. This was particularly good news for Searchlight, which made a risky $9.75 million acquisition of "The Way, Way Back"  at Sundance, by far the biggest deal of the fest.

"Philomena."
"Philomena."

7.  Films starring 79 year old British Dames.
Way, way back in 2012, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" was the highest grossing specialty film of the year, taking in nearly $50 million. A year later, its stars -- Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, both currently aged 79 -- made a return to the year's specialty top 10 with "Philomena" and "Quartet," which grossed $17.3 and $18.4 million respectively (though "Philomena" should easily near the $30 million mark in the coming weeks).  Not only did they both outgross the likes of youth-skewing "Spring Breakers" and "The Spectacular Now," they also outpaced the vehicles for similarly aged men Robert Redford and Bruce Dern, whose "All Is Lost" and "Nebraska" have both taken in about $6 million so far. Which suggests that not only is there most definitely a "grey dollar" from the very underserved (and growing) senior citizen demographic, but that it also skews female. And for Dench and Smith, it continues a serious roll both are on, from the noted films here to "Skyfall" and "Downton Abbey." Certainly bodes well for "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2."

8. "Enough Said"
Another demographic that drastically does not have its fair share of options in cinemas are middle-aged women. Studio romantic comedies aimed at this demo are much fewer and farther between then they were in their heydays of the 1990s, and more over -- what the studios do produce is mostly garbage (unless "The Heat" counts, which it doesn't really). So all hail Nicole Holfcener and company for giving us the lovely middle-aged rom-com "Enough Said," and all hail audiences for going to see it. The film -- starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini -- has grossed $17.5 million so far, making it Holofcener's highest grossing film ever. Here's hoping this helps green light similar fare in the future.

"Fruitvale Station."
TWC "Fruitvale Station."

9. "Fruitvale Station"
Though it seems unlikely to repeat the best picture nomination its Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning predecessor "Beasts of the Southern Wild" managed, it's notable that even without that accolade, Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station" has already outgrossed "Beasts." Taking in $16.1 million since its summer release (compared to the $12.8 million "Beasts" grossed, even with a Oscar-timed re-release), "Fruitvale Station" is the second highest grossing winner of Sundance's top prize, after "Precious." Even if it doesn't end up getting the love from Oscar both that film and "Beasts" did, "Fruitvale" is already a winner.

10. Sony Pictures Classics' foreign language films.
Sony Pictures Classics -- which has won the last four Oscars for best foreign language film -- was dealt a bit of a shocker when the Academy snubbed its two biggest contenders, "Wadjda" and "The Past," from its shortlist (though the distributor later picked up shortlisted film "The Notebook"). But the company can take solace in the great showing its foreign films did this year at the box office. Four of them -- "No," "Fill The Void," "I'm So Excited" and "Wadjda" -- are among the 15 highest grossing foreign language films of the year, and make up four of only nine non-Bollywood foreign films to hit $1 million this year. "The Past," which just opened two weeks ago, could very well join them.

Note this article only includes North American grosses for specialty films -- indie, foreign and/or documentary -- that opened in limited release (initially under 500 screens -- so that's why "The Butler" or "Don Jon" aren't included, for example) in 2013 and were released by an independent distributor or a studio specialty division. It also includes films that screened only as an Academy-qualifier in 2012 ("Quartet," "The Gatekeepers," etc). Only grosses up until December 31, 2013 are included, and a lot of films noted could see a considerable amount of their grosses still come in 2014 (like "Philomena").

This article is related to: Box Office, Instructions Not Included , Blue Jasmine, Spring Breakers, A24, 20 Feet from Stardom, 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith