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by Peter Knegt
December 29, 2009 7:34 AM
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Box Office 2.0: The Biggest Stories of the 2009 Indie Box Office

Mo'Nique in a scene from Lee Daniels' "Precious." Image courtesy of Lionsgate.

Hollywood is in the midst of celebrating their first $10 billion year at the box office, with James Cameron's "Avatar" already the year's seventh $200 million grosser. But what of Indiewood? It's been a fascinating year at the specialty box office - both good and bad. There were success stories like "Paranormal Activity," "Precious" and "(500) Days of Summer," downfalls of indie institutions like Miramax, and the increasingly imperative consideration of video-on-demand grosses from distributors like IFC Films and Magnolia Films. And while it's impossible to highlight everything of note in a solitary article, here's a rundown of ten of the most notable stories at the indie box office this year, followed by a chart profiling the year's top grossing films.

"Precious" Opens Big

Up until the very last minute, people doubted Lee Daniels' Sundance winner. indieWIRE's Eugene Hernandez wrote a piece entitled "'Precious,' $1 Million or $100 Million?" two weeks before it opened, which brought with it comments that widely suggested it would be more the former than the latter. But then "Precious" - released by Lionsgate - opened to an astounding $104,025 average from 18 screens, and a week later became the only film this decade to place in the overall top 3 while playing on under 200 screens. Doubters were silenced, and "Precious" rallied. While the film has stalled into December, and is not the best picture frontrunner some suggested it once was, it should still end up with a very respectable $50 million tally.

Female audiences and filmmakers

This was truly a landmark year for women and film. Female-centered options dominated the indie landscape, with "Precious," the year's top grossing specialty release, leading the way. The film may have been directed by a man, but it featured an almost entirely female cast and most certainly raked in its box office due in large part to female audiences hungry for options. And beyond "Precious," there were surprisingly many. Christine Jeffs' "Sunshine Cleaning," Lone Scherfig's "An Education," Jane Campion's "Bright Star," Anne Fontaine's "Coco Before Chanel," Claire Denis's "35 Shots of Rum," Pedro Almodovar's "Broken Embraces," Cédric Klapisch's "Paris," Sebastian Silva's "The Maid," Cherien Dabis's "Amreeka"... It's an incredibly long list of often fantastic cinema.

And on top of all of it, these movies are making money. Of the top ten grossing limited released narrative films of 2009, four were directed by women ("Hurt Locker," "Sunshine Cleaning," "Coco Before Chanel," and "An Education"), and three more ("(500) Days of Summer," "Precious" and "Away We Go") were most certainly aimed at female audiences, and feature either a female co-lead ("Summer" and "Away") or a nearly all female cast ("Precious").

"The Hurt Locker" and the Iraq War Film

After years and years of films focusing on the Iraq War - from "In The Valley of Elah" to "Stop-Loss" to "Redacted" - failing to find an audience, most had given up on the idea of a financially successful film set in Iraq. And while at $12 million "The Hurt Locker" was by no means a blockbuster, it seems fantastic reviews and a plot that focuses less directly on the political or social themes of the war and more on a deadly game of urban combat, has helped Bigelow's film kick the losing streak. More over, it seems headed for a considerable amount of Academy Award nominations, and a likely win for Bigelow's direction - a landmark in itself as she'll be the first woman to do so.

Miramax's Rough Year

In the wake of serious internal problems, crumbling Miramax saw its fall slate tank. Miramax's few hopes at redemption after early 2009 financial misfires like "Adventureland" and "Cheri" included Mike Judge's "Extract," which managed just over $10 million in wide release, and the Clive Owen drama "The Boys are Back," which came out of mild reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival to last only 6 weeks in theaters, while Robert De Niro starrer "Everybody's Fine" has grossed just $9,208,876 from its wide release this December.

The Weinstein Company's (Over)-Ambitious Holiday Season

Also having a challenging year were the boys that once headed Miramax. The Weinstein Company faced serious financial pressure going into 2009, and while it was a year that brought them their biggest hit ever in the $120 million grossing "Inglourious Basterds," it was also a year that ended with a trio of so-far underperforming Oscar hopefuls in "Nine," "The Road" and "A Single Man." "Nine" in particular is problematic in that it was very pricey ($80 million), and was off to a rough start over the Christmas holiday.

-This article continues on the next page-

"Valentino" and the Success of DIY

"Valentino: The Last Emperor" surprised many when it opted against traditional distribution and still managed potent box office via a do-it-yourself plan through Truly Indie Films. On March 18th of this year, the film - which follows the closing act of fashion icon Valentino's celebrated career - opened in New York's Film Forum to a $21,784 gross, making it one of the theater’s top-grossing premieres in over three decades. The film slowly but surely expanded after that, ending up with a $1,755,134 gross without ever going over 38 screens at a given time.

"The Cove" Disappoints

Coming off a Sundance audience award and a nearly unheard of string of successes on the festival circuit, "The Cove" entered the marketplace late summer with everything going for it. But the film about dolphin hunts in Japan averaged a less-than-expected $13,875 its first weekend out and then puttered along to a $849,306 final gross. That's a curiously similar number to 2008's "American Teen," which also came out of Sundance with very high expectations for its box office potential and then was released late summer to underwhelming returns.

French Films Reign Suprême

Half of the eight foreign-language films that grossed over $1 million in 2009 - "Coco Before Chanel," "The Class," "Sin Nombre," "Summer Hours," "Gomorrah," "Departures," "Broken Embraces" and "Paris" - hailed from France. Another French entry, "Seraphine," was just below that threshold, and "Chanel" was far and away the year's top foreign grosser. Sony Pictures Classics ("Coco," "The Class") and IFC Films ("Summer Hours," "Paris") were the primary importers of the lot, with the former hoping the trend continues with their February release of Jacques Audiard's Oscar contender "A Prophet."

IFC, Magnolia, and the Curious Case of VOD Numbers

The numbers for the grosses of VOD (Video on Demand) are a mysterious aspect of the indie film industry. Particularly regarding distributors IFC Films and Magnolia Pictures - which release essentially all their films day and date in both theaters and on VOD - the numbers are not generally released to the public. So it becomes difficult to call films like Magnolia's "Humpday" or IFC Film's "Antichrist" true disappointments without knowing how well they did on the service.

But here's what we do know about VOD in 2009. Magnolia's release of Jennifer Chambers Lynch's "Surveillance" grossed seven figures on VOD alone, and in general stayed solidly on the plus side. This is particularly impressive considering "Surveillance" grossed just $27,349 in theaters - which makes its near 4000% increase on VOD quite stunning.

On IFC's end, they told some info to indieWIRE last week about some of their 2009 VOD success stories. Steven Soderbergh's "Che" grossed nearly $1,500,000 at the box office and approximately $1,500,000 on VOD. Matteo Garrone's "Gomorrah" grossed more than $1,500,000 at the box office and $1,000,000 on demand. "In The Loop" became the company's highest grossing film in years, earning $2,400,000 in theaters while "also becoming one of its most successful VOD titles of the year" (no official number was given). They also noted Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist," the Nia Vardalos John Corbett rom-com "I Hate Valentine's Day" and the IFC Midnight horror film "Dark Mirror" as top-performing VOD titles.

"Paranormal Activity" is the New "Blair Witch"

Though not tracked by indieWIRE's box office charts due to the fact that it was released by a studio, "Paranormal Activity" is very much an independent film. Oren Peil's micro-budgeted horror film screened at the 2008 Slamdance Film Festival and was acquired by Dreamworks and Paramount in a truly rare series of events (Steven Spielberg plays a pivotal role). The film was marketed virally, and opened initially on 12 college town screens to a $6,489 average. Then it lept 587% on an expanded 33 screens, averaging $16,212, and then managed a massive $7,066,000 from 159 screens the following weekend. This weekend-to-weekend awe of expectation defiance continued pretty much all the way through to its stunning $107 million final gross, or over 7,000 times its $15,000 budget.

For a list of the top grossing indies of 2009, continue to the next page.

Believe it or not, this time last year , Kirk Cameron-starrer "Fireproof" was being proclaimed the year's top-grossing indie (though "Slumdog Millionaire" would soon take that crown), and nine films had grossed $10 million or more. Here's a rundown of 2009's top twenty:

The Top 20 Limited Release Specialty Films of 2009*

1. Precious: Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire, Lionsgate $41,778,920
2. (500) Days of Summer, Fox Searchlight $32,391,374
3. Capitalism: A Love Story, Overture Films $14,363,397
4. The Hurt Locker, Summit Entertainment $12,671,105
5. Sunshine Cleaning, Overture Films $12,062,558
6. The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day, Apparition $9,744,417
7. Away We Go, Focus Features $9,451,946
8. A Serious Man, Focus Features $9,042,760
9. An Education, Sony Pictures Classics $7,437,144
10. Coco Before Chanel, Sony Pictures Classics $5,964,683
11. The Road, The Weinstein Company $5,879,604
12. Whatever Works, Sony Pictures Classics $5,306,706
13. Moon, Sony Pictures Classics $5,010,163
14. Bright Star, Apparition $4,444,637
15. Food, Inc, Magnolia Pictures $4,417,674
16. Good Hair, Roadside Attractions $4,144,599
17. The September Issue, Roadside Attractions $3,817,787
18. The Class, Sony Pictures Classics $3,766,810
19. The Brothers Bloom, Summit Entertainment $3,531,756
20. Two Lovers, Magnolia Pictures $3,149,034

***-Defining an "independent film" is an increasingly challenging feat. Arguments could easily made that films like "Paranormal Activity" or "Up In The Air" belong on this list, as both were initially limited releases and the former is most definitely an independent film. However, it was decided this list would not include films released by studios (both "Activity" and "Air" hail from Paramount - though likely due to the end of their specialty distributor Paramount Vantage), or specialty division releases that open wide (like "Adventureland," "Whip It" or "Inglourious Basterds").

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3 Comments

  • Peter Knegt | December 30, 2009 2:47 AMReply

    peterindie: The numbers for "Gomorrah" are not a mistake.

  • Dave Jesteadt | December 30, 2009 1:27 AMReply

    "net revenue TO ifc" being the key word there. Clearly the cable company has already taken a sizable chunk... By my calculations, 85k purchases for a gross of 250k would mean a VOD purchase price of $3.40, which simply isn't happening. Far more likely is that it was roughly $850,000 at that point in gross, with around a quarter of that coming back to IFC as net revenue.

    So 1 million does not seem out of the question.

  • peterindie | December 30, 2009 1:00 AMReply

    Your VOD number of “Gomorrah” may be a mistake.

    IFC released this film on VOD on 2/18/2009.
    http://www.indiewire.com/article/sodoms_mob_brother_gomorrah_by_matteo_garrone/

    According to a 5/12/2009 article from Los Angeles Times.
    http://articles.latimes.com/2009/may/12/entertainment/et-cannesvod12?pg=3
    [But even some of IFC's better-known VOD releases are hardly making a killing in the emerging format. The critically acclaimed Italian mob drama "Gomorrah," which IFC bought after the film premiered at Cannes last year, has grossed about $1.5 million in domestic theaters. Its VOD numbers are small in comparison, about 85,000 purchases, for net revenue to IFC of about $250,000.]

    In its first three months of release, “Gomorrah” only grossed more than $1,500,000 at the box office and about $250,000 on VOD. So I don't think it is possible that “Gomorrah” could eventually gross $1 million on VOD.