As Hollywood boasts of "Avatar" and "Alice and Wonderland" leading the box office to a staggering 10% first quarter increase in grosses over last year ($2.6 billion in domestic box office), the specialty world has been having a tough time in its shadow. January and February saw very few new releases take off, and moreover, relatively few 2009 holdovers bleed over into the new year.
Fox Searchlight's "Crazy Heart" was the only specialty release to break $10 million in grosses since January 1, 2010 (though Summit's "The Ghost Writer" should do so any day now). This is a stark contrast to last year, when 2008 holdovers like "Slumdog Millionaire," "The Wrestler," "Doubt," "The Reader" and "Milk" helped bring huge business to specialty theaters, with "Slumdog" the definite M.V.P. of the group (it took in nearly $120 million last year, and ended up remaining the year's top specialty grosser by far). But one should be careful in making any quick judgements just yet.
"To compare this year to last year [is difficult]," Ted Mundorff, CEO of Landmark Theatres, the largest art house movie theater chain in the United States, told indieWIRE yesterday. "Because last year just had an extraordinary run of films that we've never, ever had before. And if you judge 'Slumdog' on its own, it outgrossed anything else collectively. So it's hard comparing the indie world last year compared to this year. Last year, the indie world was way up. But then this year - because of 'Slumdog' - we're running behind last year."
As Mundorff suggested, this may very well be a random trend. There simply wasn't a "Slumdog" this year, because the Academy Awards - which largely push the specialty box office in the first two months of the year - didn't deliver. They did, however, offer quite a few more minor success stories. Of the twenty top grossing specialty films of 2010 (see the below chart), half are 2009 holdovers, all of which were Academy Award nominees. And five of them - "Crazy Heart," "The Young Victoria," "A Single Man," "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," and "The Last Station" - grossed over $6 million. "Heart" is the obvious standout, taking in nearly $40 million thanks in large part to Jeff Bridges' Oscar win.
What's really interesting is what has happened in the weeks since the Academy Awards. In terms of the indie box office, March looks like it will be going out much more like a lion than a lamb.
Summit's Roman Polanski-directed political thriller "The Ghost Writer" has turned into a considerable success story, having grossed $9.2 million with a definite chance of doubling that in coming weeks. And there's recent promise for releases such as Focus Features' "Greenberg," Music Box Films's "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," Sony Classics' "Chloe" and Apparition's "The Runaways," which will have all crossed the $1 million mark by week's end despite only one or two weeks in theaters.
"Since the Academy Awards, the films in March are actually well ahead of the year before," Mundorff said. "So March has really been quite strong, between "The Ghost Writer," "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" and "The Runaways," I think we're trending ahead now."
Mundorff said "Tattoo" in particular is very encouraging as some Landmark theaters actually saw grosses increase this past weekend (its second frame), and he's quite hopeful for the coming months, citing "Exit Through The Gift Shop" and "The Kids Are All Right" as two specialty releases he's particularly excited about.
It would definitely be nice if the specialty box office could hold up in the coming months.
Last year, indieWIRE's mid-year report saw that the "Slumdog"-influenced box office magic in 2009's first quarter did not translate into the second, with only two films not associated with Oscar ("Sunshine Cleaning" and "Away We Go") grossing over $5 million by the end of June.
indieWIRE will be offering a comprehensive preview of the next few months of indie releases in the coming weeks. In the meantime, check out our calendar, which offers release schedules for April, May, June and July.
The Top Twenty Specialty Grossers of 2010*
1. Crazy Heart (Fox Searchlight) $37,265,028**
2. The Young Victoria (Apparition) $9,409,584**
3. The Ghost Writer (Summit) $9,239,079
4. A Single Man (The Weinstein Company) $7,800,776**
5. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Sony Pictures Classics) $6,188,673**
6. The Last Station (Sony Pictures Classics) $6,024,497**
7. Precious: Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire (Lionsgate) $4,988,535**
8. An Education (Sony Pictures Classics) $4,356,711**
9. My Name Is Khan (Fox Searchlight) $3,991,261
10. To Save a Life (IDP/Samuel Goldwyn) $3,763,196
11. Broken Embraces (Sony Pictures Classics) $2,264,050**
12. The White Ribbon (Sony Pictures Classics) $1,997,681**
13. The Road (The Weinstein Company) $1,793,092**
14. The Runaways (Apparition) $1,580,559
15. A Prophet (Sony Pictures Classics) $1,326,760
16. Greenberg (Focus Features) $1,200,139
17. 2010 Oscar Shorts (Magnolia) $997,543
18. Chloe (Sony Pictures Classics) $900,688
19. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Music Box Films) $829,740
20. North Face (Music Box Films) $462,467
*-as of March 29,2010
**-denotes 2009 release and lists only film's gross from January 1-March 29, 2010.