By Peter Knegt | Indiewire April 2, 2014 at 12:53PM
The first quarter of 2014 has come and gone, and while it's been a pleasant affair for the studios -- collectively up 6% from last year thanks to truly epic grosses from "The LEGO Movie," "Ride Along" and "Lone Survivor." But while the list of Hollywood hits so far in 2014 expands down a good dozen titles, the indie front has been off to a slow start.
Art houses were dominated by 2013 Oscar hopefuls for the first two months of the year, with "12 Years a Slave," "Philomena" and "August: Osage County" all taking in sizable portions of their overall grosses ($37 million, $20 milion and $18 million, respectively) in 2014. And while a few small foreign films and indies still managed to perform above expectations in the midst of them, it wasn't until the one-two punch of March's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "God's Not Dead" that independent film grosses really got rolling. So as we look to the juicy release calendar of April to serve us some more big winners, let's look back at 5 films that had a lot to celebrate during a generally underwhelming first quarter of 2014:
1. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" (Fox Searchlight)
Fox Searchlight sure got its 20th anniversary year off to a grand start. A week after seeing its "12 Years a Slave" win the Oscar for best picture, its first release of the new year -- Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" -- exploded into 4 theaters to the tune of $811,166. That resulted in a record per-theater-average of $202,792 and set the wheels in motion for what was to come. The film -- which stars Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody and Jude Law, among many others -- has chugged along in four weekends of expansion since, most recently grossing $8,539,795 from 977 theaters. Its total now stands at $24,171,610, giving it a very good chance of topping the $52,364,010 that "The Royal Tenenbaums" grossed in 2001 to be come Anderson's highest grossing film ever.
2. "God's Not Dead"(Freestyle Releasing)
God was alive and well in American theaters this March with Freestyle and Pure Flix Entertainment's release of Christian drama "God's Not Dead" unexpectedly storming the box office and continuing to remind us of the underserved faith-based market. Directed by Harold Cronk and starring Shane Harper, Kevin Sorbo, Jim Gleason and Dean Cain, "God's Not Dead" -- about a college student whose faith is challenged by his philosophy professor -- grossed $8,563,512 from just 780 theaters in its first weekend, before dropping just 4.5% in weekend two. With a total gross of $21,750,684 and counting, the film should end up with a final gross that at least rivals recent Christian hits like "Courageous" ($34.5 million) and "Fireproof" ($33.5 million).
3. "Gloria" (Roadside Attractions)
The first of three "who needs an Oscar nomination?" examples on this list, Sebastián Lelio's "Gloria" was submitted to the Oscars by Chile -- and then snubbed by the Academy -- in the foreign language category. Roadside Attractions had clearly set up its January 24th release date to potentially benefit from a nomination, but even without it the film managed an exceptional $2,024,588 gross, making it the only 2014-released foreign language film to cross the $1 million mark so far.
4. "Tim's Vermeer" (Sony Pictures Classics)
The year's only breakout doc came in the form of Penn & Teller's "Tim's Vermeer" -- which did have an Oscar qualifying run before hitting theaters (and not getting an Oscar nomination) in late January. Edited down from a remarkable 2,400 hours of footage, the film follows the epic quest of Penn & Teller's buddy Tim Jenison, an inventor based in San Antonio whose creations include the NewTek firm, the videotoaster, an airplane made entirely from elements that he bought at WalMart, and a lip-synching duck. Tim's latest project is attempting to prove a theory that 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer employed technology in painting his works. It also helped result in a $1,424,001 gross for the film that followed the quest, which is more than most of the Oscar-nominated docs from last year can say.
5. "The Lunchbox" (Sony Pictures Classics)
Sony Pictures Classics released Indian import "The Lunchbox" -- which many felt the country should have submitted to the Oscars (they submitted "The Good Road" instead, which did not get nominated) -- on the last day of February, and have seen promising grosses ever since. Directed by Ritesh Batra, the acclaimed film stars Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, and has now totaled $885,451 after having its best frame yet in 73 theaters this past weekend. Expect it to join "Gloria" in the $1 million club in the next week or so...
Peter Knegt is Indiewire's Senior Writer and box office columnist. Follow him on Twitter.