Hollywood continues to complain of box-office doldrums amidst a 20% dropoff from last year, but the specialty market seems to be in much better shape. Buoyed by a remarkable batch of low-budgeted Oscar players ("The King's Speech" and "Black Swan" in particular) and then by a few March breakouts ("Jane Eyre" and "Win Win," namely), 21 films have grossed over $1 million and the top 20 specialty releases of 2011 have totaled roughly $245 million (though "Speech" and "Swan" total more than half of that).
"Landmark's numbers over the past few years have been consistently strong, which indicates the viability and endurance of independent film," said Landmark Theaters' Ted Mundorff, CEO of the largest art house movie theater chain in the United States. "Our first quarter ended 8% up over last year despite the industry trending down. Best Picture winner 'King's Speech,' 'Black Swan' and 'Blue Valentine' led Landmark's box office numbers during the first quarter. And our top earners for films released in 2011 are 'Jane Eyre,' 'Cedar Rapids' and 'Barney's Version.'"
Last year was a different story. While "Avatar" and "Alice and Wonderland" led the box office to a 10% first quarter increase in grosses over last year ($2.6 billion in domestic box office), the specialty world had a tougher time. Nothing close to the likes of "The King's Speech" or "Black Swan" was in the 2009 Oscar race, with best actor winner "Crazy Heart" as the only specialty film to gross over $10 million in the first quarter. February release "The Ghost Writer" began to turn things around, followed March hits like "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo."
It wasn't really until Spring 2010 that the box office began to show real signs of the standout year it would become for the specialty market. By the end of March, 16 films had crossed the $1 million mark, and the top 20 specialty films took in $106 million. As noted, this year has easily doubled that number so far.
There's clearly a ways to go before the year's out and a real test will be when distributors start rolling out their risky buying spree from the Sundance Film Festival.
Some success stories of 2011's first quarter:
Oscar-Fueled Holdovers Bring 2011 In With a Bang: As when "Slumdog Millionaire," "The Wrestler," "Doubt," "The Reader" and "Milk" helped bring big business to specialty theaters in the first weeks of 2009, Oscar hopefuls easeq in the new year quite nicely for the specialty market. Crossover phenomenons like "Speech" and "Swan" were clearly at the forefront (both budgeted under $20 million, they brought in near-blockbuster size numbers), as were studio hits like "True Grit" and "The Fighter." But the smaller (and more minimally Oscar-nominated) likes of "Blue Valentine" and "Biutiful" also did good business in January -- particularly the latter, which Roadside Attractions managed to turn into a sizeable foreign language hit despite very grim subject matter. Even films with just one minor nod (or none at all) fared well the Sony Classics trio of "Barney's Version," "Another Year" and "Of Gods and Men" all fared well in January and February.
The Oscar Shorts Program Continues To Do Good Business: The sixth annual theatrically released program of nominated shorts (including doc shorts, for the first time this year) continued to gain strength as an annual event for specialty filmgoers, increasing 35% over last year and 750% since the program's inception.
"The theatrical gross, which reached $1,346,106 yesterday, continues to grow weekly," said Carter Pilcher, CEO of Shorts International. "More cable and satellite pay-per-view distributors have released the films than ever before and we've seen strong purchasing from iTunes. The numbers show how much people love short movies. Watching them with friends and family is a great event and Hollywood is finally starting to give them the recognition they deserve."
Fox Searchlight Gets Win Win Situation With Sundance Comedies: After the huge success of "Black Swan," Fox Searchlight maintained its winning streak with two comedies that debuted at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival: Miguel Arteta's "Cedar Rapids" and Tom McCarthy's "Win Win." Both are among the five best limited debuts of the year, with February release "Rapids" heading for a $7-8 million final gross while "Win Win" could easily pass $10 million if it continues on its current pace since opening three weeks ago. That could make it McCarthy's highest grossing film, topping both "The Visitor" and "The Station Agent." Either way, both films got Searchlight off to a great start this year. The studio subsidiary currently has a 3.7% share of the 2011 marketplace, just 2% less of a share than its owner, 20th Century Fox has (and considerably more than any other specialty division).
Focus Gets Classy Numbers From "Jane Eyre": After having a tough time with late 2010 releases like "It's Kind of a Funny Story" and "Somewhere," Focus has found lovely numbers thanks to Cary Fukunaga's adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre." Leading up to the release, folks wondered whether its non-presence in Sundance or Berlin was suggestive of a weak sophomore effort from "Sin Nombre"'s Fukunaga. But strong reviews and a four-week total of $3,505,366 proved them wrong. With further expansion on the way, "Jane" could give Focus a $10 million hit.
"Bill Cunningham, New York" Breaks Film Forum Records: An unlikely success story is Richard Press's doc "Bill Cunningham New York," a portrayal of the titular 80-year-old New York Times photographer who has spent 40 years riding around New York City on his bicycle, documenting fashion trends on the street by day and New York's social scene at night. The film broke records at New York's Film Forum two weekends in a row. First, it broke the theater's opening-day record (previously held by "Control Room," which opened to $7,210) and their Wednesday opening record ("Valentino: The Last Emperor," $5,963), grossing $8,535. The following weekend, the film saw a stunning 32% rise at the theater, grossing $44,401 over the weekend and $16,582 on Saturday alone, breaking the theater's Saturday record. This past weekend suggests "Bill" won't be quite as huge outside New York, but it's well on its way to being a big success for distributor Zeitgeist Films.
"Red State" Hits The Road: At the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, director Kevin Smith announced he would self-distribute his latest film "Red State", starting with a cross-country tour of "sneak previews." At a single show at New York's Radio City Music Hall (its first stop), the film -- a satirical horror film that takes on a Westboro Baptist Church-type organization -- took in $161,590, which is technically the 10th best per-theater average of all time. Radio City can seat 6,000; at the show, Smith said about 3,800 seats were filled. The screening also included an extensive Q&A and, with ticket prices from $54 to well over $100, it's hardly comparable to most releases (it's more a concert than a movie). But it was a promising start for the film, which has grossed $701,977 so far; the tour wraps this month. The film will be released in traditional theaters in October.
"I Am," "Mooz-Lum" Find Success Doing It Themselves: Though not headed for "Jane Eyre" or "Win Win"-style numbers, Tom Shadyac's "I Am" and Qasim Basir's "Mooz-Lum" were both considerable success stories in their own right.
A very personal documentary, "I Am" begins with Shadyac (known best as a director of studio films like "Liar Liar" and "The Nutty Professor") recounting what happened to him after a cycling accident left him incapacitated. He emerged from the accident with a new sense of purpose, thus leading him to the material at the core of "I Am:" a discussion with various intellectual and spiritual leaders about what's wrong with our world and how we can improve the way we live in it. It has struck a chord with audiences, many of whom have had the opportunity to speak with Shadyac after the screening. Paladin began its release strategy three weekends ago, when the film saw a $10,092 gross from its lone cinema in Portland, which hosted multiple sold-out shows and standing ovations in a 140-seat theater. The following weekend it expanded to Seattle, where it took in $17,500, marking one of the strongest openings of a documentary in Seattle during the past year, second only to “Waiting for Superman." Slowly but surely, the strategy has resulted in a $306,462 gross, with more cites to come (more on the film's release strategy here).
"Mooz-Lum,' meanwhile, was even more DIY, self-releasing without a distributor. The narrative film follows Tariq, a young man who enters college after a strict Muslim rearing. Without a marketing budget (relying heavily on a "Demand It" campaign and our Facebook community), the producers landed a theatrical deal with AMC Independent thanks to a strong social media campaign. The film was released initially in 10 cities (11 theaters) for an opening weekend of $139,835. After rolling out to additional cities, the film has grossed almost $400,000 and is still in theaters.
"We did all of this (including producing the film) on our own," said producer Dana Offenbach. "It was just myself and Qasim and a couple of assistants and interns. As an artist, I've always believed you don't need anyone's permission to create your own work. Now as a producer I have discovered that you don't need anyone's permission to bring your work to its audience."
Said director Basir, "The film managed to open on a major theater chain without a distributor or any traditional marketing and still managed to have one of the highest per screen averages in the country on our opening weekend. It was through our social media (Facebook, Eventful.com, Twitter), grassroots marketing and word of mouth that we were able to get people to the theaters. The experience so far has been an extraordinary one, but this is only the beginning. This film has a long way to go and will get to a lot more people, here and abroad."
-For a list of the top grossing specialty releases of 2011 so far, continue to the next page-
Top Grossing Specialty Releases in 2011*
1. The King's Speech (The Weinstein Company): $117,779,109
2. Black Swan (Fox Searchlight): $65,802,984
3. Blue Valentine (The Weinstein Company): $9,527,696
4. 127 Hours (Fox Searchlight): $8,106,234
5. Cedar Rapids (Fox Searchlight): $6,484,000
6. Biutiul (Roadside Attractions): $4,749,690
7. The Company Men (The Weinstein Company): $4,279,873
8. Barney's Version (Sony Pictures Classics): $4,163,456**
9. Jane Eyre (Focus Features): $3,505,000
10. Another Year (Sony Pictures Classics): $3,092,514
11. From Prada To Nada (Lionsgate): $3,033,623
12. The Way Back (Newmarket):$2,701,859
13. Of Gods and Men (Sony Pictures Classics): $2,510,000**
14. The Grace Card (Samuel Goldwyn): $2,332,361
15. The Illusionist (Sony Pictures Classics): $2,068,035
16. Win Win (Fox Searchlight): $1,985,000
17. Rabbit Hole (Lionsgate): $1,899,568
18. Somewhere (Focus Featues): $1,463,111
19. 2011 Oscar Shorts (Shorts International): $1,343,106
20. The Heart Specialist (Freestyle): $1,103,037
21. I Love You, Phillip Morris (Roadside Attraction): $1,049,557
22. Casino Jack (ATO/Samuel Goldwyn): $880,926
23. Kill The Irishman (Anchor Bay): $786,000
24. Red State (SModcast): $701,997
25. Certified Copy (IFC Films): $650,000***
Top 2011 Limited Openings By Per-Theater-Average****
1. Jane Eyre $45,721/4 theaters
2. Bill Cunningham New York $33,677/1 theater
3. Win Win $30,072/5 theaters
4. Kill The Irishman $29,086/5 theaters
5. Cedar Rapids $20,198/15 theaters
6. Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune $18,211/1 theater
7. My Perestroika $17,680/1 theater
8. happythankyoumoreplease $17,532/2 theaters
9. Mia and the Magoo $16,975/1 theater
10. Miral $16,561/4 theaters
*-Grosses from January 1-April 3, 2011. Does not include films that opened on or after April 1, 2011, and only includes films platform-released through specialty distributors. Bolded films denote 2011 releases.
**-Includes the Canadian numbers for both "Of Gods and Men" and "Barney's Version," where the films were released through Mongrel Media and Entertainment One, respectively.
***-Does not include the Canadian numbers for "Certified Copy," where the film is being released through Mongrel Media. The numbers have yet to be reported to "Copy"'s North American box office total.
****- Does not include films that opened on or after April 1, 2011, and only includes films platform-released through specialty distributors.