This time last year, The Coen Brothers' "No Country For Old Men" led the annual specialty box office with $41 million, en route to a $74.3 million final gross, Jason Reitman's "Juno" was just getting started, having taken in $30 of its eventual $143.5 million gross, and Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" had just opened to an '07 high $95,370 per-theater average. What a difference a year makes. With just a few days remaining in 2008, only one specialty release has grossed over $30 million, and that would be IDP/Samuel Goldwyn's Christian romance "Fireproof," starring the one and only Kirk Cameron, which has taken in $33,063,487 without ever going over 905 screens.
Of course, it's almost certain that "Fireproof" will eventually be overtaken. Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" is all but assured a $50 million+ gross as it starts winning some more marketable awards and in the process expands beyond 1,000 screens, while "Milk" should easily top $30 million. Relative newcomers Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" and Sam Mendes' "Revolutionary Road" are also showing considerable promise, coming off two consecutive weekends in which 2008's highest specialty debut record was set.
But it remains that as of this weekend's box office estimates, 2008's top ten specialty grossers look like this:
1. "Fireproof," $33,063,487
2. "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," $22,749,000
3. "Slumdog Millionaire," $19,661,000
4. "The Duchess," $13,848,978
5. "Milk," $13,597,000
6. "Religulous," $13,011,160
7. "Under the Same Moon," $12,590,147
8. "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day," $12,313,694
9. "Rachel Getting Married," $10,018,000
10. "The Visitor," $9,427,089
Last year's specialty crop ended up seeing four $40 million toppers ("Juno," "Blood," "No Country" and "Atonement"), which at this point looks unlikely for this year's group. But you certainly never know as surprise boosts from Oscar season can produce some serious box office magic (frontrunner-turned-underdog-turned-best picture nominee "Atonement" had grossed just over $10 million at the end of 2007, and ended up with just over $50 million).
And year-to-year comparisons aside, there's definitely a lot of bright spots already notable in 2008's numbers. The Weinstein Company's near-Woody high performance from "Vicky Cristina" gave the company something to celebrate. It's just unfortunate its many reasons to hold back on that celebration (namely "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," "Hell Ride," "Eden Lake" and "Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden?).
Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight and Focus Features also had reasons to be grateful for 2008. Sony Classics' found a slew of success throughout '08, with winter's foreign-language hit "The Counterfeiters," summer's "Frozen River" and fall's "Rachel," "I've Loved You So Long" and "Synecdoche, New York"; Fox Searchlight followed up "Juno" with the holiday season duo of "Slumdog" and "The Wrestler"; Focus found successes from wide release "Burn After Reading" (the company's all-time top grosser after "Brokeback Mountain"), as well "Milk," "Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day" and "In Bruges."
Other notable successes included the hugely popular April release of Tom McCarthy's "The Visitor," which shows how smart Overture Films was to hold back its release of the film when it purchased it at 2007's Toronto International Film Festival, and the "roadshow" release of Image Entertainment's "My Name Is Bruce," with Campbell traveling around alongside the movie. It has grossed nearly $200,000 without going over a few screens a weekend. Even more impressive was Logo's releasing of "Noah's Arc: Jumping The Broom," which never went over five screens and grossed $532,244.
As 2008's top doc, Lionsgate's Bill Maher anti-organized religion rant, "Religulous," may have only grossed about half of 2007's champ, Michael Moore's "Sicko," but its success represented a substantially greater overall doc performance this year. While in 2007 only 3 docs grossed $1 million (the others being "No End In Sight" and "In The Shadow of the Moon," both of which just barely crossed that mark), 2008 has seen six, with a few bubbling just under.
In fact, four of the 25 highest grossing docs of all time came out of 2008 ("Religulous," "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," "Shine a Light" and "Young@Heart"). Oscar hopeful "Man on Wire," bubbling $500,000 or so under with nearly $3 million and still in release, could also end up joining that group.
Foreign-language releases also saw various financial triumphs. While one might even consider partially non-English "Slumdog" and significantly non-English "Under The Same Moon" foreign success stories, what stands out as an example is Music Box Films' $6.1 million grossing "Tell No One" which led an onslaught of successful French-language releases (SPC's "So Long," IDP/Samuel Goldwyn's duo "Priceless" and "Roman de Gare," and IFC Films' "A Christmas Tale" and "The Last Mistress).
Other major foreign successes included SPC's aforementioned "Counterfeiters," Picturehouse's $5.7 million grossing "Mongol," Magnolia Releasing's $1.3 million-and-counting "Let The Right One In," and IFC Films' $1.2 million-despite-that-Oscar-snub "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days."
One of the more negative financial themes of the year wasn't found from a specific distributor, but from a group of films that attempted self-distribution. After a very successful summer release of Randall Miller's "Bottle Shock," which grossed $4 million-plus without going over 401 screens, self-distribution found some serious bumps in the road. Lance Hammer's "Ballast" has grossed only $77,000 since opening in October, which is hugely disappointing for a film that received such overwhelming critical responses when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival.
Freestyle Releasing, a company that specializes in service deals for self-distributed films, and which also released "Bottle Shock," saw huge disasters with the releases of "Delgo" and "Nobel Son" (which was also directed by Miller). Just one weekend after "Nobel Son" opened on an inappropriate 893 screens and averaged just $374, "Delgo" averaged just $237, making it by far the worst opening ever for a film on more than 2,000 screens.