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Which Indie Films are Winning (and Losing) in 2011? indieWIRE's Mid-Year Box Office Report

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire June 30, 2011 at 5:17AM

Last summer, when indieWIRE reported on the indie box office for the first half of 2010, we suggested things had taken a hopeful turn in comparison to the year prior.
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Last summer, when indieWIRE reported on the indie box office for the first half of 2010, we suggested things had taken a hopeful turn in comparison to the year prior.

A year later, it seems reasonable to suggest that not only has that trend held, but that things are continuing to spiral upward.

At this point last year, the top five specialty releases - "The Ghost Writer," "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," "Babies," "The Last Station" and "City Island" - had grossed roughly $45.2 million combined (in 2009, the top five specialties totaled only $26.5 million).

This year, the top five - "Midnight in Paris," "The Conspirator," "Jane Eyre," "Win Win," and "Cedar Rapids" - have taken in $68.1 million. In comparison to last year, there's also something of an uptick in the amount of films reaching important specialty milestones:

2009 - 1 specialty film grossed $10 million+
2010 - 1 specialty film grossed $10 million+
2011 - 4 specialty films grossed $10 million+

2009 - 2 specialty films grossed $5 million+
2010 - 6 specialty films grossed $5 million+
2011 - 6 specialty films grossed $5 million+

2009 - 8 specialty films grossed $2 million+
2010 - 15 specialty films grossed $2 million+
2011 - 15 specialty films grossed $2 million+

2009 - 17 specialty films grossed $1 million+
2010 - 22 specialty films grossed $1 million+
2011 - 28 specialty films grossed $1 million+

Overall, this year's domestic box office grosses are tracking a problematic 8% below last year, but it seems that while audiences are turning their backs on studio fare (maybe because this year's crop is consistently quite un-inventive and critically disappointing), they have no problem showing up at art houses (and maybe that's because this year's crop is much better than almost anything the studios are offering).

It's not all good news, though, with many specialty disappointments sprinkled through the first half of 2011 many success stories. indieWIRE recaps some of the biggest winners and most unfortunate losers of the year's first six months in the specialty market. Check out a full chart of the top grossing specialty films so far in 2011 here.

Winner: Midnight in Paris

From the moment it hit theaters, it was clear "Midnight in Paris" would not be the average Woody Allen box office performer. When numbers for its first night of release came in, box office analysts were taken aback: From four theaters in New York and Los Angeles, "Paris" grossed $170,953, averaging a massive $28,492. That was more than his 2010 film "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" averaged in its entire first weekend.

The following night, "Paris" increased its grosses by 25%, topping $212,876. And in an extremely rare turn of events, it increased again on Sunday, bringing its weekend total to a downright stunning $599,003. That amounted to a $99,834 per-theater-average, the 13th best ever recorded, and the 5th best for a non-Disney title (Disney often released its 1990s-era animated films in massive venues with high ticket prices, which is why they make up the top eight per-theater-averages of all-time).

In the weeks that followed, "Paris" more than lived up to the potential of its first weekend. By week five, it was screening in over 1,000 theaters (a record for a Woody Allen film) and continues to do excellent business as it inches past the $30 million and toward the all-time top grosser mark for an Allen film (1986 "Hannah and Her Sisters," which grossed just north of $40 million).

It's also the second best performer ever for the folks at Sony Pictures Classics, trailing only "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (though that film's $128 million total is not a record "Paris" will be able to top).

Loser: The Beaver

Expectations weren't exactly high for Jodie Foster's long-awaited third directorial effort, "The Beaver." Starring walking disaster Mel Gibson as a clinically depressed toy company CEO who finds solace through a beaver hand puppet, the film was clearly going to be a marketing nightmare from the get-go. But surely no one thought it wouldn't even manage a $1 million gross, a quarter of what Foster's previous film - 1996 "Home For The Holidays" (which was considered a box office disappointment at the time) - grossed in its first weekend.

After opening to a dismal $104,000 gross on 22 screens, "The Beaver" expanded poorly, peaking at a screen count of 168 despite initial plans of going wide. After 8 weeks of release, the film's total stands at $958,319.

Distributor Summit Entertainment could probably just chug it past the million dollar mark, but the fact remains: This is not good news for Mel Gibson's career (though everyone else involved can probably walk away from it relatively unscathed). "The Beaver" is by far his lowest grossing film as a lead actor, beating out 1984 $4 million grossing "Mrs. Soffel" (and that's without adjusting for inflation).

His next film is Adrian Grunberg's "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" (which he co-wrote). Starring Gibson as a career criminal nabbed by Mexican authorities and placed in a tough prison where he learns to survive with the help of a 9-year-old boy, it doesn't have a US release slated, despite being long since completed and screening in Euro Film Market.

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Winner: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

While studios bemoan the fate of 3-D, IFC Sundance Selects label and Werner Herzog are celebrating it. Now in its ninth week of release, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" -- an exploration of never-before-seen art in caves in Southern France -- has crossed the $4 million mark, making it Herzog's highest-grossing documentary ever and 2011 top grossing doc by far.

"Cave" is among the 25 highest grossing docs of all time. Not bad for an arty 3-D indie documentary that, at the time of its conception, was unlike anything that's entered the U.S. marketplace. In fact, the movie was made without a business model since, not only was there no such thing as a 3-D indie art film documentary prior to "Cave," but the U.S. arthouse market didn't have theaters that could show it.

Despite that, "Cave" has crossed all sorts of milestones. At the IFC Center in New York, it's broken every box office record. Other theaters around the country are doing similar levels of business. It's also the highest-grossing film ever for Sundance Selects, the recently formed sister company of IFC Films (and for a film they acquired in a reported mid-six figure deal at the Toronto Film Festival, no less).

Loser: Super

Things weren't so, well, super, for another film from the IFC Films family of distributors that was picked up out of Toronto. James Gunn's dark superhero comedy "Super," which stars a fairly marketable quartet in Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler and Kevin Bacon, opened to a dismal $52,800 from 11 screens (averaging $4,800), and ended up with just $324,138. Still, the film is basically designed to do well on VOD, so perhaps IFC can make the film profitable that way (those numbers have not been made available).


Winner: Jane Eyre

After having a tough time with late 2010 releases like "It's Kind of a Funny Story" and "Somewhere," Focus Features found very good 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 the director of "Sin Nombre." But strong reviews and a leggy performance in expansion drove the Mia Wasikowska-Michael Fassbender starrer to just over $11 million, more than doubling the performance of the Anna Paquin-starring 1996 adaptation, and giving the first quarter of 2011 essentially its lone potential Oscar contender.

Loser: Atlas Shrugged, Part I

Another big literary adaptation came care of Rocky Mountain Pictures' take on Ayn Rand "Atlas Shrugged, Part I." The $15 million-budgeted film received significant backing by Tea Party groups, with FreedomWorks, the Tea Party-allied group headed by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R), among the groups supporting the film. While its first weekend found a respectable $1,676,917 gross from 299 screens, the film failed to hold on past its core audience. It dropped 48% in its second weekend, despite adding 166 additional screens, and was out of theaters by week five with a disappointing final tally of $4,563,873.


Winners: Win Win and Cedar Rapids

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." February release "Rapids" found a $6,861,102 final gross, while "Win Win" managed to cross the $10 million mark, making it McCarthy's highest grossing film (topping both "The Visitor" and "The Station Agent").

Together, the films helped Searchlight off to a great start. Coupled with the spillover success of "Swan," the studio subsidiary currently has a 2.1% share of the 2011 marketplace, a considerable uptick from 2010, when it managed 1.4% by year's end.

Loser: The Art of Getting By

Unfortunately, "The Art of Getting By" did not help the Searchlight cause. Like "Win Win" and "Cedar Rapids," the film debuted at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival (then titled "Homework"). Searchlight picked it up amidst a festival buying spree (for a reported $3 million+ according to Hollywood Reporter). The Freddie Highmore-Emma Roberts starrer opened on an ambitious 610 screens and bombed right out of the gate, grossing just $700,000 for a $1,148 per-theater-average.


Winner: Bill Cunningham, New York

Richard Press doc "Bill Cunningham New York" is 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.

Distributor Zeitgeist Films managed to put "Bill" into the specialty zeitgeist outside of New York as well, expanding the film nicely to a $1,339,650 current gross. That made it the 25-year-old distributor's third highest grossing film ever, behind only "The Corporation" and "Nowhere in Africa."

Loser: Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times

A second New York Times related documentary is so far not following in "Bill Cunningham"'s footsteps. Andrew Rossi's acclaimed "Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times," which works as a fly inside the walls of the newspaper, debuted on two New York screens two weeks ago - the Angelika and the new Elinor Bunim Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center. It took in $28,911 and averaged $14,456 - reasonable numbers but still underwhelming.

But then in its second weekend it expanded to 17 screens and saw its per-theater-average drop to a weak $2,662, suggesting there’s not going to be too much life for “Page One” outside of New York. Here's to the film finding new legs as it heads across the country -- but for now, it could use an uptick.

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Winner: I Am

Paladin's unique strategy behind Tom Shadyac's "I Am" paid off considerably in the end. The doc, in which Shadyac turns the camera on himself as he speaks with intellectual and spiritual leaders about what's wrong with the world and how it can be improved, slowly but surely spread out across the country with Shadyac himself touring along with it.

Still chugging along in its 19th weekend, the film has now totalled $1,554,577. Shadyac, best known for directing studio films like "Bruce Almighty" and "The Nutty Professor," might not have pulled in numbers he's used to, but for such a tiny film that's a very strong final gross. It's by far the highest grossing film ever for Paladin, topping the $114,766 "The Greatest" took in last year.

Losers: Trust and Sympathy For Delicious

Actors David Schwimmer and Mark Ruffalo found their way to the other side of the camera, directing the indie films "Trust" and "Sympathy For Delicious," respectively. Unfortunately for both, the results were not even close to "I Am" territory. "Trust," which stars Clive Owen and Catherine Keener, managed only $120,016 for distributor Millennium Entertainment, while "Delicious" was anything but for specialty moviegoers, taking in just $13,826 for Maya Entertainment.


Winners: Biutiful, Certified Copy, The Double Hour, Incendies, Of Gods and Men and Potiche

It's been a very good year for foreign-language films (especially French-language ones), with six - Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Biutiful," Abbas Kiarostami's "Certified Copy," Giuseppe Capotondi's "The Double Hour," Denis Villeneuve's "Incendies," Xavier Beauvois's "Of Gods and Men," and Francois Ozon's "Potiche" - crossing the $1 million mark and combining for a total north of $14 million...

Loser: In a Better World

The exception to the rule, oddly enough, was the winner of the best foreign-language film Oscar, Susanne Bier's "In a Better World," which Sony Pictures Classics released to $882,001 final gross. It was the first foreign-language Oscar winner since 1997's "Character" (also released by Sony Classics) not to cross $1 million, suggesting foreign-language Oscar gold doesn't automatically translate into strong U.S. box office cash.


Winner: The Tree of Life

After years of delays and mixed buzz, Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" finally opened in theaters at the end of May. Despite a divisive response (though likely in large part due to the press coming off winning the Palme d'Or in Cannes), the film managed a huge debut: $372,920 from just 4 theaters in its first weekend, averaging $93,230. The numbers were all the more impressive considering the fact that the film is 2 ½ hours long, giving the feature significantly fewer shows than its average competitor ("Midnight in Paris" is only 94 minutes, for example).

Every prime show and evening show sold out in all the theaters and the film will set a house record at the Sunshine in New York City. But it was clear the film could easily alienate audiences with its challenging and unconventional narrative as it began to expand outside major markets.

That hasn't ended up being the case. Five weeks later, the film has hit 211 screens across the country and is still pulling in very strong numbers. Its total as of June 26th stood at $5,843,290, and the film stands a strong chance at crossing the $10 million mark.

Loser: People that paid money for "Tree" thinking it was a "Brad Pitt movie."

See this.

Check out a full chart of the top grossing specialty films so far in 2011 here.