Perhaps it was the low quality of many of these wannabe blockbusters that led audiences to specialty options in an arguably unprecedented manner. Over the past ten years, the summer season has usually managed just one breakout $20 million-plus specialty hit. Fifteen summer specialty releases have hit that mark since 2003, and three of those came from this summer: "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," "Moonrise Kingdom" and "2016: Obama's America." The only other year to manage this many $20-million summer-specialty-grossers was 2006, with "Little Miss Sunshine," "The Illusionist" and "An Inconvenient Truth" (notably, 2006 was also a disappointing summer for the studios outside of a handful of major tentpoles).
The summer of 2012 has exclusively managed another feat: Two $40 million-plus grossers. Reportedly budgeted at $10 million and $16 million respectively, "Marigold" and "Moonrise" impressively became two of only six summer specialty films to gross more than $40 million in the past decade. The other four are "March of the Penguins," "Little Miss Sunshine," "Midnight in Paris" and "Napoleon Dynamite" -- two of which became best picture nominees. Not bad company.
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"Marigold" and "Moonrise" are huge success stories that led the specialty box office over the season and made clear a few things. In essence, the former showed the considerable, often-ignored market that is the senior citizen demographic, and the latter showed how strong Wes Anderson's fan base is (plus the power of opening a film with Cannes buzz right after the festival, which "Midnight in Paris" and "The Tree of Life" also made clear last year). But these two films are only part of the unique puzzle that was the summer specialty box office of 2012.
Collectively, these noted films -- "Marigold," "Moonrise," "Obama's America," "Rome," "Intouchables," "Beasts" and "Bernie" -- were the summer's magnificent seven in terms of specialty box office, helping the season exceed the milestones of the past three summers:
Specialty films grossing $20 million-plus:
2009 - 1
2010 - 1
2011 - 1
2012 - 3
Specialty films grossing $10 million-plus:
2009 - 2
2010 - 1
2011 - 2
2012 - 5
Specialty films grossing $1 million-plus:
2009 - 15
2010 - 14
2011 - 19
2012 - 20
There's another hopeful trend embedded in this summer's specialty box office performance that doesn't involve dollar signs. Of the top 20 highest-grossing specialty films of the season, 12 had a woman featured either as one of the main characters (including the season's top grosser "Marigold Hotel") or the primary subject (in the case of documentary "The Queen of Versailles"). That's 60% of the list. Moreover, six of the top 20 films were directed or co-directed by a woman: "Girl in Progress," "Your Sister's Sister," "Ruby Sparks," "Hysteria," "The Queen of Versailles" and "Take This Waltz."
Compare this to the studio top 20, where just one film was co-directed by a woman ("Brave," though that's not exactly an example without issue) and only four had a female lead or co-lead character ("Brave," "Snow White and the Huntsman," "Prometheus" and "Hope Springs").
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The top three highest-grossing films of the summer -- "The Avengers," "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Amazing Spider-Man" -- certainly had strong female presence thanks to Scarlett Johannson, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard and Emma Stone. But none of their characters were really co-leads, and championing films that were otherwise considerable boys clubs seems unproductive. What hopefully will be productive, however, is the message that the success of films such as "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" sends to the studios. In a summer where films starring Tom Cruise, Adam Sandler, Vince Vaughn, Johnny Depp and Ben Stiller crashed and burned, Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith proved to be the real box office draws.
Continue to the next page for a rundown of the top 20 highest-grossing specialty films of summer 2012. For a look ahead to what may top next season's list, check out Indiewire's recently published fall preview.