With 2009's unusually late Labor Day weekend about to commence, it's safe to call this summer movie season a wrap. Reports have already found their way through the trades, proclaiming this Hollywood's highest-grossing summer ever. Which - without considering inflation of course - was very much the case. By the end of last weekend, overall box office revenue has come in about $4.17 billion, topping the previous record held by the summer of 2007. But of course, those numbers are not indieWIRE's job to consider.
Back in July, indieWIRE ran an article examining the first half of this year's specialty box office. The general consensus was that while Hollywood was doing just fine (at the time tracking 10% above last year - now that number is a little under 7%), Indiewood was having a tougher go at it. Only two limited releases - Christine Jeffs’ “Sunshine Cleaning” and Sam Mendes’ “Away We Go” had grossed over $5 million. The top five had a combined gross of $26.5 million, while at the same point in 2008, the top five had grossed nearly twice that.
Two months later, things have seen a notable turnaround. Led by Fox Searchlight's $25 million-and-counting rom com phenom "(500) Days of Summer," and supplemented by breakouts like Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker," Duncan Jones' "Moon," Robert Kenner's "Food, Inc." and last weekend's record-breaking debut for "The September Issue," summer 2009 has managed to actually improve on 2008.
"It's been a great summer," Ted Mundorff, CEO of Landmark Theaters - the biggest art house chain in the United States - told indieWIRE. "We are extremely pleased with the box office results so far . Our top three summer films - '(500) Days of Summer,' 'The Hurt Locker' and 'Away We Go' - found a 119% increase over 2008. It is distressing to hear the media repeatedly report that ‘indie film’ is no longer viable in the marketplace. Not only will 2009 finish ahead of 2008 - which was our record year - but we continue to expand our audience. Because of the diversity of product we are attracting all ages to our theatres. And thankfully, they seem to be coming back for more."
And while Mundorff's claims are certainly justified, it's also important to look beyond the top grossers. All three of his mentioned top earners blur a bit of a line between "indie" and "studio." It's notable that all three benefited from ad budgets that their smaller competitors simply were incapable of conjuring up. "Summer" and "Away" were distributed by studio subsidiaries Fox Searchlight and Focus Features, while "Locker" was released by "mini-studio" Summit Entertainment, of gazillion-dollar grossing "Twilight" fame.
While noting this distinction is not meant to discredit their success - "Locker" in particular pulled off quite the feat in its $11.6 million and counting gross considering its Iraq War-infused subject matter - it remains an important distinction to make. Looking down the list of the summer's top twenty-five limited releases (which you can find on page 2 of this story), nine of the top ten grossing films came from either Summit or one of four studio specialty divisions - Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, Sony Pictures Classics (which had an impressive 4 in the top 10), and Miramax (though the weak $2.7 million it grossed out of its lone entry "Cheri" is nothing to celebrate).
Now, this isn't new news. Studio specialty divisions have been ruling the indie box office landscape since they started popping up in the mid-to-late 1990s. And the idea of what makes a film "successful" varies greatly between the vast scope of what people generally consider an "indie film" (the mildly disappointing $3.5 million Summit got out of "The Brothers Bloom" would have been a massive success for, say, Music Box Films' "Seraphine") - but it still seems like this summer didn't bring the same merriment to smaller distribution companies than it did to Fox Searchlight and Focus.
Last summer, films like "Tell No One" (Music Box Films), "Elegy" (Samuel Goldwyn), "Man on Wire" (Magnolia), "The Fall" (Roadside Attractions), and independently released "Bottle Shock" all found grosses of $2 million or more. This year, Magnolia Pictures' doc breakout "Food, Inc." was the sole example of a film released by a non-Summit, non-subsidiary distributor to gross over $2 million.
IFC Films' release of Armando Iannucci's "In The Loop" should soon join it. IFC's Mark Boxer believes that film's success shows audiences can still get excited about truly independent film. "'In The Loop' was a true summer hit for us as audiences wanted to laugh during these tough [times]," Boxer told indieWIRE. "The film opened incredibly strong and continues to hold in theatres through Labor Day."
But for every success story like "Food," "Loop," or other examples like IFC's French import "Summer Hours," International Film Circuit's surprising stronghold "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg," and the burgeoning doc wunderkind that could be Roadside's "The September Issue," there were multiple major disappointments. Samuel Goldwyn struggled with "Management" and "Cold Souls," despite the presence of a Hollywood star - Jennifer Aniston - in the former; Regent Releasing - also hoping for cash returns on a star presence, this time Robert Pattinson - couldn't get $500,000 out of "Little Ashes"; Roadside Attractions had a big disappointment in Sundance award winner "The Cove," which has grossed only $619,467 so far; Francis Ford Coppola only managed $454,823 out of "Tetro," released through his American Zeotrope, and Magnolia Pictures couldn't get either Lynn Shelton's much-buzzed "Humpday" or Kirby Dick's widely-discussed doc "Outrage" to crack the limited release top 25. Combined these disappointments mark a frustrating flipside to claims that this summer was a independent film gold mine.
However, one must keep in mind that with Magnolia Pictures and IFC Films in particular, there are evolving methods of attaining revenue. Both distributors are among those releasing their films day and date on VOD, and those numbers are rarely considered when judging a film's overall financial performance. Magnolia's Eamonn Bowles actually reported that the past 12 months have been by far the most profitable ever for the distributor, despite what would appear based on theatrical numbers.
"We had an excellent summer," Bowles told indieWIRE. "'Food, Inc.' bucked the social documentary downward trend to gross over $4 million, we had some huge successes on VOD, notably 'Surveillance,' which looks to be heading into 7 figures on VOD alone, and in general stayed solidly on the plus side. 'Humpday' was a bit of a disappointment. It's a great film and we seemed to get an incredible amount of publicity and good will on it, but the surface descriptors (microbudget, mumblecore, gay porn, sophisticated bromance) made it a tough sell to a larger theatrical audience."
So while VOD seems to really be rearing its head as a potential source of revenue (Bowles' noted "Surveillance grossed just $27,349 in theaters - which makes its near 4000% increase on VOD quite stunning), theatrical will remain the prize everyone's eyes are on as these distributors - studio-affliated or not - head into the fall, generally regarded as indie's biggest hope for (often awards-fueled) returns.
[Check back with indieWIRE in the coming days for our preview of the next few months. But in the meantime, continue to the next page for a list of the top twenty five grossing limited releases of summer 2009.]
The 25 Highest Grossing Limited Releases of Summer 2009
1. (500) Days of Summer (Fox Searchlight) - $25,409,711
2. The Hurt Locker (Summit Entertainment) - $11,626,061
3. Away We Go (Focus Features) - $9,451,946
4. Whatever Works (Sony Pictures Classics) - $5,220,351
5. Moon (Sony Pictures Classics) - $4,652,960
6. Food, Inc. (Magnolia Pictures) - $4,098,279
7. The Brothers Bloom (Summit Entertainment) - $3,531,756
8. Cheri (Miramax) - $2,715,657
9. Easy Virtue (Sony Pictures Classics) - $2,631,543
10. Rudo y Cursi (Sony Pictures Classics) - $1,827,660
11. In The Loop (IFC) - $1,779,340
12. Summer Hours (IFC) - $1,657,001
13. Adam (Fox Searchlight) - $1,393,329
14. Departures (Regent Releasing) - $1,279,245
15. Paper Heart (Overture) - $951,473
16. Management (Samuel Goldwyn) - $934,658
17. The Wonder of It All (Indican) - $707,537
18. The Girlfriend Experience (Magnolia) - $695,417
19. Seraphine (Music Box Films) - $655,388
20. Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (International Film Circuit) - $641,811
21. The Stony of Soraya M. (Roadside Attractions) - $621,676
22. The Cove (Roadside Attractions) - $619,467
23. The Girl From Monaco (Magnolia) - $554,905
24. Cold Souls (Samuel Goldwyn) - $475,615
25. Little Ashes (Regent Releasing) - $472,680
[Includes limited-release films released between May 1-August 31. Grosses as of August 31st.]