The arrival of the Venice, Telluride and Toronto festivals is a stark reminder that the summer movie season has come to a close. Distributors faced some tough times at the U.S. box office this summer, with a handful of bright spots and a number of challenges. "The overall trend this summer with few exceptions was that it's growing increasingly hard to build an audience for films," explained Ryan Werner, VP of marketing for IFC Films, "The runs are shorter, the audiences drops off each week and it is more expensive."
"Rising above the extraordinary glut of films is getting harder and harder and getting by with a film that is fine and interesting but not out-and-out excellent is well-nigh impossible," said Mark Urman, head of U.S. theatrical for ThinkFilm. "The only lesson worth learning is to try to get a good night's sleep, and try not to duplicate a past success--your own or anyone else's."
Of the half-dozen U.S theatrical distributors surveyed by email, most singled out Paramount Classics' release of "An Inconvenient Truth" (which earned nearly $23 million this summer) and Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Ferris' "Little Miss Sunshine" (which has made an estimated $35 million so far) as the biggest bright spots of the season, along with an unlikely group of French films that performed solidly this summer and movies aimed at older audiences.
"The biggest hit and surprise, all rolled into one, is 'An inconvenient Truth', a wonderful documentary, but not the sort that usually does big box office," emphasized ThinkFilm's Mark Urman, "Proving yet again that the only rule with documentaries is that there are no rules!"
"There's no question that attention spans are shorter in current culture," explained Ken Eisen from Shadow Releasing, expressing satisfaction with his small company's release of Laurent Cantet's "Heading South" (earning nearly $700,000 so far). "Nonetheless, we were able to keep the interest in 'Heading South' going because the film drew great and repeated coverage from its critical boosters."'
Gary Palmucci, the general manager of Kino International, who expressed disappointment with the box office performance of "Look Both Ways," is pleased that a few foreign films found an audience this summer. "It was nice to see that French auteur-driven titles can still get a foothold in the current bumper-car marketplace: Patrice Chereau's 'Gabrielle,' Andre Techine's 'Changing Times' and Laurent Cantet's 'Heading South' (a very savvy job by Shadow Distribution) all surpassed my b.o. expectations."
Meanwhile, Ken Eisen of Shadow Distribution cited the successful opening of ThinkFilm's "Half Nelson" (havign earned more than $800,000 so far) as a surprise, and concurring with the company's Mark Urman, he added, "It's easy to forget right now that if you had been told six months ago that a film of Al Gore giving a lecture was going to be a phenomenal hit, everyone would have thought you were crazy." He also noted, "Nothing could be more miraculous and satisfying to anyone who really cares about independent film than to see our greatest filmmaker, Robert Altman, now in his 80s, have the kind of commercial success again that seems to wander his way once every decade and a half (with 'Prairie Home Companion' - it earned more than $20 million)."
"The big surprises of the summer from other companies have been 'Little Miss Sunshine', which critics could have faulted for rehashing other indies but didn't, and 'The Illusionist' (having earned more than $12 million so far), which didn't seem to go over well at Sundance and clearly is connecting with audiences in a big way," noted Eric d'Arbeloff, co-president of Roadside Attractions.
Some noted that the hits this season have been films that reach distinct groups of moviegoers." I think you saw this summer that there is an audience that is being underserved - 'Boynton Beach Club' and 'Heading South' are two examples of films that have connected with older intelligent audiences," detailed Ryan Werner from IFC Films.
"We've been excited about the success of 'Boynton Beach Club' (it has made more than $2 million so far), which we are releasing with Goldwyn," explained Roadside Attractions co-president Eric d'Arbeloff. The two companies decided to take on the film after it performed well in Florida. "The numbers are strong and it's even beating 'Little Miss Sunshine' in certain theaters (mostly upscale suburban art houses)." He explained that the movie made half-a-million dollars before securing a distribution deal. His disappointment of the summer, he explained, was the performance of "The Road to Guantanamo" (which earned just over $325,000)," D'Arbeloff explained, noting that perhaps Roadside should have created a marketing campaign that was not so dark. And he added, " It's probably an issue America, even liberals, aren't ready to face in such an intense visceral way."
Among the high-profile disappointments of the summer, noted by those who were interviewed, include Miramax's "The Heart of the Game" (a little over $440,000), ThinkFilm's "Down In The Valley" (just over $565,000) among others. But, Emily Bear from Miramax explained, "From our perspective, we were thrilled with the critical response to our summer films, 'The Heart of the Game' and 'Once In A Lifetime' and that 'Keeping Up With The Steins' was embraced by audiences throughout the country." Continuing, Bear added, "Anytime you release a picture in the summer it's a challenge, the incredible volume of films means that one must be savvy in picking release dates."
Meanwhile, Urman from ThinkFilm singled out the performance of "Wordplay" from competitors IFC Films and The Weinstein Company as underwhelming. "Given what went into it -- two distributors and tons of money -- I'd say 'Wordplay', in this day and age of inflated populist non-fiction films, would have to be considered a disappointment, which is evidence of another documentary truth: when people say that a film is 'the next something or other', beware." Concluding the criticism, he added, "The whole point with these films is that they are one-of-a-kind; No one needs the next 'Spellbound' when the first was perfectly fine!" (ThinkFilm released the spelling bee doc in 2003, earning $5.7 million at the box office.)
Ryan Werner from IFC Films noted separately that the crossword puzzle doc made $3 million, and he added that his company has had success with titles under its new IFC First Take label, which releases films in very limited number of theaters and via VOD on cable television at the same time. 's "Gabrielle" has earned over $250,000, while ""Russian Dolls" made about $275,000" under the IFC First Take arm. Meanwhile, the Werner noted that "Brothers of the Head" was a disappointment (it made under $40,000 in a month). He said, "It's out there but it's unlike anything else out there this summer and it just did not connect."
"The challenge for us was in bringing out a serious, complex film in the summer, when ostensibly such films don't work," concluded Eisen from Shadow. "I think we helped show that they can…."
D'Arbeloff from Roadside noted that the most rewarding experience he and partner Howard Cohen have had this year is the release of "The Puffy Chair" with Netflix. He explained, "The Duplass Brothers need to go on a speaking tour because they are a case study in how to get the most out of a true micro-budget ($15K) As well as how to inspire their distributor.They made all the materials and did a great job." He added that, in turn, Roadside re-invented its typical release strategy by starting the film in smaller markets and then making it to New York and Los Angeles. Partner Netflix has been targeting local subscribers with email to promote the release. "The numbers haven't been huge," d'Arbeloff noted, "But the film played 10 weeks in Portland and almost as long in Austin and continues to roll out around the country." It has earned under $200,000 so far.
Looking ahead Palmucci considered some changes in the business of releasing independent and foreign language films. "A couple of prominent companies have sharply stepped up their acquisitions with the apparent goal of a token theatrical release coupled with a push to grow their video-on-demand services, potentially attracting some new audiences and replacing the old modes of art film releasing," Palmucci told indieWIRE. "Will it take hold or be a total fizzle? I think at this point it could go either way."