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Summer Box Office Report: Women Rule The Art Houses

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire August 31, 2010 at 3:49AM

Over in Hollywood, it was a hit-and-miss summer when it came to women. Female audiences flocked to "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse," "Eat, Pray, Love," and "Sex and the City 2." But what about female filmmakers? All three of the noted films were directed by men, as was each and every summer Hollywood film to cross the $50 million mark. Not to mention the twenty-two $50 million-grossing films, only five of which saw an actress receive top billing (the aforementioned three plus "Salt" and "Letters To Juliet"). So in general, it's quite reasonable to say that this summer was as appalling as any of the summers that came before it when it came to female representation behind, and to a degree, in front, of the Hollywood camera. So how about some good news?
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Over in Hollywood, it was a hit-and-miss summer when it came to women. Female audiences flocked to "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse," "Eat, Pray, Love," and "Sex and the City 2." But what about female filmmakers? All three of the noted films were directed by men, as was each and every summer Hollywood film to cross the $50 million mark. Not to mention the twenty-two $50 million-grossing films, only five of which saw an actress receive top billing (the aforementioned three plus "Salt" and "Letters To Juliet"). So in general, it's quite reasonable to say that this summer was as appalling as any of the summers that came before it when it came to female representation behind, and to a degree, in front, of the Hollywood camera. So how about some good news?

Turning over to the summer's top grossing specialty releases, women dominated: In audience seats, in the front of the camera and, perhaps to an unprecedented degree, behind it. Of the top ten grossing specialty films this summer, four were directed by women: Nicole Holofcener's "Please Give," Debra Granik's "Winter's Bone," Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg's "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," and Lisa Cholodenko's "The Kids Are All Right" (the latter overwhelming the season's top grosser). More over, of this year's top ten, six featured women in the lead role(s), including four of the top six grossers: "Kids," "The Girl Who Played With Fire," "Bone," and "I Am Love." And it's clear that women made up a sizeable portion of the audiences of "Babies," the summer's top grossing documentary.

One would be hard-pressed to find an example of such a dominance in specialty summers of yore. Last summer, "The Hurt Locker" was the only specialty film directed by a woman to gross over $1 million (and it barely even featured a woman on screen). Other 2009 entries like "(500) Days of Summer," "Away We Go" and "Whatever Works" certainly benefited largely from female audiences, but they all featured women as co-leads with a romantic male counterpart (who often had a more sizeable role). There is no doubt that the sole lead characters of "Kids," "Love," "Fire" and "Bone" were women, and if there were romantic relationships between them and a male (which in most of those films, there wasn't), the woman dominated them.

The success of "The Kids Are All Right" and "The Girl Who Played With Fire" should come as no surprise. No disrespect to either films' ability to gross the fantastic numbers that they did, but "Kids" did have decent-sized star power (in Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo) and the help of a Focus Features-sized marketing budget, while "Girl" was adapted from one of the most successful book series in recent memory.

However, two films that did have significantly surprising box office success were "Winter's Bone" and "I Am Love." Released by Roadside Attractions and Magnolia Pictures, respectively, predicting these films would have made $5.4 million and $4.5 million a few months ago would have seemed pretty risky. While it did win Sundance's top prize, "Bone" has nowhere near the mainstream accessibility that "Kids" and "Girl" have, for example. It's a challenging, dark film that follows a young woman searching for signs of her father in the Ozark Mountains, and it also had no star power to speak of (though Roadside did an excellent job positioning its lead Jennifer Lawrence as the next big thing). "I Am Love," on the other hand, did have a name to market around in Tilda Swinton. But, she's never necessarily been proven a box office draw (see 2009's "Julia," which Magnolia also released and saw a $65,108 gross from), and "I Am Love" - which details the refined world of a wealthy Italian family - had the additional task of getting U.S. audiences to a foreign language film (which, unlike "Girl," wasn't adapted from a series of books that has sold 27 million copies worldwide).

Director Lisa Cholodenko (middle) on the set of "The Kids Are All Right with stars Annette Benning and Julianne Moore. Image courtesy of Focus Features


But in the end, the films succeeded well beyond expectations. While a partial reason for that was definitely a loving response from critics surrounding both films, one also has to hand it to Roadside and Magnolia for their smart moves in getting the films off the ground. Roadside quickly expanded "Bone" to markets near the Ozark Mountains where the film takes place, for example, while Magnolia utilized Swinton's post-Oscar fame to promote "Love" aggressively in realms where most foreign films are never spoken of. By summer's end, "Winter's Bone" became Roadside Attractions' second highest grosser ever, and "I Am Love" became one of the 10 highest grossing Italian language films in U.S. history. Not small feats, and a testament to the fact that there are audiences out there for challenging, female-driven dramas.

There were also some success stories this summer that didn't come from female-led films, and in the interest of avoiding sexism, they should be noted: Fox Searchlight's release of the Duplass Brothers' largely improvised "Cyrus" ended up recouping its $7 million budget to become the season's second highest grosser; Brian Koppelman and David Levien's "Solitary Man" continued Anchor Bay's winning streak after spring sensation "City Island," grossing over $4 million; Aaron Schneider's Robert Duvall-starrer "Get Low" is proving a late summer hit and could easily end up grossing well beyond $6 million for Sony Pictures Classics; Samuel Goldwyn got nearly $2 million out of Michael Caine vehicle "Harry Brown"; and Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington's Afghanistan War doc "Restrepo" made it past the all-too-rare-for-a-doc $1 million mark.

So, there was definitely a lot of good news to go around, though overall this summer didn't excel much beyond its predecessor. With the exception of female-director or female-led films, this summer seemed to be pretty much on par with last summer. While overall champ "The Kids Are All Right" fell short of last summer's big winner, $30 million+ grossing "(500) Days of Summer," the rest of the stats even out quite nicely. In 2009, 14 summer-released specialty films grossed $1 million or more. This summer, that number rose ever-so-slightly to 15.

Here's a run down of the top ten grossing specialty films of summer 2010. For a look ahead to what might top the next season's list, check out indieWIRE's recently published fall preview.

Summer's Top Ten Grossing Specialty Films*:

1. The Kids Are All Right (Focus Features)
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Cast: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo
Opening Per-Theater Average: $70,282/7 screens
Gross-to-Date: $19,149,701

2. Cyrus (Fox Searchlight)
Director: Mark & Jay Duplass
Cast: John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Jonah Hill, Catherine Keener
Opening Per-Theater Average: $45,429/4 screens
Gross-to-Date: $7,353,115

3. Babies (Focus Features)
Director: Thomas Balmès
Cast: Four babies
Opening Per-Theater Average: $4,046/534 screens
Gross-to-Date: $7,320,323

4. The Girl Who Played With Fire (Music Box Films)
Director: Daniel Alfredson
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist
Opening Per-Theater Average: $8,380/108 screens
Gross-to-Date: $5,887,808 (U.S. only)

5. Winter's Bone (Roadside Attractions)
Director: Debra Granik
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey
Opening Per-Theater Average: $21,199/4 screens
Gross-to-Date: $5,433,000

6. I Am Love (Magnolia Pictures)
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Cast: Tilda Swinton
Opening Per-Theater Average: $15,188/8 screens
Gross-to-Date: $4,535,786

7. Solitary Man (Anchor Bay)
Director: Brian Koppelman and David Levien
Cast: Michael Douglas, Jesse Eisenberg, Susan Sarandon, Mary-Louise Parker, Danny deVito
Opening Per-Theater Average: $23,734/4 sceens
Gross-to-Date: $4,313,178

8. Please Give (Sony Pictures Classics)
Director: Nicole Holofcener
Cast: Catherine Keener, Rebecca Hall, Oliver Platt, Amanda Peet, Sarah Steele
Opening Per-Theater Average: $23,625/5 screens
Gross-to-Date: $4,010,320

9. Get Low (Sony Pictures Classics)
Director: Aaron Schneider
Cast: Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray
Opening Per-Theater Average: $22,046/4 screens
Gross-to-Date: $3,633,450

10. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (IFC Films)
Director: Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg
Cast: Joan Rivers
Opening Per-Theater Average: $23,479/7 screens
Gross-to-Date: $2,897,383

*-grosses through August 29, 2010; also note that "specialty film" is defined by a film that opened in under 1,000 screens and was released by an independent distributor or studio subsidiary.

Peter Knegt is indieWIRE's Associate Editor. Follow him on Twitter and on his blog.

This article is related to: I Am Love