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Which Indie Films are Winning (and Losing) in 2012? Indiewire's Mid-Year Box Office Report

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire July 5, 2012 at 12:03PM

Last summer, when Indiewire reported on the indie box office for the first half of 2011, we saw 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.
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"Moonrise Kingdom"

Last summer, when Indiewire reported on the indie box office for the first half of 2011, we saw 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 - "Midnight in Paris," "The Conspirator," "Jane Eyre," "Win Win," and "Cedar Rapids" - had taken in $68.1 million. That was up from $45.2 million in 2010, and just $26.5 million in 2009.

This year, the top five -- "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," "Moonrise Kingdom," "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen," "Bernie" and "Friends With Kids" -- have taken in $83.2 million. That's in large part thanks to "Marigold" and "Moonrise," which are turning into two of the biggest indie summer breakouts of the past decade.

In comparison to the specifics last year, it's almost perfectly on par with regard to the amount of films reaching important specialty milestones:


2009 - 2 specialty films grossed $5 million+
2010 - 6 specialty films grossed $5 million+
2011 - 6 specialty films grossed $5 million+
2012 - 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+
2012 - 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+
2012 - 27 specialty films grossed $1 million+

It's not all good news, though, with many disappointments sprinkled through the first half of 2012's 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 2012 here.

Fox Searchlight "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"

Winner: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 

Never underestimate the power of an overlooked demographic. Fox Searchlight had the year's biggest indie hit so far with John Madden's older-skewing "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel."

Starring Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton and Dev Patel, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" depicts a group of British senior citizens who head to India to retire. It opened in North America in May after already grossing nearly $80 million internationally. In its native UK, it's the fifth highest grossing film of the year, after "The Avengers," "The Hunger Games," "Prometheus" and "The Woman in Black." It's also the fourth best international grossing film released worldwide by Fox Searchlight Pictures, behind only "Black Swan" ($224.6M), "The Full Monty" ($212M) and "The Descendants" ($93.2M).

But who knew it would have such a remarkable following Stateside. After a massive limited debut where it averaged $27,298 from 27 theaters, the film quickly exploded -- taking in over $40 million after nine weekends of release. It ranked in the overall top 10 for six of its weekends, and still managed to rake in over $1 million last weekend from 534 theaters. When all is said and done, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" should end up with a gross around $50 million, making it the fourth highest grossing summer specialty film of the past decade (after "March of the Penguins," "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Midnight in Paris"). It also should outgross both "That's My Boy" and "Rock of Ages," giving us the wonderful suggestion that Judi Dench and Maggie Smith are bigger box office draws than Adam Sandler and Tom Cruise.

Losers: Lola Versus and Sound of My Voice

While Fox Searchlight is currently enjoying a very strong start to another summer release ("Beasts of the Southern Wild," which averaged over $40,000 in its first weekend but its too soon to include it in the "winners" here just yet), it hasn't been all marigolds for the distributor this year.  Two of its at-one-point-promising releases -- Daryl Wein's "Lola Versus" and Zal Batmanglij's "Sound of My Voice" -- crashed and burned.

Starring the indie-darling likes of Greta Gerwig and Brit Marling, respectively, the films' collective grosses are unlikely to cross the $700,000 mark. "Sound of My Voice" opened in April -- to quite strong reviews, one should add -- and averaged only $7,227 from 5 theaters in its first weekend en route to a $408,015 final gross. "Versus" opened less than a month ago and averaged a similar $7,954 from 4 screens, only to drop off even more quickly and end up with just $242,821 as of last weekend (and is unlikely to add more than $50,000 to that number). So Fox Searchlight, the box office gods giveth... and the box office gods most definitely also taketh away.

David Gelb's "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." Magnolia Pictures.

Winners: "Bully," "Marley," "Jiro Dreams of Sushi"

It's been a strong year for docs so far thanks to a trio of very different breakout films: Lee Hirsch's much-hyped anti-bullying doc "Bully," Kevin Macdonald's Bob Marley bio "Marley," and -- most unexpectedly -- David Gelb's "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," a documentary on 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono.

The Weinstein Company's "Bully" -- which received a remarkable amount of press in large part to the MPAA's controversial R-rating and its subsequent PG-13 reduction -- was the definite MVP of the bunch, grossing $3,495,043 to become the highest grossing doc of 2012 thus far.  But just as impressive were the grosses for the much less publicized "Jiro" and "Marley," which took in $2,480,095 and $1,367,905, respectively.

Collectively, the films were also good news for both Magnolia and the Tribeca Film Festival. Both "Marley" and "Jiro" were released by the former, while "Jiro" and "Bully" both premiered at the latter -- suggesting its perhaps a stronger doc market than some give it credit for.

Loser: Undefeated

Despite an Academy Award, a hugely accessible storyline and the Weinstein Company behind it, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin's "Undefeated" was, yes, defeated at the box office. Averaging only $6,633 per theater when it opened the week before the Oscars, winning the actual award didn't seem to do it much good either. Never expanding beyond 20 screens, it puttered toward a final gross of $561,054.  Not a horrendous number by general documentary standards, but clearly not the usual answer to the equation of Oscar+Harvey Weinstein.

Winner: Moonrise Kingdom

For the second year in a row, the opening night film of the Cannes Film Festival opened in theatrical release just a week after it screened at the fest -- and stunned everyone with record-breaking grosses for a limited release. 

"Being Flynn"

This year's "Midnight in Paris," Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" managed an astounding $522,996 from just 4 theaters in its first weekend -- finding the best per-theater-average ever for a live-action film ($130,749).  Its since continued to make the folks at Focus Features very happy by holding the best average of any film in release three weeks in a row before expanding into the overall top 10 thanks to last weekend's 854 screen-wide release. With plenty more where that came from, its gross now stands at $18,465,954, and it should end up the second highest grossing Wes Anderson film ever (after "The Royal Tenenbaums") by the end of this weekend.

Loser: Being Flynn

Focus Features had much less success earlier in the year with Paul Weitz's "Being Flynn." Despite a semi-marketable cast in Robert DeNiro, Paul Dano and Julianne Moore, the film opened to a so-so $10,998 average (from 4 theaters) before falling off sharply in expansion. The film ended up with just $540,152 as a final gross, the lowest grossing Focus Features-released film since Chan-wook Park's "Thirst" back in 2009. 

Winners: Friends With Kids and Salmon Fishing In Yemen

Jennifer Westfeldt's "Friends With Kids."

Really the only two sizeable indie hits of the year's first quarter, CBS Films' "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen" and Roadside Attractions' "Friends With Kids" both clearly tapped into the often film-starved adult female demographic. The former -- a romantic drama starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt -- managed $9,047,981 from its early March release.  "Kids" -- a romantic comedy which reunited most of the cast from "Bridesmaids" -- opened a week later and ended up with $7,251,073. Four months later, they are still among the top 5 grossing specialty films of 2012.

Loser: Darling Companion

Not faring so well was another film geared primarily toward female audiences: Lawrence Kasdan's "Darling Companion." Starring Diane Keaton as a woman who loves her dog more than she loves her husband (Kevin Kline), the film grossed just $767,203 despite some notable actors (Richard Jenkins, Dianne Weist and Mark Duplass also star). The first film from Kasdan ("The Big Chill," "The Accidental Tourist") since 2003's "Dreamcatcher," it's also his lowest grossing.

Winner: The Kid With a Bike, Footnote, The Raid: Redemption, The Intouchables and Monsieur Lazhar

Five foreign-language films managed $1 million+ grosses so far in 2012: Three French language films (The Weinstein Company's "The Intouchables," Sundance Selects' "The Kid With a Bike" and Music Box's "Monsieur Lazhar"), one Israeli film (Sony Classics' "Footnote") and one Indonesian film (Sony Classics' "The Raid: Redemption"). That meant 25% of the top 20 specialty grossers so far this year were not in the English language.

The French domination continued an obvious trend from last year, where "The Artist" and "Midnight in Paris" were two of the year's biggest specialty box office hits (neither of which feature much if any French dialogue, but still.).  Though the highest grossing of the quintet was actually "The Raid: Redemption," which Sony Classics cleverly expanded semi-wide very quickly and saw a gross over $4 million as a result. That made it the highest grossing Indonesian import ever at the North American box office.

This is all in addition to the stunning $7 million that Oscar winner "A Separation" -- which was released at the tail end of 2011 and thus disqualifed from this discussion -- took in mostly in 2012.

Loser: The Flowers of War

One foreign film that did not make a good impression despite a huge budget, considerable English dialogue and the star power of Christian Bale was Zhang Yimou's "The Flowers of War." After an Oscar qualifying run late in 2011 (that resulted in zero Oscar nominations), the $94 million-budgeted Chinese film was released on January 20th through Wrekin Hill and took in a meager $311,434. Thankfully, it's one of the highest grossing films ever in its native China.

Millennium Entertainment "Bernie"

Winner: Bernie

Richard Linklater's "Bernie" just quietly crossed the $7 million mark this past weekend, which is a pretty notable feat.  The film is already far and away the highest grossing film ever for distributor Millennium Entertainment (which never had a film cross the $1 million mark before), and should top "Dazed and Confused" in the next week or so to become Linklater's highest grossing independently released film (three of his studio efforts -- "The School of Rock," "Bad News Bears" and "The Newton Boys" -- have all grossed more).  

Millennium bought the film -- budgeted at a reported $6 million -- out of last year's Los Angeles Film Festival, not typically a breeding ground for big buys.  They opened the film nearly a year later on April 27 on three screens, to a promising $28,602 average. What followed was a slow-and-steady approach, with the film's screen count peaking at 332 seven weeks later. Remarkably, the film managed nine straight weeks of averages above the $2,000 mark. It even saw its average jump from $2,062 to $2,215 in its whopping ninth weekend of release.

Still on 166 screens,"Bernie" is likely to end up with a gross around $9 million -- a mark only 3 limited releases ("Marigold Hotel," "Moonrise Kingdom" and "Salmon Fishing In Yemen") have managed this year.

Losers: A Little Bit of Heaven

While celebrating the success of "Bernie," Millennium is trying to forget "A Little Bit of Heaven" -- a romantic comedy revolving around a terminal cancer patient.  Released in the UK and parts of Europe well over a year ago, the film was dumped by The Weinstein Company until Millennium saved it from non-release purgatory. But after absolutely wretched reviews, the film -- which stars Kate "I've Only Made One Good Movie" Hudson and Gael Garcia "Fire My Casting Agent" Bernal -- opened to a per-theatre-average of $894, suggesting something like 115 people saw it in each theatre. It eventually managed a final gross of $15,375, making it a likely contender for the year's biggest specialty box office bomb.

Check out a full chart of the top grossing specialty films so far in 2012 here.