"Pines" opened to a stunning $69,864 average on 4 screens in late March before expanding to over 1,500 screens (and a position in the overall top 6 at the box office) by week 4. "Mud" was more aggressive, opening on 363 screens in late April to a $6,104 average before showing remarkable holding power in its next few weeks. Both films notably weren't the tiniest of indies. Each had very marketable names attached to them (Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper in "Pines," Matthew McConaughey and at this point arguably Reese Witherspoon in "Mud"), and had reported budgets of $15 million ("Pines") and $10 million ("Mud"). That said, star power increasingly can mean very little for a film no matter its size, and strong reviews and great word of mouth were clearly the films' greatest assets. It's certainly not easy for any platform release to exceed $20 million in the first half of the year (last year, only "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" did), so for both these films to do is no small feat. Releasing these films -- both of which warrant awards buzz -- in the spring instead of during awards season was a risk that paid off nicely for Focus and Roadside (the latter of which had its biggest grosser ever with "Mud").
Speaking of "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," The Weinstein Company clearly was trying to tap into those same older audience wallets that made that film such a hit with Dustin Hoffman's "Quartet." Like "Hotel," the film is set in a retirement home and co-stars the box office and TV ratings bonanza that is Maggie Smith. The film had an awards qualifying run which resulted in nothing more than a Golden Globe nod for Smith, but that didn't seem to matter. Opening in the general deadzone for new year releases that is mid-January, "Quartet" averaged over $1,000 per theater for 14 consecutive weeks, eventually topping out at $18,381,787 (in addition to the nearly $40 million it made overseas).
On the opposite end of the demographic spectrum was the fourth and final specialty release to gross over $10 million so far this year -- Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers." Starring a quartet of actresses that were barely born when Maggie Smith turned 65 (alongside James Franco), upstart distributor A24 very smartly waited until many folks were on actual Spring Break to release the film, which debuted to a lot of buzz at Venice and Toronto last fall. It paid off to the tune of a scorching $87,667 average in its 3 theater debut, followed by a quick expansion to over 1,000 screens and two weekends in the overall top 10. In the end, the $5 million budgeted film -- which was marketed nearly exclusively through social media -- grossed $14,123,771.
It hasn't always good news. Fox Searchlight -- which last year had the bragging rights attached to "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" around this time and had just released "Beasts of the Southern Wild" -- has had a particularly rough go at it so far, proving the rule that names don't necessarily mean much with "Stoker" (starring Nicole Kidman) and "Trance" (starring James McAvoy and Rosario Dawson) both big disappointments. There also haven't been as many foreign language and documentary breakouts, with really a singular example for each in Sony Classics' Oscar-nominated duo "No" and "The Gatekeepers," both technically 2013 theatrical releases. But in general, specialty distributors should be able to look at 2013 so far and be hopeful. And even just as the next month makes clear, there's a lot more to come.