A planned Friday bump to 1,850 runs qualified Fox Searchlight‘s teen pregnancy comedy “Juno” as the widest release in the mini-major’s history and helped Twentieth Century Fox‘s specialty division achieve the largest, year-end market share among its competitors. “Juno” quickly became the most significant studio specialty film of 2007 thanks to its diverse audiences and widespread popularity. In a year of increased challenges and stagnant art house box office, “Juno” stood out as a beacon of hope for Indiewood in 2008.
Wide releases and aggressive marketing campaigns used to be the domain of studio tent-pole releases like 2007’s top film, Sony Pictures‘ “Spider-Man 3.” The standard business model for specialty distributors like Sony Pictures Classics and Paramount Vantage revolved around fewer prints, smaller debut weekend revenues, limited ad budgets and slow platform expansions to various cities across the country. “Juno,” which has earned over $30 million since its Dec. 7 debut and reached number five on the overall box office chart, helped support the case regarding aggressive release strategies and big buget marketing campaigns for specialty fare. “It’s drawing all ages,” said Sheila Deloach, Senior Vice President, Fox Searchlight Pictures, comparing “Juno” to past Indiewood hits like “Brokeback Mountain,” “Sideways” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” “At one stage the film was heavily drawing females over twenty-five but it’s crossed over to everybody, everywhere loving the movie.”
A late year surge by a few films also showed much potential beyond “Juno”. Focus Features‘ “Atonement” and Paramount Vantage‘s “There Will Be Blood” head into January and February award season with considerable buzz and promising box office. “Atonement” added over $3 million to its total on just 310 screens over last weekend, heading into an agressive expansion in early 2008, while Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “Blood” found itself with the highest per screen average of 2007 in the year’s final weekend, managing an astounding $190,739 on just 2 screens.
Fox Searchlight was number one in 2007 market share with total box office of $136.2 million thanks to “Juno” and earlier successes “The Namesake,” “Waitress” and “Once.” Yet, Fox Searchlight dropped from its 2006 total of $161.6 million, a powerful sign of challenges facing specialty film companies. While actor Will Smith received the lion’s share of credit for the ongoing success of the Warner Bros. fantasy film “I Am Legend” ($207 million dollars in cumulative box office), celebrity leads failed to boost ticket sales for many art house releases throughout 2007. Leading actress Angelina Jolie aggressively promoted the Daniel Pearl drama “A Mighty Heart” but the Paramount Vantage release topped off at a disappointing $9 million. Picturehouse failed to capitalize from “El Cantante,” its biopic of salsa artist Hector Lavoe starring Marc Anthony and his wife Jennifer Lopez earned just $7.6 million from its August release. Samuel Goldwyn Films‘ period drama “Goya’s Ghosts,” featuring Natalie Portman, earned a disappointing $ 1 million. Nicole Kidman failed to save director Noah Baumbach‘s dysfunctional family comedy “Margot at the Wedding” ($1.8 million in cumulative box office).
Michael Moore‘s “Sicko” financed by The Weinstein Company, with Lionsgate Films handling US distribution, was the year’s top documentary with $25 million in domestic box office. But Moore’s high-profile film failed to increase audiences for other documentaries, especially those non-fiction films with environmental or political themes. Kino International‘s documentary “Crossing the Line,” about U.S. defectors to North Korea, earned $9,258. Magnolia Pictures‘ Iraq War documentary “No End in Sight” fared much better, earning $1.5 million. ThinkFilm‘s “In the Shadow of the Moon,” a documentary about the Apollo Astronauts, topped out at $1.1 million, despite a multi-million acquisition deal at Sundance. “What Would Jesus Buy?” director Rob Van Alkemade‘s documentary about Reverend Billy and his crusade against the commercialization of Christmas, has received plenty of news coverage but has only earned $188,778 so far for Warrior Poets Releasing.
As science fiction and fantasy tales continued to be popular studio fare, specialty distributors failed to generate their own fantasy hit in the wake of Picturehouse’s 2006 release “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Fox Searchlight’s “Sunshine,” director Danny Boyle‘s sci-fi thriller about explorers attempting to re-energize the sun, earned $3.7 million despite an aggressive summertime release. “Right at Your Door,” Roadside Attractions’ 2006 Sundance thriller about a nuclear explosion in Los Angeles, fared disastrously, reaching just $65,000 in total box office. “Southland Tales,” director Richard Kelly‘s futuristic drama for Samuel Goldwyn, earned a mild $275,380.
“I do think getting younger audiences into art houses is a challenge, said Jason Cassidy, Miramax Films Executive VP, Marketing. ‘You’re competing with all of pop culture.” Roadside Attractions’ “Colma: The Musical,” director Richard Wong‘s post-high school musical set in the titular Bay Area suburb, was one of numerous youth-friendly releases that failed to attract young audiences to art houses. “The Ten,” director/co-writer David Wain’s collection of hilariously lewd stories set to the Ten Commandments, never turned into the summer’s alternative hit comedy for ThinkFilm, earning $770,000. “The Nines,” screenwriter-turned-filmmaker John August‘s fantasy starring Ryan Reynolds as three similar characters in multiple stories, earned only $63,000 for Newmarket Films. Other youth-oriented films that failed to deliver sizable crowds included Jeffrey Blitz’s coming-of-age comedy “Rocket Science” for Picturehouse ($714,000), IFC First Take‘s 20-something comedy “Hannah Takes The Stairs,” ($23,000) ThinkFilm’s Ethan Hawke drama “The Hottest State.” Sony Pictures Classics’ Japanimation feature “Paprika,” director/co-writer Satashi Kon’s follow-up to the equally acclaimed “Tokyo Godfathers” and “Perfect Blue” ($882,000) and “Eagle vs. Shark,” Miramax’s New Zealand comedy about a video game fanatic and a shy fast-food restaurant clerk who find happiness together ($221,000).
Thanks to filmmaking duo Joel and Ethan Coen‘s crime thriller “No Country for Old Men,” 2007’s highest grossing specialty film at $41.6 million through Jan. 1, and a film as successful as “Juno” at drawing diverse crowds, Miramax placed second after Fox Searchlight with $125.4 million in year-end box office, achieving a dramatic increase from its 2006 totals of $43 million. Focus Features reached number three in market share with $124.8 million, like Fox Searchlight, a drop from its 2006 totals. Last among specialty units was Warner Independent with $15.6 million in box office in 2007, a drop from $27.4 million in 2006. The Aussie comedy “Introducing the Dwights” proved to be a failed attempt at counter-programming against summer blockbusters for Warner Independent. More disastrous was its fall release “In the Valley of Elah,” filmmaker Paul Haggis‘ drama about a missing Iraq War soldier, which turned out to be one in a series of Iraq themed dramas that failed to connect with audiences. Warner Independent aggressively expanded “Elah,” similar to Miramax’s release strategy for “No Country,” Focus’ treatment of its period romance “Atonement” and Fox Searchlight’s handling of “Juno.” For Steven Friedlander, Executive Vice President for Warner Independent Pictures, the lines between studio releases and specialty releases, at least with regards to content, have faded. It made sense for specialty companies to pursue a release model similar to the studios. “The David Cronenberg film “Eastern Promises” could easily have been a Universal release instead of Focus Features,” Friedlander said. “Just as “In the Valley of Elah” could have been a film from big Warners and we could have released “Michael Clayton.” I don’t think audiences can distinguish between a Warner Bros. drama and a Warner Independent drama and I think that’s a good thing.”
Good news for specialty companies included a series of French-language successes, ThinkFilm’s “Avenue Montaigne” ($2 million), Kino International’s “Lady Chatterly” ($687,000), IFC’s Daniel Auteuil comedy “My Best Friend” ($1.4 million) and the top French-language film, Picturehouse’s Edith Piaf drama “La Vie En Rose” with cumulative box office of $10 million.
New companies that found success in the increasingly competitive specialty film business included The Film Sales Company, which released the Spanish-language drama “Live-In Maid“; City Lights Pictures, which released “Manda Bala” (translated from the Portuguese to “Send A Bullet”), filmmaker Jason Kohn‘s documentary about violence and political corruption in present-day Brazil, Elephant Eye Films and its coming-of-age documentary “Billy The Kid” and “Helvetica,” a self-released documentary about global design culture that proved a small film can still secure venues. Also self-released, John Tuturro‘s musical “Romance & Cigarettes” perhaps turned into the year’s most surprise success story. Collecting dust at Sony Pictures Classics, “Romance” ended up being released by Tutorro’s own Boroturro Inc., and ended up grossing $491,000 in a run that never expanded beyond 19 screens.
A film like “Romance & Cigarettes” is the polar opposite of the domain of studio fare, high-profile sequels like “Spider-Man 3” and “Shrek the Third.” While boutique companies like Fox Searchlight can market and promote just as well as anybody, future growth may lie with the ability to create specialty film franchises. The catch may be when sequels hit specialty fare. Imagine “Juno 2.” Of course, that’s a joke.
This week, Variety (citing Rentrak) included the following reported annual grosses for each studio specialty company in ’07 and ’06:
1) Fox Searchlight
2007: $136.2 million
2006: $161.6 million
2007: $125.4 million
2006: $46.2 million
3) Focus Features
2007: $124.8 million
2006: $178.6 million
4) Paramount Vantage
2007: $60.9 million
2006: $46.9 million
2007: $58.3 million
2006: $24 million
6) Sony Pictures Classics
2007: $37.8 million
2006: $59.7 million
7) Warner Independent
2007: $15.6 million
2006: $27.4 million
Steve Ramos is a Cincinnati based writer.
indieWIRE:BOT tracks independent/specialty releases compiled from Rentrak Theatrical, which collects studio reported data as well as box-office figures from North American theatre locations. To be included in the indieWIRE Box Office Chart, distributors must submit information about their films to Rentrak at firstname.lastname@example.org by the end of the day each Monday.