2010 Specialty Box Office Winners: “Black Swan” Leads Potent Year For Indies

2010 Specialty Box Office Winners: "Black Swan" Leads Potent Year For Indies
2010 Specialty Box Office Winners: "Black Swan" Leads Potent Year Indies

After a sluggish December filled with high-profile disappointments (“Little Fockers,” “Yogi Bear”) and full-fledged disasters (“How Do You Know”), Hollywood failed to break its 2009 record. Indiewood, meanwhile, is singing a very different tune. As the studios saw their Christmas tentpoles generally crash and burn, specialty films like “Black Swan” and “The King’s Speech” – boosted by awards buzz – ended up being the biggest limited releases of the year.

“I’m very bullish on the performance of the specialty market,” said Ted Mundorff, CEO of Landmark Theaters. “We are having another outstanding year and in fact, the specialty market is outperforming the commercial market during the Christmas holidays. Indie film has been performing very consistently over the last few years and this year’s prolific run of films is no exception.”

In 2009, 20 specialty films grossed over $3 million and 13 specialty films grossed more than $5 million; in 2010, a significantly higher 31 and 19 titles hit those respective marks. Led by the $20 million+ grossing trio of aforementioned “Black Swan” and “The King’s Speech,” as well as summer hit “The Kids Are All Right,” the top 50 specialty films grossed a total of roughly $293 million (for a full chart of the top 50 films, check out the next page of this story).

“I think compared to last year the specialty market did very well,” said Denise Gurin, Regal Entertainment senior VP of alternative film. “We all had an uphill journey on our hands when the start of 2010 was limited to the success of ‘Crazy Heart’ vs ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ ‘Milk,’ ‘Doubt,’ ‘The Wrestler,’ and ‘The Reader’ all in January ’09. Thanks to several good indie films spread out over the year and the strong finish we are currently experiencing, this year has not been bad.”

While many of 2010’s biggest specialty grossers were year-end Oscar-bait, there were unique success stories throughout the year. So to cap off a year of specialty box office coverage here at indieWIRE, here’s a look at some of the big winners of 2010:

Black Swan: The undisputed queen of the 2010 specialty box office, Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller set in the world of ballet cannot be simply deemed an awards-season success story. Distributor Fox Searchlight cleverly upped the opening screen count from four to 18 at the last minute and “Swan” soared, averaging a whopping $80,212 per-theater. Just a month later – thanks to a quick expansion to benefit from sky-high buzz – the film has grossed more than $47 million with no signs of a significant slow down. It’s possible this “Swan” could end up being 2010’s $100 million-dollar specialty baby.

The King’s Speech: This is your typical Oscar-driven box office success story. The Weinstein Company released “The King’s Speech” over Thanksgiving to a year-high per-theater-average of $88,863, and then waited a full month (and for Golden Globe nominations to come out) to push it semi-wide. It’s the polar opposite strategy to “Black Swan,” but it paid off. Over the final weekend of 2010, the $15 million-budgeted “Speech” grossed nearly $8 million from just 700 screens (a 73% uptick from the weekend prior, despite no new theaters), averaging $11,108. As the accolades keep pouring in, “The King’s Speech” should end up with a regal final box office gross.

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

The Kids Are All Right: A lesbian family dramedy is not exactly typical summer movie fare (though a lesbian-tinged psychological thriller isn’t typical Christmas fare either, but that’s just 2010 for you), but thanks to smart counterprogramming from Focus Features, the $4 million-budgeted “The Kids Are All Right” became a midsummer dream for specialty exhibitors, grossing more than $20 million. Six months later, it’s a likely best picture nomination.

Documentaries: Though these success stories are not quite as flashy as 2010’s big three, many documentaries had very big years. Focus Features’ “Babies” ($7.3 million), Paramount Vantage’s “Waiting For ‘Superman'” ($6.4 million), Sony Classics’ “Inside Job” ($3.5 million), independently released “Exit Through The Gift Shop” ($3.3 million), Rogue’s “Catfish” ($3.2 million) and IFC Films’ “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” ($2.9 million) collectively grossed $27 million at the box office, and were all among the 50 highest grossing documentaries of all-time. The story of “Exit Through the Gift Shop” – allegedly directed by the mysterious English street artist Banksy – warrants an individual shout-out, as it thrived despite a rather unprecedented release strategy.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest: It was a risky move for Music Box Films to release all three of the Swedish-language adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s hugely popular literary trilogy within just 8 months of each other, but it paid off. A distributor with only one previous $1 million grosser (2008’s impressive French import “Tell No One,” which grossed $6,177,192), Music Box took in a total of $22.8 million from the three films, all of which were among the 20 highest grossing specialty films of the year. Notable too is that on the international side, the films grossed over $200 million worldwide despite a collective budget of reportedly $39 million. David Fincher’s American adaptation – which comes out in less than a year – definitely has a standard to live up to.

The Secret In Their Eyes and I Am Love: The $6.4 million grossing Argentinian Oscar winner “The Secret In Their Eyes” (Sony Pictures Classics) and $5 million grossing Italian import “I Am Love” (Magnolia) both performed well beyond expectations. While the success of “Eyes” can largely be attributed to the buzz it received after beating “A Prophet” and “The White Ribbon” at the Oscars before it was released Stateside, “I Am Love”‘s success is harder to pin down. A mix of great reviews, even better word-of-mouth and the presence of Tilda Swinton (who learned Italian for the role) came together to give Magnolia Pictures its best grosser of the year and America its fifth highest grossing Italian language film of all time.

Winter’s Bone: Even after it won Sundance’s top prize, many doubted the box office potential of “Winter’s Bone,” a grim, small film with no star power to speak of. But excellent reviews, aggressive marketing, and a smart release strategy (quickly expanding the film to cites near the Ozarks, where the film takes place) saw distributor Roadside Attractions having the last laugh as “Winter’s Bone” ended up with a stellar $6,245,508 final gross, and significant potential for multiple major Oscar nominations.

Get Low: Held over from a pick-up at the 2009’s Toronto International Film Festival, Sony Classics astutely avoided the crowded year-end field and opted for a summer berth for this Robert Duvall comedic drama. The result saw grosses approach $10 million and give the distributor its biggest hit of the year.

The Ghost Writer: Despite public outcry against support for director Roman Polanski when he was arrested in September, 2009, U.S. audiences embraced his political thriller when it was released in February of the following year, helping it take in $15.5 million, the highest specialty gross of 2010’s first half.

City Island and Solitary Man: Distributor Anchor Bay Films hadn’t seen a film gross over $250,000 before it released Italian family story “City Island” this past spring, but the film ended up grossing $6.7 million and was followed by the $4.4 million grossing “Solitary Man,” collectively giving Anchor Bay a very big boost as a little-distributor that could.

Films starring, directed by, and/or made for women: Sense a trend with a lot of these winners? Just as it was a story in last year’s version of this article, and reports throughout 2010, it’s clear that while women are still remarkably underrepresented as audiences, filmmakers and actresses in the big studio films, they are much more equal to their male counterparts in the specialty market. The top 50 films at the studio box office in 2010 feature 13 films with lead female characters, and just one directed by a woman (Julie Anne Robinson’s “The Last Song”). The top 50 specialty films, meanwhile, offer 22 films with lead female characters (including 2 of the top 3), and 7 films directed by women. Not exactly equal distribution, but a drastic step closer to it than with regard to the studios.

For a list of the top 50 grossing specialty films of 2010, and the top 10 limited debuts, continue to the next page.

A scene from Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech.”

Top 50 Grossing Specialty Films in 2010*
1. Black Swan (Fox Searchlight) – $47,807,791
2. The King’s Speech (The Weinstein Company) – $22,932,401
3. The Kids Are All Right (Focus) – $20,811,365
4. The Ghost Writer (Summit) – $15,541,549
5. 127 Hours (Fox Searchlight) – $10,434,435
6. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Music Box) – $10,093,358
7. Fair Game (Summit) – $9,118,756
8. Get Low (Sony Classics) – $9,111,488
9. The Girl Who Played With Fire (Music Box) – $7,635,694
10. Cyrus (Fox Searchlight) – $7,461,082
11. Babies (Focus) – $7,320,323
12. Conviction (Fox Searchlight) – $6,783,129
13. City Island (Anchor Bay) – $6,671,036
14. The Last Station (Sony Classics) – $6,617,867
15. Waiting For “Superman” (Paramount Vantage) – $6,415,448
16. The Secret In Their Eyes (Sony Classics) – $6,391,436
17. Winter’s Bone (Roadside) – $6,245,508
18. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest (Music Box) – $5,021,307
19. I Am Love (Magnolia) – $5,005,465
20. Mao’s Last Dancer (Samuel Goldwyn) – $4,817,770
21. Solitary Man (Anchor Bay) – $4,360,548
22. Greenberg (Focus) – $4,234,170
23. Please Give (Sony Classics) – $4,033,574
24. My Name Is Khan (Fox Searchlight) – $4,018,771
25. To Save a Life (Samuel Goldwyn) – $3,777,210
26. The Runaways (Apparition) – $3,573,673
27. Inside Job (Sony Classics) – $3,452,017
28. Exit Through the Gift Shop (PDA) – $3,291,250
29. Catfish (Rogue) – $3,237,343
30. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Sony Classics) – $3,229,586
31. Chloe (Sony Classics) – $3,075,255
32. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (IFC Films) – $2,930,687
33. Never Let Me Go (Fox Searchlight) – $2,419,730
34. A Prophet (Sony Classics) – $2,087,720
35. Harry Brown (Samuel Goldwyn) – $1,818,681
36. Stone (Overture) – $1,801,954
37. Kites (Reliance Big Pictures) – $1,643,486
38. Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (Sony Classics) – $1,621,226
39. Cairo Time (IFC Films) – $1,603,616
40. The Joneses (Roadside) – $1,475,746
41. Nowhere Boy (The Weinstein Company) – $1,457,248
42. Restrepo (NatGeo) – $1,330,894
43. Micmacs (Sony Classics) – $1,262,079
44. I Love You, Phillip Morris (Roadside) – $1,126,301
45. Mother and Child (Sony Classics) – $1,110,509
46. La Mission (Screen Media) – $1,062,941
47. Buried (Lionsgate) – $1,044,143
48. The Perfect Game (IndustryWorks) – $1,037,071
49. 2010 Oscar Shorts (Shorts International) – $1,018,169
50. Animal Kingdom (Sony Classics) – $1,016,417

*-Grosses from January 1, 2010 through January 2nd, 2011. Only includes independent films released by specialty or independent distributors that opened on less than 500 screens.

Top 10 Opening Weekend Per-Theater-Averages of 2010*
1. The King’s Speech (The Weinstein Company) – $88,863/4 theaters
2. Black Swan (Fox Searchlight) – $80,212/18 theaters
3. The Kids Are All Right (Focus Features) – $70,282/7 theaters
4. 127 Hours (Fox Searchlight) – $66,213/4 theaters
5. Blue Valentine (Weinstein Company) – $48,432/4 theaters**
6. The Ghost Writer (Summit) – $45,752/4 theaters
7. Cyrus (Fox Searchlight) – $45,429/4 theaters
8. The Secret of Kells (GK) – $39,826/1 theater
9. Greenberg (Focus Features) – $39,384/3 theaters
10. Waiting For “Superman” (Par Vantage) – $34,758/4 theatersr

*-Grosses from January 1, 2010 through January 2nd, 2011. Only includes independent films released by specialty or independent distributors that opened on less than 500 screens.
**-“Blue Valentine”‘s opening weekend partially took place in 2011.

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

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