Summer glut makes it hard to retain theaters

Here’s the good news: Audiences no longer have to wait in line to see summer blockbusters. The bad news: They’d better like popcorn movies, because not much else may be playing.

Niche films traditionally provide summer counterprogramming for adults who don’t want CGI-style fare. While these little films always have to battle to keep screens, they are having their worst summer ever, due to increased competition and the studios’ success with their biggies.

Fox Searchlight’s “Waitress” has done a tidy $17.5 million since its Memorial Day bow, but some believe the film might have done 40% more business had it been able to keep expanding.

The business model of all niche pics calls for a long and steady run, not a sprint. But with the flood of new equity money upping the number of indie titles and the pressure on the studios to secure the biggest opening weekend possible for their tentpoles, the playing field is even more crowded.

Every summer, a few big studio films like “Poseidon” or “Bewitched” will quickly lose screens, opening up opportunities at the multiplex for little pics. This year, even the majors are feeling the squeeze as the bumper crop includes latest entries “Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix,” “Transformers” and “Ratatouille,” while older tentpoles still hang on, such as “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.”

Even “little” Hollywood films like Universal’s laffer “Knocked Up” are showing enviable stamina, helping summer B.O. hit $2.2 billion, a 2% jump over last year.

Still, it’s the niche pics that suffer most. Due to recent fall and year-end traffic jams, more specialty titles are migrating to the summer. This year, there have been 90 films that opened on fewer than 1,000 screens — a huge jump from the 66 such pics only two years ago.

This summer has no lack of strong indie entries, including Fox Searchlight’s “Once” and Picturehouse’s “La Vie en Rose.”

Both of those have succeeded by keeping the screen count modest. One specialty film pushing the boundaries is the Weinstein Co.’s “Sicko,” distribbed by Lionsgate. The pic expanded from 703 locations to 756 theaters over the July 13 weekend after upping its cume to more than $11 million. But the specialty biz is watching carefully to see if it is able to keep expanding — and for how long. In some cases, multiplexes are keeping the film but moving it to smaller auditoriums, which will not affect screen count but will affect B.O.

One distrib laments: “No one comes up to the window at a 30-plex and says, ‘Why aren’t you showing ‘Waitress’? They say, ‘Why isn’t there a showing of ‘Transformers’ every 10 minutes?’ “

Searchlight’s Steve Gilula says, “It’s a question of the cup being half empty and the cup being half full. We’ve had tremendous success with ‘Waitress.’ At the same time, we’ve had frustration. We did very, very well, but our grosses weren’t high enough to always make the cut.”

Over Memorial Day weekend, “Waitress” came in impressively at No. 4 behind behemoths “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third” and “Pirates.”

The next weekend, “Waitress” expanded to 605 screens and was No. 6. The following week, it grew to 707 theaters, coming in No. 9. After that, as the summer got into full swing and bigger titles started crowding the landscape, “Waitress” started getting knocked off screens. By the weekend of July 7, the film was playing in 227 locations.

Gilula and other specialty distribs wonder if “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” would have enjoyed its golden run in this climate — ditto for last summer’s sleeper hits “The Devil Wears Prada” or docu “An Inconvenient Truth.”

“Greek Wedding,” opening in 108 theaters in late April 2002, slowly added theaters throughout the summer and into the fall. Pic, whose opening weekend cume was $822,069, eventually racked up $214 million at the domestic box office.

Searchlight isn’t feeling sorry for itself or trying to compare “Waitress” with “Greek Wedding.” It’s always risky opening a niche title in the summer; there’s nothing new about that.

“It’s a very, very fast burn. It’s hard for any movie, even if its doing well, to last more than four or five weeks,” another specialty unit exec says.

The heat is getting hard to take, as is the constant cajoling with exhibs.

“You have to convince the theaters that your screen is more profitable than giving a fifth or sixth screen to a big tentpole, because your movie will play longer over time,” says Warner Independent prexy of distribution Steven Friedlander.

Over July 4th, Warner Independent debuted Australian comedy “Introducing the Dwights” in four theaters in Gotham and Los Angeles for a healthy per-screen average of $11,500. Title expanded to 35 runs over the July 13 weekend.

But Friedlander says he’s not going to take the usual route and open more theaters in the first two cities. If he does, the film’s gross in the original theaters may go down just enough so that the film loses its screens in those locations.

Searchlight is having good luck with Irish tuner “Once,” which has been holding steady in the 120-theater range since the middle of June. Film, which opened May 15, has grossed more than $4.7 million. At the ArcLight in Hollywood over the July 4 weekend, “Once” was the only film that had been playing at the complex for more than five weeks.

Picturehouse is going slow with the Edith Piaf French biopic “La Vie en Rose.” Film has made more than $6 million, an impressive perf for a subtitled pic in any season.

Traditionally, July and August are much better for indie titles. Other new entries include MGM’s Werner Herzog survival pic “Rescue Dawn” and Focus Features’ “Talk to Me.”

Last summer, Searchlight released “Little Miss Sunshine” on July 21 in seven theaters. By the beginning of September, the film was playing more than 1,600 runs.

Indian summer may be the best time of year after all.

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