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Signs of summer warmth?

New distributors, promising pix inspire indies

“Changing” is a charitable word to describe the situation in the indie sector these days. Studio specialty arms have been contracting, with smaller, less seasoned companies entering the fray. Box office has been blah.

So when Summit’s “The Hurt Locker” — with the kind of Iraq theme that had been anathema to the indie biz two years ago — took in a promising $1.3 million in a few weeks from only 60 locations, it signaled a degree of hope amid a challenging year.

Still, the Kathryn Bigelow film, which benefited from stellar reviews, is one of a few indie films that is really feeling any summer heat.

With just a handful of bright spots this summer, indies are deferring their hope to late summer and fall, traditionally the harvest season for smaller films after studios pack up their tentpoles and go home.

A few other recent releases have broken out of the pack, including Sam Mendes’ “Away We Go” ($7.6 million) from Focus, Duncan Jones’-directed Sony Pictures Classics release “Moon” ($1.8 million) and Magnolia’s “Food, Inc.” ($1.7 million).

Still, it remains to be seen whether these titles and newer pics like “Humpday” and “500 Days of Summer” have the staying power to broaden and grab the attention of auds glued to ever-splashier studio titles.

The indies and studio specialty arms have been suffering seismic shifts for several years. Every time the dust begins to settle, there’s more change. Not only are distribs shuttering and merging — another change that could affect indies is the Academy’s decision to expand its best picture category to 10 nominations. The move could be a bonus for smaller films, but with more studio titles also in the mix, indies will need to rise above the studio cacophony.

The retrenched studio specialty arms, meanwhile, are turning to wider releases, many of which are genre pics. Whereas before, specialty divisions were seen as the place for studios to house their arty pics with awards potential, they are now increasingly devoting their slots to more commercial titles.

Another factor in the shifting landscape: Smaller indies continue to launch, vowing to provide theatrical homes for orphan films and fest titles.

In the first half of the year, box office results for limited releases have been sluggish, save the rare breakout.

Just five 2009 specialty releases (opening in fewer than 800 locations before June 30) have crossed the $3 million mark so far, while only one — Overture’s “Sunshine Cleaning — cracked $10 million (it cumed $12.1 million). The combined gross for the top five is $29.1 million.

That’s down 28% from the same period last year, when the limited top five grossed a combined $40.5 million.

But all is not doom and gloom.

Distribs were encouraged by Overture’s April 2008 release “The Visitor,” which turned out to be a big winner, grossing $9.4 million. “The Hurt Locker,” the Baghdad-set bomb-diffusing actioner now in its fourth week, held onto a strong $10,686 per-location average, even while expanding from nine theaters to 60. On July 27, Summit plans to add another 30 theaters. Two years ago, the indie biz was slammed for turning out one downer after another, and there were a number of Iraq War-themed pics that tanked, but now auds appear more open to these themes.

Approaching the fall season, always top-heavy with specialty pics, distribs start flexing their muscles. Late summer entries include Focus Features’ Cannes competition entries, South Korean horror pic “Thirst” and Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock,” while the Weinstein Co. bows Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.”

A few themes emerge when looking at the remaining 2009 indie titles.

Femme pleasers populate the slate. They include Roadside Attractions’ docu “The September Issue,” about the production of Vogue’s big fall edition; National Geographic Films’ “Amreeka,” a Sundance fave about a mother who seeks a better home for her son in the U.S.; Sony Pictures Classics’ biopic “Coco Before Chanel”; Drew Barrymore’s directing debut about a girls’ roller derby team, “Whip It,” from Fox Searchlight; and, on the same Oct. 9 weekend, Sony Classics’ femme coming-of-ager “An Education,” starring Sundance darling Carey Mulligan.

A raft of environmentally themed docus are waiting in the wings, taking cheer in the B.O. performance of Magnolia’s hard-hitting “Food, Inc.” Released June 12, that title is the top specialty docu of the year so far.

Among upcoming pics are Roadside’s “The Cove,” the award-winning fest docu about dolphin trainers who try to expose atrocities among fishermen in Japan; Zeitgeist’s “Earth Days”; First Run’s “Crude”; and Oscilloscope’s “No Impact Man.”

The year-old Oscilloscope is one of a slew of theatrical aspirants — old and new — gunning for opportunities in the shifting indie landscape.

While finding a breakout title is still tricky, a gaggle of new or repositioned distribs hopes to fill the shoes left by specialty divisions now concentrating on wide releases. Neo Classics, Here Films (formerly Regent Releasing), Anchor Bay, Image Entertainment, Screen Media, Vivendi Entertainment and New Films Intl. are among the companies throwing their hat in the ring to release smaller titles.

Even in a difficult indie climate, they’re banking that the shifting sands might throw a few grains their way.

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