Box office has been lukewarm to specialty pics so far this year

Self-amputation, a royal speech impediment and schizophrenic ballerinas — these are just some of the things the specialty biz has to offer this fall, coming from much buzzed-about titles “127 Hours,” “The King’s Speech” and “Black Swan.”

Once again, Hollywood is looking to the fall and winter season to provide the biggest boost in the indie realm. But are auds responding to the usual onslaught of year-end offerings?

Since Labor Day weekend, such studio titles as “The Town” and “The Social Network” have lured the same adult auds that the specialty biz is also courting.

The fall’s highest-grossing specialty release to date is Focus Features’ “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” with $5.8 million. By comparison, Sony Pictures Classic’s “An Education,” which bowed the same weekend last year (Oct. 9-11), had more than doubled that amount during its first month of release.

Other high-profile titles like “Never Let Me Go” and Woody Allen’s “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” tried more aggressive-than-usual release patterns, but neither has reached $3 million at the domestic B.O. Edgy Sundance pick-ups “Buried” and “Catfish” also failed to make a jump to wider auds.

“In a way, the specialty film business has been too specialized this year,” says Focus prexy of theatrical distribution Jack Foley. “It hasn’t been able to tap into much of a cross-over audience.”

But an unusually diverse crop of prestige pics and auteur offerings could reverse that trend.

Fox Searchlight’s “127 Hours,” which kicked off its domestic run with a limited platform release Nov. 5, should see attention for both James Franco and helmer Danny Boyle. But Searchlight is still likely to confront marketing challenges with the project. Based on the real-life story of Aron Ralston, a hiker who amputated his own arm after getting trapped in a canyon, “127 Hours” already has caused some moviegoers to pass out in the aisle.

Beyond the occasional fainting fits, Searchlight must entice moviegoers to what is largely a one-man-show, featuring Franco trapped in one locale for most of the film’s 93 minutes.

Boyle’s latest isn’t the only tough sell for Searchlight this fall. The division has another cerebral pic on its hands with Dec. 3 release “Black Swan,” helmer Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller about the world of ballet. Like “127 Hours,” “Black Swan” centers mostly on the internal struggles of its protagonist, played by Natalie Portman.

Both Searchlight pics boast directors with major clout in the indie world. Searchlight has pushed Aronofsky to the forefront of most marketing materials for “Black Swan,” hoping to capitalize on the helmer’s 2008 Searchlight hit, “The Wrestler,” while the trailer for “127 Hours” features clips from Boyle’s previous successes.

“We had a certain amount of confidence in supporting his vision,” says Fox Searchlight co-prexy Steve Gilula. “People are going to hear about the intensity (of ‘127 Hours’), but after ‘Slumdog,’ we felt this was a gamble we were willing to take.”

The Weinstein Co.’s “The King’s Speech” is another hopeful specialty breakout this fall, in the vein of Merchant Ivory pics and Miramax’s $56 million grossing “The Queen.”

“The King’s Speech,” toplining Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter, has drawn positive buzz coming out of Toronto, where it picked up the People’s Choice prize. Firth’s performance as the stuttering King George VI could lift audience appeal, the way Helen Mirren’s award-winning portrayal of the monarch’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, did for “The Queen” in 2006.

Weinstein plans a limited run in New York and L.A. starting Nov. 26, looking to hold sway with adult auds throughout the early part of 2011.

Sony Classics co-prexy Michael Barker says positive reviews continue to be crucial for specialty pics, especially given stiffer competition from more studio fare.

“The pictures that are getting the greatest critical response are the ones that haven’t opened yet,” says Barker, referring to several of the year’s fest faves so far.

Sony Classics launches two Brit pics this fall, Sally Hawkins starrer “Made in Dagenham,” which kicks off Nov. 19, and “Another Year,” the latest from Mike Leigh, set for an awards-qualifying run on Dec. 29. “Another Year” was a hit at the Cannes Film Fest, as well as Toronto and Telluride.

Barker describes the logjam of product as the biggest obstacle on the specialty front — the primary reason for the label’s successful summer launch of “Get Low” — but notes that reviews and year-end recognition can help lift a film above its competish.

Two marital dramas with fest recognition, “Rabbit Hole” and “Blue Valentine,” will need to break through the holiday rush with their serious themes.

“Rabbit Hole,” about a couple (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) who cope with the death of their 9-year-old son, goes out limited through Lions-gate starting Dec. 17. Weinstein’s “Blue Valentine,” facing an NC-17 ratings dilemma, will rely on wattage from stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams to help level the playing field.

“It’s easy to get passed over,” Barker says of the crowded specialty pipeline. “And anything that gives (your film) distinction can help reach audiences.”

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