Fewer rivals help films like 'Babies,' 'City Island'

Indie film biz watchers have been holding their breath waiting for a winning streak to signal a much-desired resurgence in the sector. Well, they can breathe again, but slowly.

In the last three months, a number of solid base hits have fired up the indie realm after a long downturn that threw the specialty biz into a serious identity crisis. These pics may not be generating the sorts of grosses that make for blaring headlines, but they are good enough where it counts: The pocketbook.

With a glut of product a thing of the past and more shelf space, a handful of films have found a following and harnessed that old-fashioned marketing tool — word of mouth — to stay in theaters and build their audience.

Fox Searchlight’s dramedy “Cyrus” raised hopes when it opened June 18 with the second-highest per-screen average of the year — $45,429. Directed by Mark and Jay Duplass, the comedy grossed $181,714 from four theaters before scoring strong weekday biz last week.

“There is still life in the market, even as audiences are being more selective,” says Fox Searchlight president Steve Gilula, who runs the division with Nancy Utley.

Successes have included “City Island,” quietly holding and banking money since March; “Babies” and “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” showing that there could still be life in the theatrical documentary market.

The past few months’ films are a diverse crop, ranging from obvious crowd-pleasers to more challenging sells of documentaries and foreign-language films. And success stories for “City Island” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” are all the more impressive considering they were released by tiny Anchor Bay and Music Box Films. “These are big successes for these companies,” a studio specialty exec says.

Even the tough-to-sell arthouse drama “Winter’s Bone,” from director Debra Granik and distributed by Roadside Attractions, has gotten off to a promising start, with just over $500,000 in since its June 11 opening.

The fate of “Cyrus” and “Winter’s Bone” is impossible to predict, but they hope to accomplish what other films are managing — long-playing runs, thanks in part to fewer films in theaters.

Take Anchor Bay’s “City Island,” starring Andy Garcia, Alan Arkin and Julianna Margulies: the family comedy has grossed $6 million since its March 19 debut. More than three months later, it’s still holding onto more than 100 theaters. The film has been driven by word of mouth, and never expanded beyond 269 locations at its widest point, preserving its healthy B.O. average.

There are still enormous challenges facing the specialty sector, including the shifting stable of key distribs, such as the fate of Overture, the unrest at the Weinstein Co. and the abrupt exit of Bob Berney from Apparition, which appears to have brought distribution to a halt there.

And not every film clicks — films such as Nicole Holofcener’s “Please Give,” with $2.6 million, and Rodrigo Garcia’s “Mother and Child,” with just $668,000, haven’t found the audience their positive reviews might suggest.

But there’s nothing predictable about the specialty market. One of the top grossers is Swedish pic “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Fans of the bestselling mystery-thriller book series have helped the pic gross $11 million since its March 19 release. Film was distributed by Music Box Films, which releases sequel “The Girl Who Played With Fire” on July 9.

Another international success is Argentina’s Oscar foreign-language winner “The Secret in Their Eyes,” from Sony Pictures Classics, which opened April 16 after a one-week awards qualifying run in December, and has grossed $4.9 million.

Theatrically released documentaries have been struggling the past few years, but a few recent ones are bucking the downturn: Focus Features’ “Babies,” which opened May 7 at 534 locations, has cumed $7.1 million — one of the best showings in the past two years for a specialty doc.

“Exit Through the Gift Shop,” about the cult street artist Banksy, also has generated strong returns, grossing north of $2.5 million since opening April 16.

And docu “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” is also off to a strong start, cuming $472,774 in its first two weeks.

Not only is there less competition among indie titles; specialty titles are sometimes finding less competition from wide releases, since production across the board has slowed down.

Take the weekend that “Cyrus,” starring Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, John C. Reilly and Catherine Keener, was released. The only wide openers were Disney/Pixar’s “Toy Story 3″ and Warner Bros.’ misfire “Jonah Hex.”

“The fallout in the limited release market has helped us,” one specialty distrib says. “It feels like there are fewer spring and early summer films.”

Specialty distribs also are grappling with the tricky question of how to make indie films into theatrical events, as companies like IFC Films and Magnolia release most of their pics both theatrically and on VOD.

“The marketplace is more demanding in terms of convincing moviegoers that a specialized film is worth going out to,” Gilula said.

“Cyrus’?” per-screen average, the bellwether of a limited release’s opening, wasn’t that far behind that of Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer,” which posted a location average of $45,752 when opening in February. That film grossed a healthy $15.5 million — though in previous years, it would have likely been a major studio release.

Upcoming specialty releases include Focus’ “The Kids Are All Right,” which debuts July 9, along with “Girl Who Played With Fire” and Lucy Walker’s docu “Countdown to Zero.” Distributed by Magnolia, “Zero” explores rogue nuclear weapons and is being promoted by Queen Noor of Jordan.

On July 30, Sony Classics opens Bill Murray-Lucas Black-Robert Duvall starrer “Get Low” opposite Katie Holmes-Kevin Kline-Paul Dano starrer “The Extra Man” and Joel Schumacher’s “Twelve” from Hannover House.

David Michod’s Australian pic “Animal Kingdom,” from SPC, opens Aug. 13, and Sundance screener “HappyThank-YouMorePlease” from Hannover House opens Aug. 20. September limited releases include Paramount Vantage’s docu “Waiting for Superman,” Woody Allen’s “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” also from SPC, James Franco starrer “Howl,” from Oscilloscope, and Focus’ “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.”

Specialty labels could still use a “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Napoleon Dynamite” to heat up their summer, but in the meantime, says one distrib, “Specialized film just got thrown a life preserver.”

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