Specialty pics perform better than expected

While overall 2011 domestic box office continues to run 7% behind last year, no one can blame the little guys.

Specialty pics have been performing above expectations in the first half of 2011. At the top of the pile, Sony Pictures Classics’ May release “Midnight in Paris” has carved out a sizeable niche for itself in the market, with a domestic cume of $38.9 million and worldwide totals surpassing $70 million.

Last year’s best specialty player, “The Kids Are All Right,” topped out at $20.8 million.

In fact, “Paris” already has outdone the top specialty releases, which launched before mid-July, over the past five years. But Allen’s leggy indie isn’t the only film to overperform the best-of lists from past years.

The Weinstein Co.’s 2010 holiday holdover “The King’s Speech,” boosted by award-season wins, including Oscar best pic, earned $115.9 million in first-quarter 2011; pic cumed $138.8 million. “Black Swan” (also from Fox Searchlight) managed to create a substantial following this year, grossing $59.1 million since Jan. 3. “Black Swan” nearly doubled that domestically with a cume of $107 million.

These figures outstrip the comparable specialty B.O. over the last five years. Even beloved Oscar best pic winner “Slumdog Millionaire” earned less ($112.6 million) than “King’s Speech” during its holdover year.

Why the boom in 2011 specialty biz?

For starters, most B.O. observers insist it’s partly because of a lack of enthusiasm for first-quarter releases — as well as limited interest in commercial holiday holdovers. That left room for “The King’s Speech” and “Black Swan” early on in 2011, followed by pics like Focus Features’ “Jane Eyre” and Fox Searchlight’s “Win Win,” both of which bowed in March.

“We had an extraordinary Oscar season with ‘King’s Speech’ and ‘Black Swan,'” says Landmark Theaters CEO Ted Mundorff, who also points to summer successes like “Paris” and “The Tree of Life.”

“Once again, (those films) demonstrate the progression of independent film being shown to more and more people,” Mundorff adds.

Landmark year-to-date market share is running 11% ahead of 2010, which more than outshines the chain’s record-setting 2009 total, according to Mundorff.

Michael Barker, co-prexy of Sony Classics, attributes the upswing in specialty biz — at least, in part — to a “burgeoning adult audience” that has become “more sophisticated in different parts of the country.” He also credits exhibitors, “who have been supremely supportive of ‘Midnight in Paris.’ ”

To that point: “Paris,” which ranks as SPC’s second-highest domestic title behind “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” ($128 million), is still able to keep screens, even with studio behemoths like “Transformers” and “Harry Potter” charging multiplexes.

But it’s not just “Paris” lighting up specialty screens. There are several other pics (e.g. “Tree of Life” and “Beginners”) showcasing impressive turns of their own.

Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” which nabbed the Cannes Film Fest’s Palme d’Or, launched Memorial Day weekend from Fox Searchlight with the year’s second-best per-screen average of $93,230 million (“Paris” beats that with $99,834). “Tree” has cumed $9.3 million as of July 12.

Fox Searchlight has kept busy this year — the distrib so far has released five pics, with three additional titles slated to bow in 2011. Last year, the distrib also launched eight films, including holdover highlight “Black Swan,” but 10 in 2009.

Beside March release “Jane Eyre,” which has cumed $11.2 million, Focus launched two first-quarter wide releases, “The Eagle” and “Hanna.” But its “Beginners,” which bowed in limited release on June 3, has grossed healthy totals around $3.4 million.

Mundorff says “Beginners” has been a standout performer at most Landmark locations, though the film has yet to catch fire similar to “Midnight in Paris” or even “Tree of Life.”

Outside the studio’s specialty divisions, there are a handful of star indie performers, especially on the docu front — and a few lackluster titles.

IFC Entertainment’s sister division to IFC Films, Sundance Selects, made good with a pair of docus: Werner Herzog’s 3D “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and Sundance pickup “Buck.” Stateside totals for “Cave” have reached $4.8 million since April 29, while “Buck” has collected $1.7 million after just four weeks.

Sony Classics also did well with first-quarter French-lingo pics “Incendies” and “Of Gods and Men,” cuming $6.6 million and $4 million, respectively. Grosses are particularly noteworthy since foreign-language films often have a tough time developing a Stateside following, though in the case of “Incendies,” that pic benefited from a foreign-language Oscar nom.

Just as with wide releases, there were are a few 2011 specialty titles that struggled to take flight.

Notably, Summit’s Jodie Foster-helmed “The Beaver” failed to crack $1 million. Even with its highly-publicized Cannes launchpad, the pic likely never overcame star Mel Gibson’s flagging audience appeal, particularly with younger moviegoers. Fox Searchlight’s coming-of-age comedy “The Art of Getting By” also stalled at the gate, with a cume of $1.4 million (that’s less than docu “Buck,” both of which launched the same weekend).

Still, specialty bizzers have plenty to be happy about — and a promising upcoming slate to round out the summer, including Sony Classics’ pair “The Guard,” Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut “Higher Ground” and Sundance hit “Another Earth” from Fox Searchlight.

“My feeling is that it’s a good moment for independent film,” SPC’s Barker says. “Audiences are more sophisticated in different parts of the country, and there seems to be more base hits than before.”

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