Smaller pix clicking alongside tentpoles

Summer box office is clicking 15% ahead of last year thanks to studio blockbusters including “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and “The Hangover Part II.” But tentpoles aren’t the only pics heating up the market lately: After strong returns from Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” and Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” following their Cannes premieres, the specialty B.O. is far outshining limited releases during the comparable 2010 period.

By this time last year, Anchor Bay’s Michael Douglas starrer “Solitary Man” had the best per-screen average of $23,734. It wasn’t until Focus Features’ “The Kids Are All Right” debuted on July 9, with a per-screen average of $70,282, that the 2010 specialty market achieved liftoff — and a summer per-screen high.

“Midnight” and “Tree” outdid not only “Kids,” but “The King’s Speech,” which had 2010’s best per-screen average at $88,862.

Sony Pictures Classics’ “Midnight,” with a $99,834 per-screen average, narrowly bested Fox Searchlight’s “Tree,” which averaged $93,230 from four debut locations. “Midnight” has grossed $6.8 million domestically; “Tree,” $1.3 million. “Tree” will expand again on June 17.

It’s rare that two limited releases do so well in back-to-back frames, and bizzers hope to ride the wave.”If you can pick up the draft of those two films, hopefully that will establish longer legs for other pictures,” said Focus Features theatrical distribution prexy Jack Foley.

Two more well-reviewed pics, Focus’ “Beginners” and the Weinstein Co.’s “Submarine,” joined the indie fray last week. “Beginners” got off to a strong start, averaging $28,268 from five locations, while British comedy “Submarine” struggled some with a per-screen average of $10,458 from two locations in New York and L.A.

“Beginners,” toplining Christopher Plummer as a man who reveals to his son (Ewan McGregor) that he’s gay, played best in L.A., but the film wasn’t necessarily gay-targeted. Foley described the pic’s potential gay aud as “a complementary-grossing group added to the principle target audience, which are core arthouse patrons.”

Meanwhile, TWC theatrical distrib prexy Erik Lomis said he’s encouraged by positive recommendations for “Submarine” after last weekend’s exit polling. Pic expands into the top 10 U.S. markets on Friday; “Beginners” will be in eight additional cities this weekend, including Boston, Chicago, Dallas and San Francisco.

Specialty openings this weekend include Norwegian comic/horror mockumentary “The Troll Hunter,” from Magnolia Pictures, as well as Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip,” distribbed by IFC Films, and Monterey Media’s “Road to Nowhere.” Searchlight has three releases through July: high-school comedy “The Art of Getting By” on June 17, followed by helmer Wayne Wang’s “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” on July 15 and a Sundance pickup, sci-fi romance “Another Earth,” on July 22. Sony Classics has hip-hop docu “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest,” debuting limited on July 8, as well as Irish cop comedy “The Guard,” set for a July 29 release.

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