Only Allen, Malick pics hit big this summer

At the specialty B.O. this summer, there was Woody Allen — and precious little else.

Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” and Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” got the summer niche biz off to a sparkling start thanks to lengthy runs in both arthouses and commercial plexes. But for distribs rolling out pics bought at Sundance and other fests, it was tough to break out at the B.O. this summer, as “Midnight” and “Tree” accounted for roughly 71% of specialty earnings from the summer’s top 10 indie titles.

“People are really looking for an alternative to the summer’s mainstream films,” said Michael Barker, co-prexy of Sony Pictures Classics, which released “Midnight” Stateside on May 20.

More than 20 films from this year’s Sundance have bowed since May, with three more (“Our Idiot Brother,” “Higher Ground” and “Circumstance”) launching Friday. Of the Sundance films already released, only six have cumed more than $1 million.

Opening fest pickups in summer can risk crowding the specialty field. “Summer, really, is the earliest time to go with a Sundance pic, so you end up with a lot of movies from Sundance in June, July and August,” said Roadside Attractions prexy Howard Cohen.

Surprisingly, some of the summer’s top titles were documentaries, including Sundance Selects’ “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and “Buck.” Producers Distribution Agency’s “Senna” opened with the year’s highest per-screen average for a docu at $36,748. Werner Herzog’s “Forgotten Dreams” has cumed $5.2 million (it’s the rare specialty release to reap 3D premium prices), while domestic totals for horse whisperer docu “Buck” stand at $3.7 million.

Commercial docs score

Summer berths have proved successful for docs with more commercial appeal — last summer, “Babies,” “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” and “Restrepo” all clicked at the summer B.O.

And this summer, two more nonfiction pics also landed among the top 20 indies: Sony Classics’ “Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest” and Magnolia Pictures’ “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” both of which cumed around $1 million. But among the higher-profile docus that didn’t work, Roadside’s Sundance buy “Project Nim” has cumed just $334,452 since launching on July 8.

Barker cautions that the doc onslaught can make it hard for those films to gain a following. There were 39 released this summer vs. 40 in the summer of 2010 and 34 in 2009.

“There are so many documentaries opening from week to week that when you get ahead of the pack, there’s got to be something very distinctive about the film,” Barker said.

As for narrative features, Focus Features’ Ewan McGregor-Christopher Plummer starrer “Beginners,” with $5.6 million since its release on June 3, has made the most of any mid-summer specialty release — but still nowhere near the total for “Midnight,” which crossed $50 million domestically, or even “Tree of Life” at $12.7 million.

The Weinstein Co.’s Holocaust drama “Sarah’s Key” has played surprisingly well following the film’s July 22 bow, with just north of $3 million. TWC launched “Sarah’s Key” to a solid $23,142 per-screen average from five locations, then expanded the pic in its second weekend to 33 playdates with a perky per-screen average of $11,112.

Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip” from IFC falls in between nonfiction and narrative, and stellar reviews helped the British made-for-TV pic cume a sturdy $1.8 million. (See separate story.)

Irish cop comedy “The Guard,” which Sony Classics launched on July 29, has totaled a respectable $1.2 million in just four weeks. The film has been performing exceptionally well in Boston, but cities in Texas like Houston, Dallas and Austin also are notable strongholds for “The Guard.”

Some fest faves founder

However, other fest favorites including Sundance entries “The Future” and “Another Earth,” from Fox Searchlight, and Sony’s SXSW pickup “Attack the Block” (with $616,000) have struggled to find an aud outside New York or L.A.

Miranda July’s “The Future,” which Roadside Attractions acquired at Sundance, launched the same weekend as “The Guard” but has tallied only $333,997. July’s sophomore directorial outing may have been too offbeat for most auds (pic features a talking cat).

“I do think it’s harder now for a certain kind of independent film,” Cohen admitted, before rhetorically asking, “Has the commercialization of independent cinema precluded independent cinema?”

Searchlight spent around $2 million for English-speaking territory rights to “Another Earth” at Sundance. The complicated blend of sci-fi and romance bowed July 22 and has yet to crack $1 million. By comparison, Searchlight’s “Tree,” which arguably had a more challenging plotline (but also had Brad Pitt and Malick), reached $1.25 million after its second weekend.

Searchlight had better luck with the July release of Wayne Wang’s “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” with $1.3 million.

“If you have a fresh movie and the stars are aligned, then you tend to do well,” Barker said. “Still, that doesn’t take away how hard it can be for smaller films.”

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