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An arty pic party

Niche films hot amid summer tentpoles

A cartoon clownfish gobbled up much of the summer box office, but quite a few mere minnows also performed swimmingly, making for a busy specialty-pic season.

Their summertime appeal apparently depends on a counterprogramming premise: Some portion of the public will pay to watch pretty much anything other than explosion-filled action pics and gross-out laffers.

“This summer left the door wide open for specialty distribs to walk in and really capitalize on that audience,” said Paul Dergarabedian, prexy at box office tracker Exhibitor Relations. “The perception of quality in pictures was really quite low this summer.”

Disney’s leggy fish tale “Finding Nemo” was clearly a qualitative exception among commercial releases, paddling well north of $300 million amid critical and public acclaim.

But specialty distribs have used the paucity of breakout tentpole titles to draw moviegoers’ attention to their smaller, niche-oriented pics this summer.

The season’s specialty offerings have ranged from quirky fare like Sony Classics’ “Winged Migration” –a stoner’s delight offering almost two hours of birds, well, flying — to adult dramas like Fox Searchlight’s recently launched “Le Divorce.”

Even a modestly budgeted family pic saw good platformed success, with Newmarket’s “Whale Rider” floating north of $10 million.

The normally threadbare docu genre repped a surprisingly robust category of arthouse viewing this summer.

“Migration” is winging toward $8 million, Thinkfilm’s spelling-bee docu “Spellbound” has rung up $4 million-plus, and Magnolia’s troubled-family snapshot “Capturing the Friedmans” has grossed over $2 million.

James Cameron’s Disney-distribbed, giant-format docu of still more underwater “Titanic” footage dredged up more than $13 million, and Artisan recently bowed its surfing pic “Stepping Into Liquid” in a handful of venues with a splashy per-screen average of $27,000.

Platforming pic

“Le Divorce,” starring Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts, filed for an impressive $15,863 per venue in 34 theaters this weekend. Directed by James Ivory and produced by Ismael Merchant and Michael Schiffer, “Divorce” is set to expand incrementally for a couple weeks and hit wide distribution by Labor Day.

Pic unspooled in 10 cities initially, or a bit more broadly than the usual limited release.

“It’s a high-profile film with significant stars,” Searchlight distribution prexy Steve Gilula said. “We didn’t feel the film justified a national release and a big media campaign. But it made sense to try more than just a two- or three-market release because of all the publicity we thought we could get on the strength of the cast.”

Distrib employed a similar approach last year with Jennifer Aniston-toplined drama “The Good Girl,” which eventually reached 688 theaters and grossed $14 million domestically.

By contrast, Searchlight went wide from the start with its horror/thriller “28 Days Later,” which had developed considerable Internet buzz prior to its release. Danny Boyle-helmed pic has grossed $42 million, recently bolstered by the release of a version of the film featuring an extra 4½ minutes of running time depicting an alternate ending.

“That really worked,” Gilula said. “It turned out not to be a gimmick but something that’s sparked actual debate about various film issues.”

Searchlight also eked a few extra bucks from its “Bend It Like Beckham” release with a late-summer re-expansion of the femme-soccer drama, originally launched in spring.

Move –which has extended pic’s domestic haul to $30.1 million — keys on burgeoning commercial appeal of co-topliner Keira Knightley, also seen in Disney’s family popcorner “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”

Foreign torrent

Foreign productions generally form a staple of arthouse offerings, and the summer proved no exception:

? Universal’s specialty unit Focus Features posted a summer win with its British-French suspenser “Swimming Pool.” Preemed in Cannes, “Pool” has pulled in $6.5 million domestically.

? Miramax’s London-based suspenser “Dirty Pretty Things” unspooled to rave reviews and solid biz. Stephen Frears-helmed pic has already grossed a tidy $1.3 million, even though distribution has yet to hit even 100 locations.

? Paramount Classics’ European drama “The Man on the Train” chugged to a respectable $2.4 million.

Of course, no season is without at least a smattering of misfires.

The summer’s specialty disappointments included Miramax’s “Blue Car,” which generated considerable buzz at this year’s Sundance fest but has stalled out at $465,310.

And distrib’s “Jet Lag” romancer — a huge hit in France — also failed to reach $1 million domestically despite featuring Juliette Binoche and Jean Reno.

Fox Searchlight tops specialty distribs at present with $70 million in total grosses. Newmarket is No. 2 with $13 million, and Sony Classics follows with $11.4 million.

Looking ahead, the arthouse segment will heat up as the calendar approaches kudos season, as specialty distribs commonly cram titles into the year’s last several weeks in the hopes of expanding distribution on awards buzz.

But some of the summer titles could also figure in awards balloting.

“These films tend to have better legs than the bigger films,” Exhibitor Relations’ Dergarabedian noted. ” ‘Beckham’ could still be a factor. I don’t know that it’s going to be an awards winner, but it’s definitely had an impact.”

One or more of the summer docs should definitely figure in Oscar’s non-fiction category, he added.