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Summer of love for specialty labels

Crossover titles shine during lackluster season

The mainstream box office has gone limp at times this summer, but the “specialty” market has proven special indeed.

The summer box office in general is just 0.003% ahead of last summer, and with ticket-price boosts since a year ago, that means admissions are off considerably. At the same time, it’s clear that arthouse and other so-called specialty pics have been booming.

The niche market defies easy quantifying. But industryites agree that specialty exhibition is having a summer to remember.

The season had no single phenom such as last summer’s “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” But independent distribs and studio specialty units have pumped out a consistent stream of quietly successful releases.

What’s more, arthouse pics have succeeded by sticking around (in contrast with yet another summer of one-week-wonders among commercial pics).

For example, Sony Picture Classics’ “Winged Migration,” a modestly budgeted documentary about birds, is winging its way into an amazing 18th frame of theatrical release.

Even better news is that the niche riches are widespread. Fox Searchlight tops specialty distribs with $70 million in total summer grosses. Newmarket is second with $13 million, and Sony Classics third with $11.4 million.

“Migration,” which seems to pull in potheads and nature lovers in equal numbers, was one of the summer’s more offbeat specialty releases.

And a New Zealand family pic has seen good platformed success, with Newmarket’s “Whale Rider” swimming north of $10 million.

Of the specialty pics this summer, the biggest success is Fox Searchlight’s “28 Days Later” — so successful it almost can’t be counted as a specialty pic. Searchlight went wide from the start with its horror-thriller, which had developed considerable Internet buzz prior to its release.

The Danny Boyle-helmed pic has grossed $42 million, recently bolstered by the release of a version with pic’s originally shot ending tacked on after the credits.

“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” 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, co-star of Disney’s family popcorner “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”

Like “Greek Wedding,” several of the top pics broke out beyond the typical arthouse audience — “Bend it Like Beckham” and “Whale Rider” drew families, while “28 Days Later” appealed to young horror buffs.

Foreign pics and docs also got a boost this summer from filmgoers tired of endless sequels.

British-French drama “Swimming Pool,” from Universal’s specialty unit Focus, has grossed $6.5 million domestically, and Miramax’s London-set suspenser “Dirty Pretty Things” has taken in more than $1.3 million although it has yet to hit even 100 theaters.

And Paramount Classics’ European drama “The Man on the Train” has steamed to a notable $2.4 million.

Docs continue on the roll kicked off by “Bowling for Columbine” this spring — “Winged Migration ” is winging toward $8 million, and there’s also been ThinkFilm’s spelling-bee docu “Spellbound,” which has rung up $4 million-plus, and Magnolia’s troubled-family snapshot “Capturing the Friedmans,” grossing more than $2 million.

But there have also been a few arthouse misfires: Specialty disappointments included Miramax’s Sundance attention-getter “Blue Car” and “Jet Lag” with Juliette Binoche and Jean Reno.

Independent distribs and studio specialty units generally acquire titles for low seven-figure sums on spec, but the occasional commercial crossover sees profit in substantially higher ranges.

These pics’ summertime appeal is tied to the notion that some moviegoers will seek out alternatives to explosion-filled action pics and gross-out laffers.

“Most of the press devoted to the mainstream blockbuster films has been pretty negative, and in a way that has helped the smaller films get good press,” observes Paul Dergarabedian, prexy of B.O. tracker Exhibitor Relations. “These films come out looking great.”

The specialty marketplace will heat up again with the approach of winter’s awards season, traditionally used to promote art films to wider auds.

But industryites say at least a smattering of summer’s specialty titles could still be on voters’ minds when Academy balloting begins.

“These films tend to have better legs than the bigger films,” Dergarabedian notes. “I think ‘Beckham’ could 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 nonfiction pics should definitely figure in Oscar’s docu category, he adds.

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