Testing the box office titans

Alternative films find footing vs. heavyweights

What a difference a month makes …

Back in May, studio execs scoffed at any pic that dared enter the fray against the slew of blockbuster sequels marching toward theaters.

But with “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” slipping faster than expected after socko bows, June has bloomed as the month of the counterprogramming hopefuls.

Back in May, pics that tried to cast themselves as Davids to the raft of f/x-heavy, crowd-pleasing Goliaths were mercilessly smashed. Warner Bros.’ “Lucky You” rolled the dice against Spidey and wound up with a cume — not an opening weekend gross — of $5.6 million. Lionsgate tried to counterprogram against “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” by releasing William Friedkin’s low-budget “Bug” in 1,661 theaters. Pic — starring Ashley Judd — was squashed, bowing to $3.2 million and winding up with a cume of less than $7 million.

But with “Pirates” washing away more quickly than its predecessor — and “Ocean’s Thirteen” slightly underperforming studio expectations in its bow, it looks like there may be room for alternative fare after all.

“Blockbusters opened so early this year that they did open the door,” says Landmark Theaters exec Ted Mundorff. “(The franchise pics) are released to play off quickly. So now, films that are playing 500 runs are playing in the top 12.”

Mundorff predicts a big summer for specialty fare, as “A Mighty Heart,” “Evening” and “Sicko” are set to enter the marketplace.

Picturehouse head Bob Berney says June is a particularly smart time to present a specialty film.

“I wanted to capitalize on the fairly open specialized market at this time,” says the distribution topper, who bowed the French-language Edith Piaf biopic “La Vie en rose” June 8. “I think people are somewhat fatigued with the blockbusters and looking for some interesting fare.”

The Piaf film sang to a per-screen average of $22,481 off 20 sites in its debut.

The tentpole declines have also made way for the little guys at larger plexes.

“The trend for (blockbusters) has been a boom one weekend, and then they drop,” Berney says. “So suddenly you have a screen available if a film had been playing eight screens at one multiplex.”

Berney will expand “La Vie” to about 250 at its widest.

Specialty arm Fox Searchlight has been plugging away with its acquisition “Waitress”; The PG-13 pic served up four straight finishes in the top 10 between May 25 and June 10.

Pic had a slow start in May, bowing at No. 36 on the charts, but has picked up steam in June. To date, “Waitress” — starring Keri Russell as a small-town server trying to find happiness — has tallied about $12 million.

Searchlight’s low-budget musical romance from Ireland, “Once,” opened somewhat obscurely in May but also began to flower in June. Pic bowed at No. 45 and rose recently to No. 12 on the charts, from just 95 theaters, and has been seeing healthy jumps in revenue with each of its expansions.

Mundorff says 50% of biz over the June 8-10 weekend for Landmark — the largest specialty chain — came from “Once,” “Waitress” and First Look’s acquisition “Paris, je t’aime.”

Not all indie product is finding space, however. Lionsgate moved its gritty horror pic “Hostel: Part II” into June instead of adhering to the January bow of the original film. The sequel bowed to $8.8 million — not bad for a low-budget horror film, but less than half the original’s $19.6 million opening take.

Beyond specialty fare, some midlevel product from Hollywood is also working in the vein of “Wedding Crashers,” “The Devil Wears Prada” and “The Break-Up.”

U’s “Knocked Up” — at $66 million and still going strong — should jog Hollywood’s memory that not so long ago midlevel pics were being heralded as saviors when the big guns weren’t working.