Indie movies take box office hit

Grosses down 4% for 2007 specialty films

Sequels had their day in the sun in 2007, but specialty films found dwindling auds.

Among studio specialty arms, total box office receipts for 2007 were down 4% from 2006, according to Rentrak, even as the overall box office climbed 5%.

Traditional market leaders Fox Searchlight and Focus Features both saw drops in B.O. from last year, although Searchlight finished the year No. 1 in market share.

The top 15 specialty unit and indie distribs — including MGM and the Weinstein Co. — posted domestic box office receipts of $1.03 billion, down slightly from the $1.04 billion collected in 2006.

Why were so many high-profile niche films passed over by moviegoers?

Auds stayed away from a bumper crop of films dealing with the post-9/11 world and geopolitics, turning instead to more entertaining fare.

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The specialty biz has enjoyed a year-end surge, with Miramax’s “No Country for Old Men” and Searchlight’s “Juno” turning into cross-over hits — but neither is a topical film. (Among artier fare, Focus’ period pic “Atonement” is enjoying a strong early run.)

An overcrowded marketplace also hit the specialty arena. In the fall, the marquee was packed with specialty titles on virtually any given weekend, providing little or no room to grow.

Specialty units and their parent studios could also be cannibalizing each other’s business. Filmmaker-driven, big-budget titles can appeal to the same arthouse crowd that niche titles rely on.

In placing No. 1 in market share among studio specialty units, Searchlight posted total domestic box office of $136.2 million, fueled by “Juno,” “Waitress,” “Notes on a Scandal” and “The Namesake,” among other titles. Last year, Searchlight made $161.6 million at the domestic B.O.

If there was a comeback kid in 2007, it was Daniel Battsek’s Miramax, which registered a 171% increase in box office over 2006, or $125.4 million vs. $46.2 million. The Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” certainly helped: It was the highest-grossing specialty film of 2007, making $41.6 million through New Year’s Day.

Miramax’s “The Queen,” released in 2006, grossed $27.5 million in 2007, while Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone” took $20.3 million.

Miramax edged out Focus for No. 2 in market share among specialty and indie distribs. Focus posted box office of $124.8 million vs. $178.6 million in 2006. Focus’ two highest-grossing titles, “Balls of Fury” ($32.9 million) and “Hot Fuzz” ($23.6 million), weren’t traditional indie fare. And David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises” performed below expectations in grossing just over $17 million domestically.

Focus heads into 2008 sure to see box office benefits from “Atonement,” as Searchlight will with “Juno.”

Paramount Vantage came in next in terms of market share, posting receipts of $60.9 million, including Par Classics B.O. That’s up from 2006, when Vantage and Classics took $46.9 million. Vantage’s highest grosser of 2007 was Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild,” which made $17 million domestically.

Bob Berney’s Picturehouse also saw year-to-year gains. Coming in next in market share after Focus, Picturehouse posted total box office of $58.3 million vs. $24 million last year, fueled by “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a 2006 release that made $36.5 million in 2007.

After that, Picturehouse’s highest grosser was “La Vie en rose” ($8.2 million). Berney’s shop has just released Spanish horror mystery “The Orphanage,” which has made more than $35 million in its native country.

Up next in market share was Sony Pictures Classics, which saw a decline from last year, taking $37.8 million in 2007 vs. $59.7 million a year earlier.

Warner Independent, coming in last among studio specialty units, posted box office of $15. 6 million in 2007 vs. $27.4 million in 2006.

In terms of highest-grossing films, 2007 couldn’t match the numbers enjoyed in each of the previous two years.

Fox Searchlight’s “Little Miss Sunshine” grossed $67.6 million in 2006, while “Brokeback Mountain” grossed $59.5 million that year.

In 2005, Warner Independent’s docu “March of the Penguins” took in $77.4 million domestically, while “Sideways” made $49.7 million in that calendar year.

(Anthony D’Alessandro contributed to this report.)