Specialty biz: What just happened?

Holdovers prop up independent film sector

The year so far has been a study in extremes for the independent film biz, which is still readjusting to the flight of several studios from the specialty sector.

“Slumdog Millionaire,” the orphan indie that was picked up by Fox Searchlight for domestic distribution at the 11th hour and released last fall, grossed $141.2 million domestically and an astounding $343 million worldwide, much of it in this calendar year.

Yet among specialty pics that launched in ’09, only Overture’s “Sunshine Cleaning” has seen substantial business. Starring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, “Sunshine” has grossed north of $9.8 million. The remaining films have struggled to gross even $2 million.

The post-Oscar corridor has never been a crowded time for specialty titles, but this year, limited release have been AWOL, even though the overall box office is booming. By this time last year, the top five limited releases grossed a combined $42 million, while this year, the top five rep just $14 million.

The specialty units of the majors reshaped the indie biz, dominating awards season and using their deeper pockets to heavily market titles, which made it tough for truly independent distributors to compete.

But with the closure last year of Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse, as well as the downsizing of Paramount Vantage and New Line, the fewer players and fewer releases have left a dearth of attractive specialty titles in the first months of the year.

Sony Pictures Classics and indies like IFC Films have as many releases as ever, but few titles are working.

The studio specialty arms still standing, including Searchlight, Focus Features and Miramax, have mostly relied on grosses from award holdovers like “Slumdog” or Focus’s “Milk” to tide them in 2009 over until they roll out the next crop of award titles later this year.

And specialty divisions are increasingly turning to wide releases, further blurring the lines between studio releases and specialty pics.

Theoretically, it’s an opportunity for true indies, but with the collapse of the economy and moviegoers seeming to prefer commercial fare, the opportunity is on hold.

While some insist the lackluster box office is cyclical, others are more worried. “It’s a statement of how fragile, if not absent, the high-end business is,” one studio specialty topper says.

The first four months of 2008 weren’t especially memorable for boffo indie grosses, but in comparison to this year, they look good.

Among last year’s winter and spring crop, the Weinstein Co.’s “Under the Same Moon” grossed $12.6 million; Focus’ “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” $12.3 million; Focus’ “In Bruges,” $7.8 million; and Sony Classics’ “The Counterfeiters,” $5.5 million.

In contrast, the top 2009 indie releases are “Sunshine Cleaning” at $9.8 million; Magnolia’s “Two Lovers” — which had premiered on VOD a month before its theatrical release — at $2.9 million and Focus’ Spanish-language pic “Sin Nombre” at $1.5 million.

A few others have buzz among cinephiles, but are early in their runs, like docu “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” with $571,977 and Sony Classics’ baseball drama “Sugar” with $454,772.

Two festival pics opened on April 24, Sony Classics’ “Tyson” and “The Informers.” “Tyson” got off to an OK start, posting a per screen average of $7,731 with $85,046 from 11 runs.

Sony Pictures Classics continues its longtime strategy of platform bows, steering clear of wide releases. B.O. revenues year to date for the company are down a bit, from $12.2 million last year to $10 million.

Relying on grosses from wide releases during dry spells, studio specialty labels have more comfortable cushioning than leaner indies.

Focus boasts the most successful wide release, the 3-D toon “Coraline,” which has grossed $74.8 million since opening on 2,299 screens in early February.

Searchlight hasn’t had any limited releases so far this year, nor has Miramax. Last year, both opened at least two limited releases in the first four months of the year.

But outside of “Coraline,” these wide releases haven’t made much noise: Searchlight’s “Notorious” gross $36.8 million, while “Miss March” did $4.5 million. Big Fox handled distribution on both.

Miramax’s only release of the year so far is “Adventureland,” which opened wide on April 3 and cumed $14.2 million.

When accounting for holdover grosses from 2008 award titles and their wide releases, Searchlight and Miramax aren’t far off from last year’s B.O. revenues for the same time period. Focus is well ahead.

The Weinstein Co. likewise benefiting from grosses for holdover “The Reader,” which grossed $32.2 million this calendar year after being released late in 2008. Its only 2009 release so far is “Crossing Over,” which grossed $455,654.

All eyes are now on the Cannes Film Festival to see what direction acquisitions take, and whether anyone steps up to fill the gap left by the demise of specialty studio labels and indie companies like ThinkFilm.

The indie biz could reshape itself to look more like it did before the entry of the studios, although Searchlight, Focus and Miramax remain formidable competition.