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Last month’s specialty release “Greenberg” seemed to have a lot going for it — star Ben Stiller, respected indie director Noah Baumbach and winsome cutie Greta Gerwig costarring. Hoping to capitalize on Stiller’s popularity, Focus Features took the unusual step of expanding to 60 theaters in the second week. But largely positive reviews couldn’t lure auds to see a depressed, unlikable Stiller, and the pic topped out at $3.4 million.

This is the new specialty world of lower expectations, where $3 million is the new $10 million, and even a top star sometimes isn’t enough to cut through the 3D comicbook characters crowding onto screens.

While the domestic box office soars to new heights with help from 3D titles like “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland,” box office returns in the specialty market are essentially flat with last year. The first-quarter has been even worse, with the top-10 films that were playing on fewer than 1,000 screens down 27% from first-quarter 2007 limited releases.

It’s a time of transition for specialty labels and indie distribs, who are re-assessing just how much can be expected from specialty films.

Focus distribution prexy Jack Foley says the indie realm is entering a time where “more makes less.” Labels have to fight harder to get their films seen, even among adult audiences who are nearly as beguiled by shiny special effects and 3D as younger auds. And specialty films need name talent, which can make them to expensive to release on a limited basis.

“When you’re reaching beyond your core audience, you have to be careful about … how you enter the marketplace,” Foley says. “A platform release is a subversive way of accessing popular culture by making it popular culture through word of mouth.”

Even awards-season contenders didn’t pay off at the box office as much as in previous years.

Fox Searchlight saw the biggest awards-season boost this year for Oscar-winner “Crazy Heart,” which grossed a healthy $39.1 million domestically.

Sheila DeLoach, exec VP of distribution for Searchlight, says the film’s success hinged mainly on star Jeff Bridges. Coupled with the title’s award-winning music, Searchlight’ marketing campaign highlighted Bridges’ much-buzzed perf.

Focus will hope to bank on unrecognizable, yet adorable, faces in documentary “Babies” set to debut May 7. Docu’s trailer has scored plenty of “oohs” and “ahhs” from moviegoers, and with a near-Mother’s Day bow, the film could soar to “March of the Penguin” heights. That docu cumed $77.4 million in 2005.

Several newer distribs are aiming to fill the gap left by the departure of Paramount Vantage, Fine Line, Warner Independent and others, giving studio specialty labels some competition.

Apparition, started last year from financier Bill Pohlad and distribution vet Bob Berney, is making major acquisitions, along with smaller outfits like Music Box, Vivendi, Screen Media and Oscilloscope.

Apparition recently bowed “The Runaways,” starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, with middling success. After a disappointing opening despite the presence of “Twilight” star Stewart, the distrib switched gears to target the traditional arthouse crowd instead of young femmes. The film has cumed $3 million since its limited release March 19.

Oscilloscope acquired Sundance opening night title “Howl,” starring James Franco, adapted from Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s tome. The distrib plans to launch the film on VOD simultaneously with the film’s theatrical release on Sept. 24. Simultaneous VOD releases, pioneered by IFC and Magnolia, can double returns for certain titles.

Oscilloscope co-founder David Fenkel credits VOD as a way of making a film accessible to a wide audience. “There are new difficulties in distribution, but there are also new opportunities,” he says of the VOD platform. “As a company that’s still growing, what we’ve found is that you have to tailor your campaigns and structure deals based on the film.”

Every year, a few specialty titles break out and end up with wider releases and bigger box office: Fox Searchlight’s 2008 Oscar pic winner “Slumdog Millionaire” with $141.3 million; last year’s “500 Days of Summer” and “Paranormal Activity.”

“Sometimes those films have something in them that allows them to cross over,” DeLoach says. “This year, most films opened earlier and ran out of gas.”

Summit’s Oscar pic winner “The Hurt Locker” had already fizzled by the time awards season had come into full swing, and had hit DVD shelves before Oscar noms were even announced. The film became the lowest-grossing pic winner in the modern era, with $12.7 million at 535 locations at its widest.

Summit’s “The Ghost Writer” ranks as the first quarter’s the top grossing specialty film, with $13.3 million. The Roman Polanski thriller was released Feb. 19, with a cast led by Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan.

Another notable player on the specialty front this year is Swedish thriller “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Micro-distrib Music Box Films nabbed U.S. rights last October, and debuted the pic at 34 locations March 19. The pic has cumed $5.3 million and is approaching the distrib’s 2008 French success “Tell No One,” which grossed $6.2 million.

Based on the first installment of author Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, “Dragon” performed better than most foreign language titles, due to the books’ popularity in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Sony Pictures Classics continues to quietly outlast everyone else in the specialty biz, releasing three of this past year’s Oscar-nommed foreign-lingo contenders, including winner “The Secret in Their Eyes,” which launched April 16 with $167,866 at 10 locations for a healthy per-screen average of $16,787.

SPC’s serious-minded critical favorites “The White Ribbon” and “A Prophet” performed respectably for foreign language pics, with $2.2 million and $1.8 million, respectively.

Regardless of the language, bizzers insist there will always be an audience for specialty films. But as studios churn out more aud-specific films, especially with this summer’s femme-heavy slate, specialty titles are placed strategically across the calendar and continue to cluster in the fall.

Sony Classics enters the dramatic fray in the coming weeks, with Nicole Holofcener’s “Please Give” (April 30) and Rodrigo Garcia’s “Mother and Child” (May 7).

Distribs are looking to specialty comedies to make the box office more mirthful this summer: Focus and Fox Searchlight bow a pair of L.A.-set comedies the weekend of July 7 — Focus’s “The Kids Are All Right” and Searchlight’s “Cyrus,” from mumblecore helmers Jay and Mark Duplass.

Among early fall releases, Apparition launches of Terrence Malick’s long-delayed “The Tree of Life,” while Fox Searchlight bows Darren Aronofsky’s ballet thriller “Black Swan” from Fox Searchlight.

“We’re moving forward with business as usual because we believe in this niche,” Foley says. “It just becomes a question of how do you do these films.”