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Indie Films Fight for Summer Screens

In a crowded playing field, the specialty biz has lowered its expectations of crossover success

The glut of big-budget tentpoles left even less room than usual for specialty pics to spread out and catch audience attention this summer.

Fewer limited releases earned over $2.5 million than in 2010 and 2012, and the season’s top-grossing indie so far, “The Way Way Back,” with $17.8 million, pales in comparison with summer specialty successes of the past half-decade.

“It’s been incredibly difficult for smaller movies to have extended runs,” says Fox Searchlight co-prexy Steve Gilula. “There’s a real heavy-duty war of attrition for screens.”

But in the indie world, box office grosses are just one measure of success. Revenue from day-and-date VOD releases continues to help some smaller titles avoid the fierce competition for screens (and fitful audience attention spans) and cross over into profitability. Others focused on building critical acclaim in advance of awards-season consideration.

Here’s how some indies baked up tasty summer hits.

Top festival acquisition: “The Way Way Back”; honorable mentions: “Fruitvale Station,” “Mud”

Fox Searchlight spent $10 million to secure “The Way Way Back” at this year’s Sundance.

The pic drew women of all ages, according to Gilula, but failed to connect with teenage boys. The story, which centers on a teen (played by newcomer Liam James) struggling to find himself as his world changes, deals with issues that perhaps are too close to home for that latter demographic. Contextually, the dramedy fits nicely among past Fox Searchlight summer pics such as “Little Miss Sunshine,” though that film earned nearly $60 million at the domestic box office, far more than “Way Way Back” will ultimately gross.

Gilula blames the overcrowding for this year’s reduced earnings. A more realistic range for such indie grosses, he says, is $20 million-$40 million.

That’s where “The Way Way Back” and the fact-based “Fruitvale Station,” which the Weinstein Co. also bought at Sundance, will land. Roadside Attractions’ “Mud” bowed April 26, meaning technically it’s not a summer release, but it earned most of its $23 million from May to August.

Top VOD release: “Only God Forgives”; honorable mentions: “The Canyons,” “Drinking Buddies

The increased competition for theatrical real estate has made alternative distribution strategies more viable for certain films. Ryan Gosling starrer “Only God Forgives” was panned by critics and didn’t crack $1 million in theaters, but so far has earned $2.4 million on VOD, according to Radius. Critics were also rough on IFC’s controversial Lindsay Lohan pic “The Canyons,” though after just two weeks, it’s the top-performing VOD title for IFC this year. Likewise, Magnolia’s comedy “Drinking Buddies” is one of that distributor’s top three-performing VOD titles.

Jonathan Sehring, prexy of IFC Films and Sundance Selects, admits that while “The Canyons” — a Kickstarter-funded project from helmer Paul Schrader and writer Bret Easton Ellis — already is profitable, he feels it could have been even more so had Lohan been available to stump for it.

“I wish Lindsay would have come out of rehab earlier to help promote the movie, because she’s great,” Sehring says.

Other summer indies might have benefitted from the day-and-date strategy, but their distributors chose traditional theatrical runs. Fledgling distrib A24 released Sofia Coppola’s real-life teen heist pic “The Bling Ring” to a respectable — though hardly red-hot — $5.8 million theatrically. Another conventional release that failed to cross over was Roadside Attractions’ Kristen Wiig comedy “Girl Most Likely,” which bowed July 19 and has grossed just $1.4 million. With highly marketable names, both could have appealed to VOD auds.

“If you, as a consumer, are out there hunting for a Kristen Wiig comedy, why not make it as widely available as possible?” says Tom Quinn, co-prexy of the Weinstein Co.’s VOD label Radius.

Top documentary: “20 Feet From Stardom”; honorable mentions: “Stories We Tell,” “Blackfish

Most films still require a theatrical release to build word of mouth. That was the primary reason Radius chose to release music docu “20 Feet From Stardom” theatrically and not on VOD. The strategy paid off, with the film becoming this year’s highest-grossing docu, at just north of $4 million.

Sarah Polley’s intimate family docu “Stories We Tell” also found love in theaters, via Roadside, earning $1.6 million; while Magnolia’s “Blackfish” crossed $1 million thanks to lots of press. The documentary about killer whales in captivity has had a whale-sized effect on public perception, leading to an outcry against sea animal parks.

Top auteur pic: “Blue Jasmine”; honorable mentions: “Frances Ha,” “The Bling Ring”

In the past few years, Woody Allen has become the savior of the specialty box office. And while his latest, “Blue Jasmine,” scored the highest opening perscreen average for the director, it’s not clear whether it will have enough play time to overtake the $57 million of “Midnight in Paris,” his top earner. “Blue Jasmine” could be playing in more than 800 locations when it expands nationwide via Sony Pictures Classics on Aug. 23.

Other indie-centric directors building on their cachet included Noah Baumbach, whose black-and-white film “Frances Ha” danced to $4 million, making it IFC’s sixth-biggest theatrical release ever. Richard Linklater’s May release “Before Midnight,” one of the year’s best reviewed films, grossed a solid $8 million domestically but failed to cross over more widely during the tentpole-saturated summer.

“The whole idea of trying to maintain the moviegoing habit is discouraged when we’ve trained audiences to pay attention only to opening weekend,” Gilula observes. “There’s been a very fast burn, and that’s something we have to work against.”

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