EmptyFor the major studios, summer 2007 marked a boxoffice high. For their specialty divisions and indie counterparts, it was a different story.
There were no home runs anywhere near the scale of IFC Films' "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" in 2002, Newmarket Films' "The Passion of the Christ" or Lionsgate/IFC Films' "Fahrenheit 9/11" in 2004, or even Warner Independent Pictures' "March of the Penguins" in 2005. "Those are anomaly films, and can't be counted on to be there year after year," Fox Searchlight COO Nancy Utley said.
While that is true, the explosion in indie distribution during the past decade is partly a result of such anomalies, and has resulted in more specialty distributors taking chances by releasing films against the blockbusters. "It feels like a few summers ago that Searchlight was one of the only companies programming the summer," said Utley, who had two small-scale but profitable hits this summer with "Waitress" and "Once." "Now it seems like many more are, and that creates a clutter effect that makes it hard to breathe."
Miramax Films president Daniel Battsek, who had a moderate $15.7 million hit this summer with "Becoming Jane," agreed.
"The carefully selected release date and lack of strong competition has sustained ('Jane')," he said. "It remains a very difficult, fragile business, and you need all the cards to fall in your favor. The summer can obliterate you if you can't somehow find that lull in the storm."
Most distributors realize that, but it hasn't stopped many of them from swinging for the fences. Day after day at January's Sundance Film Festival, in a tidal wave that began forming at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, specialty divisions and some smaller stand-alone distributors spent money like drunk sailors for films they have slated for release throughout the year. All of them remembered how Fox Searchlight turned last year's $10.5 million "Little Miss Sunshine" Sundance buy into a $60 million Oscar-winning hit. So far this year, though some have managed to avoid a bad boxoffice hangover, others have woken up in bed with an unwelcome partner. And now that some of these films have hit theaters, all that conspicuous consumption that took place earlier in the year can be judged by the inevitable boxoffice results.
Fox Searchlight picked up a trio of well-reviewed Sundance films: The late Adrienne Shelly's romantic comedy "Waitress," starring Keri Russell, cost about $4 million to acquire and delivered $18.9 million in ticket sales; John Carney's Irish busking musical "Once," a $1 million acquisition, grossed $8.1 million; and George Ratliff's thriller "Joshua," acquired for $3.7 million, grossed about $478,500.
Not every company made a big Sundance score — at least as measured by theater receipts to date. Magnolia Pictures paid in the mid-six figures for the documentary "Crazy Love" and grossed slightly less than $300,000 this summer. The company's biggest summer hit was Zoe Cassavetes' low-budget romantic comedy "Broken English" (picked up from its sister company, HDNet Films), which took in $952,390 in theaters.
Warner Independent Pictures bought the Brenda Blethyn comedy "Clubland" for $4 million and renamed it "Introducing the Dwights" but only saw about $378,900 in theaters. ThinkFilm and City Lights Home Entertainment partnered to buy David Wain's comedy "The Ten" for $4.5 million and earned about $643,600 by summer's end, though its all-star cast might help it go on to DVD success like the director's cult hit "Wet Hot American Summer." The verdict is still out on the First Look/Weinstein Co. $4 million co-buy "Dedication," which has pulled in about $60,000 since its four-theater opening Aug. 24.
The first hint of the onslaught to come was felt last year at Toronto, where the film everyone wanted — the salsa biopic "El Cantante," starring Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony — went to Picturehouse for $6 million. It has grossed $7.4 million so far at the boxoffice. Lionsgate paid $1 million for the Alzheimer's drama "Away From Her," which has scored $4.5 million before the inevitable awards-season rerelease.
Several distributors made their biggest money during the summer by staking out the territory before the season actually began and slowly building word-of-mouth as the weeks went by. ThinkFilm opened France's official foreign-language Oscar entry, "Avenue Montaigne," in mid-February, and the film collected more than $600,000 of its $2 million gross after May 4 — a bigger number than any of ThinkFilm's summer releases save for "The Ten." In one of its final releases from the slate of departed president Ruth Vitale, First Look Studios released the French-language omnibus "Paris je t'aime" in early May and saw it become one of the top-grossing foreign-language films of the year with $4.9 million.
The Weinstein Co. and its genre division Dimension Films partnered with other studios on some of the bigger successes of the summer. Two of the biggest hits were from MGM/Dimension: the PG-13 horror film "1408," a Stephen King adaptation starring John Cusack, and Rob Zombie's gore-filled R-rated remake of "Halloween." The former earned $71.5 million, and the latter smashed Labor Day weekend records with a four-day gross of $30.6 million. Focus Features' genre sister label Rogue Pictures also picked up coin during the same weekend with a four-day, $14.1 million gross on its comedy "Balls of Fury."
The Weinstein Co. earned just $5.8 million with the period adventure flick "The Last Legion," far less than the film's $70 million budget, though the company noted that the film's expense was borne by producer Dino De Laurentiis. Two of the Weinstein Co.'s other slated summer titles — "Penelope" (acquired with IFC Films) and "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane" — were sold to other distributors shortly before their release dates.
Summer 2007 also proved something of a weather vane for things to come. New distributors Summit Entertainment and Overture Films, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment's MGM output deal and IFC's increased focus on a multitude of First Take titles will all make the theatrical marketplace even more crowded. If the threat of a possible actors strike creates an even crazier buying frenzy at January's Sundance festival, the 2008 summer slate could be even busier.
But several in the industry, including Focus president and Rogue co-president Andrew Karpen, insist that this summer's boxoffice, which favored the majors over the indies, occurred because the traditional specialty-film audience gravitated to well-reviewed studio fare that gave them a needed break from the Iraq War and other harsh realities.
"People who normally went to art house films went to see films like 'Knocked Up' and 'The Bourne Ultimatum,' which was directed by a guy (Paul Greengrass) with an art house sensibility," said William Morris Independent co-head Cassian Elwes, who helped sell many of this year's big Sundance acquisitions. "It's (in the) zeitgeist — the real news is so depressing, people want to see quality films that are fun."