Specialty Films Off to Strong Start at Holiday Box Office

In a reversal of fortune, specialty films are off to a strong start at the holiday box office after a tough fall season for the indie sector. They're even making a better showing than bigger studio titles.

Awards favorites Black Swan, The Fighter and The King's Speech are leading the charge. Although playing in only 959 theaters last weekend, Black Swan placed No. 7 for the frame, beating out wide studio players including How Do You Know.

Out of the gate, King's Speech is proving one of the most successful limited releases from Harvey and Bob Weinstein in recent times (it was Harvey Weinstein who perfected the platform release pattern in the late 1990s).

The historical drama is now playing in 43 theaters but makes a major expansion Friday into a total of 600 or 700. By early January, it will be playing nationwide.

Fox Searchlight's Black Swan and Paramount/Relativity Media's The Fighter weren't originally going to expand so fast, but execs saw an opportunity in the marketplace and broke wide earlier than expected.

Usually, companies wait until after the year-end holidays to make a major play in order to avoid colliding with holiday studio titles. Two years ago, for instance, Searchlight's Slumdog Millionaire played in only 500 theaters over Christmas.

But this year, audiences are embracing specialty fare.

On Tuesday, Black Swan moved up to No. 6 on the day's box office chart, grossing $1.6 million from its 959 runs for a cume of $18.9 million. On Wednesday, the psycho-sexual drama expanded into a total of 1,461 theaters.

Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is that rare specialty hybrid that is playing to two distinctly different audiences; urban sophisticates (many of them women in this case) and suburban genre fans, much as Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds did last year. It's a big reason why Black Swan is doing well in markets like Miami and Columbus, Ohio.

The Fighter opened Dec. 10 in New York and Los Angeles before expanding nationwide into more than 2,500 theaters on Friday. The film came in a strong No. 4 for the weekend, grossing $12.6 million.

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The Fighter and Black Swan were outdone only by four big 3D titles --Tron: Legacy (which placed No. 1 for the day), Yogi Bear, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Tangled, respectively.

On Tuesday, The Fighter came in at No. 5 with $1.9 million to boost its cume to $16.1 million.
The Fighter is appealing more heavily to women than anticipated; they made up 53% of the audience turning out during the Dec. 17-19 weekend. Paramount began courting this demo in its marketing campaign after it became apparent during test screenings that women were drawn to the picture.

Relativity fully financed The Fighter after taking the project over from Paramount, working with producers David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman and Mark Wahlberg to bring the budget down and bring aboard director David O. Russell as well as stars Christian Bale, Melissa Leo and Amy Adams.

Paramount retained rights to distribute the movie domestically.

"Without a doubt, all of this is a sign that there is still an audience for smart, savvy independent film," Weinstein Co. COO David Glasser said. "It's reminiscent of five years ago when you had films like Brokeback Mountain and Crash.

"Audiences want something that is off the beaten path, provoking conversation and talk," he added.

On Wednesday, another specialty film, Focus Features' Somewhere, unspooled in a limited run, and Sony Pictures Classics' The Illusionist debuts Friday. On Dec. 29, three more indie films bow: Sony Classics' Another Year, the Weinstein Co.'s Blue Valentine and Roadside Attractions' Biutiful, which bows in an awards qualifying run. Biutiful officially launches in late January.

King's Speech's gross was $3.3 million through Tuesday. The Tom Hooper-directed film posted the highest per-screen average of the day, as it did over the weekend.

Elsewhere at the box office Tuesday, Disney's Tron grossed $6.2 million for a five-day cume of $56.2 million. Placing No. 2, Yogi grossed $2.9 million for a five-day total of $21.8 million, followed by Narnia ($2.7 million for a 12-day cume of $47.7 million) and Tangled ($2.5 million for a cume of $132.4 in its fourth week in release).

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