A Big Boom for Indie Box Office

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

How 2011 is turning into the year of the specialty film, led by Woody Allen's hit.

Werner Herzog's 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams had little going in its favor, but the exploration of the world's earliest known cave paintings could become his top-grossing movie in the U.S. and is already the No. 1 nonstudio documentary of the year. Its success underscores the current mini-boom at the specialty box office.

Several small films released in the first half of 2011 have done big business, unusual in that the fall/winter awards season is the typical sweet spot for highbrow fare.

Cave has grossed $4.9 million to date, with an impressive $3.8 million from 3D theaters. IFC Films/Sundance Selects released Cave in five locations April 29. It dropped less than 23 percent in its first seven weeks and surpassed the $3.2 million earned by Grizzly Man, Herzog's previous top doc.

"Everybody thought we were crazy to buy a 3D doc on cave painting, but we knew we had something unique," says IFC Films president Jonathan Sehring, who believes Cave could pass the war drama Rescue Dawn, Herzog's top U.S. earner at $5.5 million.

Spirits also are high at Sony Pictures Classics, distributor of Woody Allen's first mainstream hit in 25 years, Midnight in Paris, which boasts $42 million domestic to date. At this point last year, the top-grossing specialty film was The Ghost Writer at $15.5 million.

Another surprise is Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, which has grossed $10.1 million since its May release.

There have been disappointments, of course, including Morgan Spurlock's POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, which earned a paltry $629,499. But other notable hits include Robert Redford's April release The Conspirator, an Abraham Lincoln murder drama that grossed $11.5 million for Roadside Attractions. Focus Features' Jane Eyre, released in March, grossed a strong $11.2 million, while the company's Beginners has earned $3.9 million to date.

Grosses like these might seem small but can mean strong financial returns for releases that don't require huge marketing spends, relying instead on word-of-mouth. And much of the production budget for these films generally is raised through foreign presales. (Midnight in Paris and Tree of Life are doing strong business internationally.)

Says Sony Classics co-president Michael Barker, "This year has been very good, if you don't have outsize expectations."