Summer 2007: Good or Bad Time for Indies

Sep. 4, 2007–A peculiar combination of horror flicks and Michael Moore's docu “Sicko” dominated the summer indie scene. Which means, that the fall and winter seasons will become more crucial for arthouse fare with potential awards momentum.

Among independent companies and studio specialty arms, the big box office earner of the summer was the Weinstein Co., which turned out sleeper horror hit “1408,” docu “Sicko” and, during the Labor Day weekend, Rob Zombie's record-breaking “Halloween.”

In recent years, indie distribs have chosen the summer as a season for sophisticated counter-programming and get a jump on awards season. Last year, “Little Miss Sunshine” opened in July, and in 2005, Lionsgate opened “Crash” in May.

But, due to competition over screens, this summer, indie distributors and studio specialty arms had trouble drawing attention to their pictures and keeping even the successful ones in theaters. How much this pattern will affect future release strategies remains to be seen.

Even “Sicko,” with its star filmmaker, began losing screens despite its respectable grosses. To date, the film's cumulative is $24 million, putting it on the verge of becoming the third highest grossing docu of all time after “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “The March of the Penguins.”

If TWC was the big grosser, Fox Searchlight enjoyed enviable success on the arthouse feature side. Searchlight's “Waitress” is one of the top specialty earners of the summer, grossing nearly $19 million, while “Once” grossed $7.7 million. But the sci-fi thriller “Sunshine” made only $3.5 million.

Picturehouse likewise fared well with Edith Piaf biopic “La Vie en rose,” which has grossed $9.5 million to date and earned star Marion Cotillard some awards buzz.

Miramax offered the Jane Austen biopic “Becoming Jane,” starring Anne Hathaway, which grossed more than $14 million to date.

Focus Features' summer lineup included “Talk to Me” starring Don Cheadle, which grossed over $4 million, and “Evening,” an artistic flop, which brought in $12.5 million.

Samuel Goldwyn Films' female-skewing “2 Days in Paris,” written and directed by Julie Delpy, also is faring solidly early in its run, with a cume of $1.9 million.

Still, the box office success of horror titles this summer reinforces the notion that studio specialty arms and indie production companies need to balance out their slates with more commercial genre titles.

“Halloween” grossed a strong $31 million from 3,472 runs over the four-day Labor Day weekend, by far the best ever opening for the holiday.

Earlier in the summer, “1408,” starring John Cusack and based on a Stephen King story, went on to gross $71 million domestically. MGM distributed both “Halloween” and “1408” under its output deal with TWC.

Still, TWC has come under scrutiny for several misses, including the bigscreen adaptation of “The Nanny Diaries” starring Scarlett Johansson. TWC says the criticism is unwarranted and that it is a market leader in only its second year.

There were misses elsewhere as well, notably Paramount Vantage's Angelina Jolie starrer “A Mighty Heart.”

Among specialty titles making a play over the Labor Day weekend, Warner Independent's environmental docu “The 11th Hour,” narrated and produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, grossed $200,000 as it expanded to 111 locations for a cume of $378,000 and a per-screen average of $1,802.

Getting a jump on its official release next weekend, Lionsgate's “3:10 to Yuma” did a sneak peak in roughly 360 locations. The oater, starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, played to an average 80% capacity.