The specialty box office generally flatlined this year. The overall 2017 takeaway among this year’s crop of limited theatrical roll-outs is that the box office did edge lower this year, though a mostly strong fourth quarter averted a sharp downturn — though that is not historically unprecedented.
Still, there were some specialty stars that opened earlier in the year. There were over seven hundred films in theaters in 2017, most of which were limited-release titles. Films falling in that broad category totaled about $520M. The 2016 specialty gross landed at about $550M.
There are caveats. Looking at specialties/limited releases is a subjective exercise. For the purposes of this article, features were included if they spent most of their release with limited runs. High grossers like The Big Sick (Amazon Studios/Lionsgate), Wind River (TWC) and more recently Lady Bird (A24), as well as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Fox Searchlight) are examples. Numbers cited include grosses through Christmas weekend (unless otherwise noted) and were provided by comScore. Like previous years, some specialty distributors had wide releases among their year’s rosters, but they are not factored in for this column.
“There’s always highs and lows throughout the year in the specialty space,” observed Amazon Studios head of distribution Bob Berney about the 2017 specialty box office. “There were some great breakouts this year – Wind River, The Big Sick, The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Disaster Artist, among others. What started off as a light year ended up with a solid fourth quarter in both box office and awards possibilities.”
Amazon Studios/Lionsgate’s Sundance ’17 feature The Big Sick ends the year as 2017’s highest-grossing specialty opener at over $42.87M. Directed by Michael Showalter and starring Holly Hunter, Zoe Kazan, and Ray Romano, the feature bowed June 23 in just five theaters, grossing over $421K, averaging $84,315, the best per-theater average debut of the year at that point. In the end, The Big Sick landed as the third-highest PTA opener of 2017, following this autumn’s debuts of Sony Classics’ Call Me By Your Name ($3.26M cume), which boasts the year’s highest average at $103,233, followed by A24’s Lady Bird at $91,109 ($29.14M cume).
Other top PTA winners were Fox Searchlight’s The Shape of Water ($10.12M cume), which opened at the beginning of December in two locations with an $83,282 PTA and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (also Searchlight), which had an $80,542 PTA ($23.13M cume) in four theaters when it opened in November. Both would need some awards momentum if they are to overtake The Big Sick in the New Year. One more likely possibility is Lady Bird, which is currently the third-highest specialty grosser. Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River, which TWC bowed at the beginning of August, is currently still holding second place at $33.8M. The film did spend six weeks of its three-month run in theaters in wide release.
Other late openers are showing box office heft that will likely swell as they head into wider release in the New Year, including Focus Features’ Phantom Thread by Paul Thomas Anderson, which bowed in four New York and L.A. theaters on Christmas, grossing $254,491 ($63,626 average) and Neon/30West’s I, Tonya, which opened December 8 also in four locations taking in $264,155 ($66,039 average). It has cumed over $1.7M ahead of New Years weekend.
Awards season continues to funnel promising titles toward the end of the year and that has been reflected in the box office. Distributors, of course, have found success with spring and summer roll-outs a la Big Time or Focus’ March and June debuts, Zookeeper’s Wife ($17.44M cume) and The Beguiled ($10.57M) as well as Bleecker Street’s April launch, The Lost City of Z ($8.58M), but a disproportionate number of specialties pack into the last quarter of the year.
“It’s ending on a high note,” said Focus Features president of distribution Lisa Bunnell. “There are a ton of films for the Oscar season. With the influx of Neon, A24 and Amazon, along with solid Searchlight and Focus [openings], there’s been a rejuvenation of the art market… I’ve said it every year. We need to use 12 months out of the year to release product… There’s an art house all year round.”
Fox Searchlight topped out the year with the highest limited release cumulative grosses among specialty distributors, hitting about $80M. Others include Focus features ($63.6M), A24 ($59.7M), Lionsgate ($51.6M), last year’s number one specialty grosser, Roadside Attractions ($39.1M) and Sony Pictures Classics ($23.8M). It should be noted that Amazon Studios only began handling its own releases sans a distribution partner at the end of the year, with Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel ($1.2M cume). Lionsgate co-released The Big Sick, which is alone the vast majority of its specialty cume for the year.
As 2016 came to a close, CBS Films/Lionsgate’s action-drama Hell or High Water had the year’s best cume among the specialties at $27M, though it was overtaken after the New Year by the likes of La La Land and Manchester By the Sea. The former actually grossed over $113.7M in 2017, spending the first two-and-a-half months of the year in wide release. If La La Land were factored into the year’s overall specialty gross, then 2017 would have outpaced 2016.
Looking at non-fiction, Walt Disney’s Born in China reigns as 2017’s highest-grossing documentary ($13.87M), though the title spent its first month in wide release. Magnolia Pictures’ I Am Not Your Negro placed next at over $7.12M, followed by Paramount Vantage’s Inconvenient Sequel at $3.49M and Oscilloscope’s Turkish doc Kedi, which took in $2.83M — which incidentally also makes it one of the year’s best foreign-language grossers stateside.
India’s action-fantasy Baahubali 2: The Conclusion lead foreign-language releases stateside this year. Released by Great India Films, the title grossed over $20.1M. The feature was destined to be a box office star. The original did well in North America taking in over $6.7M. Baahubali 2 incidentally became the all-time number one Indian film at the box office worldwide. Much further down the list was animated feature, Your Name, from FUNimation Films, which grossed just over $5M.
Noted comScore’s Paul Dergarabedian about specialties this year: “While box office fortunes rose and fell all year long in 2017, the specialty distributors consistently provided moviegoers with a terrific and diverse array of films from talented filmmakers that took a deep dive into the human condition and delivered some of the most notable and thought provoking movie-going experiences of the year.”
The following are a selection of individual specialty distributor quick round-ups for 2017:
Fox Searchlight packed a late year wallop with the releases of Battle Of the Sexes ($12.6M), Goodbye Christopher Robin ($1.7M), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri ($22.87M) and The Shape of Water ($8.86M). But it also cashed in on its April release, Gifted ($24.8M) which still held the reins as the highest-grossing Searchlight title as of Christmas weekend. Searchlight totaled the highest of the year among the specialty distributors, coming in at over $80M (minus its wide March release, Table 19). It did have one particular mishap. Its Sundance pick-up Patti Cake$ demurred at only $800K.
Said Searchlight’s Frank Rodriguez: “We thought Gifted did great, but we had hoped Battle of the Sexes would do a bit better. We are pretty satisfied for the year. Last year was a bit tougher. We’re doing everything we can to get Three Billboards and The Shape of Water to as high of a number as we can and to get the nominations we hope for and maybe some wins.”
Focus Features had a great second quarter with The Zookeeper’s Wife by Niki Caro and starring Jessica Chastain, taking in over $17.44M during its theatrical run. In June, it released Colin Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry with Naomi Watts ($4.5M) and Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled with Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst ($10.7M). The distributor really cashed in with Victoria & Abdul, starring Dame Judi Dench, which reigned through most of the fall as the highest-grossing specialty of the season at over $22M. Its late November release, Darkest Hour starring Gary Oldman, is still amidst its release at $14.3M as of the start of New Years weekend. Focus opened Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread starring Daniel Day-Lewis in four locations on Christmas. It grossed $254,491 ($63,626 average) in its first few days. Focus cumed over $64M for the year minus its June wide release of Atomic Blonde.
Observed Focus’ Lisa Bunnell about the specialties: “I think we all naturally look at comps and think of a good example of what has happened in the past when releasing films. Create your own comps. Be creative in what you do… Buck against the old trends and do something new. If you have a quality film, it will get that attention even outside the obvious Awards season.”
Amazon Studios marked 2017 as the year it began releasing films — or in this case, a film — without a distribution partner. Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel with Kate Winslet is the label’s first ($1.2M to date). Until now, it had partnered since its launch with traditional distributors, as was the case with the rest of its 13 other titles in 2017, including The Big Sick (released with Lionsgate), which topped its releases of the year at over $42.8M, representing the bulk of its 2017 slate totaling $61.6M. The Lost City of Z, which it released with Bleecker Street, came second at $8.58M. Amazon Studios had some rough goes as well, including Wonderstruck ($1.03M) and Last Flag Flying ($965K).
“We started off great this year. James Gray’s The Lost City of Z performed well in theaters and on the platform, and The Big Sick was the box office breakout hit of the summer…in domestic box office also performing well on Prime and has been in the awards discussion as well,” noted Amazon Studios’ Bob Berney. “In addition, it’s great to see three of our documentaries on the short list — City of Ghosts, Human Flow, and Long Strange Trip. We had a few films under-perform in the box office, but they will have the opportunity be able to find their audiences on Prime.”
A24 continues to impress. Its Q4 releases Lady Bird ($28.3M), The Disaster Artist ($15.7M), The Florida Project ($5.2M) and The Killing Of a Sacred Deer ($2.29M) helped propel the distributor to nearly $60M this year (minus its April and June wide releases, Free Fire and It Comes At Night). Lady Bird alone represented close to half of its overall specialty cume for 2017.
Roadside Attractions said that it had its “third-best year” in its 14-year history, totaling about $39.1M. Very noteworthy in that cume is Manchester By the Sea (released with Amazon Studios), which covered over $20M of that total. The film by Kenneth Lonnergan and starring Oscar-winner Casey Affleck opened in mid November, 2016 and remained in theatrical release until April of this year. Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz At Dinner, which Roadside bowed in June, took in over $7.11M.
Sony Pictures Classics had strong spring/summer releases with Paris Can Wait ($5.6M) and Maudie ($6.1M). The company is also finding box office success with its awards contender, Call Me By Your Name, which has cumed $3.9M as of Thursday, though it is still only in limited release. The title, starring Timothy Chalamet and Armie Hammer, will surely give SPC a strong start going into 2018. Sony Classics cumed about $24M for the year.
Annapurna Pictures saw nearly $16.8M of its total 2017 gross of $20.5M come from Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit (the total includes its October wide roll-out, Professor Marston & the Wonder Women, which took in $1.58M). In mid-September it also released Mike White’s Brad’s Status with Ben Stiller in conjunction with Amazon Studios, totaling $2.13M at the box office.
Bleecker Street had two wide releases this year along with several limited roll-outs, including The Lost City of Z, which it opened in partnership with Amazon Studios, grossing $8.58M. The company’s holiday opener, The Man Who Invented Christmas, has totaled $5.39M as of Christmas weekend. Both represent the bulk of Bleecker Street’s $16.2M cume among its limited release titles.
Magnolia Pictures boasted the year’s highest-grossing specialty documentary and the second-highest one overall when including Disney’s wide release, Born in China. Magnolia’s Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro took $7.12M at the box office, while the company’s again did well opening the collection of Oscar shorts, which cumed over $2.8M in theaters. Magnolia also released stateside 2017’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner, The Square, in late October, cuming $1.2M to date. Magnolia was a pioneer in the day and date/on-demand space, which presumably represents a significant part of its yearly revenue, though it all remains secret.
Neon came out solidly in its launch with Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal starring Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis, ultimately taking in over $3M in theaters. Founded by Tom Quinn (formerly of RADiUS and Magnolia Pictures) as well as Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League, the company is closing out the year strong with I, Tonya, which should see the bulk of its theatrical gross in the New Year. To date, the title, which it released earlier in December with 30West, has grossed over $1.7M. In late summer, the company released Ingrid Goes West ($3.02M) and Sundance’s Beach Rats ($474K).
“We’ve done eight movies this year in eight months,” noted Quinn of Neon’s launch year. “I’m super excited with some of the success we’ve had and accomplished in a very short amount of time — capping the year off with I, Tonya.” Quinn added about the company: “There is room for more versatility and more challenging cinema and that’s important to us.”
IFC Films released its fourth film with Kristen Stewart in March, Personal Shopper, directed by Olivier Assayas — the distributor that also released On The Road (2012), Camp X-Ray (2014), Clouds of Sils Maria (2015) — which also took the year’s best return on the theatrical side for the company at $1.3M. Two other titles took in seven figures including The Trip to Spain ($1.15M) and Viceroy’s House ($1.1M). IFC was also a trailblazer in the day and date release strategy. Like others, it does not give out figures from its on-demand side.
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