Thanks to monster hits like “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1” and art-house breakouts such as “The Artist,” many of the major players in the independent film market racked up an impressive year despite the industry-wide box office decline.
The top seven indie studios grossed $1.57 billion at the domestic box office so far this year, compared to $1.52 billion in 2010, according to Boxofficemojo.com.
Theatrical revenues grew while studios continued to exploit video on demand and digital video as a new source of revenue. Barely a week goes by without one or more of the indies signing a new streaming pact with the likes of Netflix or Hulu.
So who’s leading the pack? Summit dominated market share thanks to the latest installment in its tween horror romance, “Twilight.” Relativity announced itself as a major player on the scene, but next year will need to find a new source of financial backing in order to stay there.
The Weinstein Co. re-emerged from its 2010 refinancing with the wind at its back thanks to Colin Firth’s stuttering monarch in “The King’s Speech.”
Fox Searchlight is translating the critical raves for Alexander Payne's "The Descendants" into solid box office returns.
New entrant FilmDistrict scored a low-budget hit with the $54 million domestic grossing horror film "Insidious," but overspent on Johnny Depp's "The Rum Diaries, with only a measly $13 million at the domestic box office to show for its troubles.
Likewise, Focus Features churned out a genre hit with the $40 million grossing "Hanna," but couldn't interest audiences in the $19.4 million grossing Roman epic "The Eagle."
Not every studio was a winner. Lionsgate, with a costly string of box office misses, saw its numbers fall to earth. But salvation may be just around the corner in the form of a certain dystopian young adult novel, “The Hunger Games.”
Here's a look at the top four indie studios:
“The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1” powered the studio’s slate, grossing a bloody good $658.4 million worldwide -- and counting -- on a $110 million budget. The finale to the sex and blood sucking series hits next summer, at which point the studio will be hard-pressed to find an equally profitable series of projects to replace it.
After all, that film accounted for more than 50 percent of Summit’s $1 billion worldwide gross.
The rest of Summit’s slate was something of a mixed bag. Cancer comedy “50/50” rode strong reviews to a $34.9 million domestic gross while “The Three Musketeers” deflected critical knocks to rack up $139 million worldwide. Also performing solidly was the mind-bending thriller “Source Code,” which generated $146.7 million globally on a $32 million budget.
However, Nicolas Cage’s “Drive Angry 3D” grossed a meager $10.7 million on a $9 million budget, and Mel Gibson’s “The Beaver” couldn’t overcome its star’s controversial public image to bank a dreadful $8.7 million on a $21 million budget.
Maybe it’s time to start plotting “The Twilight Saga: The Early Years.”
“The Hunger Games” can’t come soon enough for Lionsgate after a dreadful 2011.
The studio was hit hard by a series of flops last summer and fall, after audiences rejected “Conan the Barbarian,” “Warrior,” “The Devil’s Double” and “Abduction” in short order.
Given that those films represented 50 percent of Lionsgate’s theatrical slate, the bad grosses were magnified. Last year, the studio released substantially more films -- 14 theatrical releases in total, among them such moneymakers as “The Expendables” and “The Last Exorcism.”
The year wasn’t a total wash with the studio fielding two solid performers with “The Lincoln Lawyer” ($58 million, domestically) and “Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family” ($53 million, domestically).
Still, theatrical revenues plunged from $510.8 million domestically to $175.7 million this year.
“On the film side, it was one disaster after another,” James Marsh, an analyst at Piper Jaffray & Co., told TheWrap. “There’s a huge amount riding on ‘Hunger Games.’"
Most analysts believe next spring's “Hunger Games” will be the company’s highest grossing film of all time and could launch a multi-part franchise.
The studio and its stock have been re-energized in recent months now that Carl Icahn has abandoned his long standing attempt hostile takeover attempt of the studio and sold virtually all of his stock in the company.
The studio has done an expert job of monopolizing digital streaming and other alternative home-entertainment platforms through deals with Netflix. In particular, “ Margin Call,” the financial meltdown drama produced with Roadside Attractions, has become an unlikely hit for the studio, grossing $5 million domestically and $5 million on day-and-date video on demand.
Also on tap are a sequel to “The Expendables,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s big screen return in “The Last Stand,” and the Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez romantic comedy “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.”
The end of Relativity’s first year as a full-fledged film production and distribution company was marred by a series of executive departures and reports of financial difficulties.
That said, the studio fielded a number of solid box office performers, including “Immortals,” the studio’s sword-and-sandals epic has grossed $195 million worldwide to date with major territories yet to open including Spain and Latin America.
The pill-popping thriller “Limitless” was a surprise hit last spring, racking up $165.4 million globally on a $27 million production budget.
Not that Relativity didn’t have its share of duds. Family comedy “Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer” grossed a lowly $15 million on a $20 million budget, while the long-shelved “Take Me Home Tonight” grossed a paltry $6.9 million domestically. ("Judy Moody" was financed by Smokewood Entertainment, which absorbed the loss. Relativity was the distributor.)
More troubling is the potential departure of Relativity President Steve Bertram, who may leave the company when his contract is due up at the end of the year. His exit would be the latest in a string of exits among the studio’s top ranks. CEO Ryan Kavanaugh’s inability to find a new backer to replace outgoing investor Elliot Management is another concern.
But the studio is proud that in its first year every one of its home-grown projects either broke even or made a profit.
THE WEINSTEIN CO.
“The King’s Speech” has been a royal winner for the Weinstein Co.
Snatching Best Picture from the grip of “The Social Network” reaped big dividends for the indie studio, with the drama raking in $414.2 million worldwide.
The rest of the studio’s slate hasn’t been nearly as impressive, although Harvey and crew may have another Best Picture contender on their hands with “The Artist.” The black-and-white silent film -- bought for a song (get it?) at the Cannes Film Festival -- has grossed $15.4 million worldwide so far, but business should ramp up if the movie is an Oscar winner.
Thanks in large part to that little gold statue, the studio more than quadrupled its previous year’s box office take, earning $547 million as opposed to the $89.7 million banked in 2010.
Although “Scream 4” signaled that that the bottom has probably fallen out of the horror film franchise, it still was profitable with a $97 million worldwide gross on a $40 million budget. Ditto for “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World,” which grossed a modest $74 million, but only cost $27 million to produce.
The jury is still out on “My Week With Marilyn,” which has grossed nearly $10 million so far, but could add to its take if it picks up awards attention.
Looking ahead, the studio has Quentin Tarantino’s slave era spaghetti western “Django Unchained,” Brad Pitt’s crime thriller “Cogan’s Trade,” and Shia LaBeouf ‘s prohibition drama “The Wettest County in the World.”
"We're very focused -- that's the message," David Glasser, TWC's chief operating officer, told TheWrap. "There's a need and a desire for the kind of movies that we make."