Why did so few specialty films cross over this summer?

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Summer -- that elusive, seductive damsel exiting the bar after this weekend -- tends to inspire a lot of things, including too many contemporary country singers to write bad songs. What it usually also does is get filmgoers to take a break from the male explosion extravaganzas and female star-driven dramedies to check out something smaller. lighter and more human, movies that people see because they discover them, not because they’re marketed into submission.

The so-called specialty crossover hit has been a certainty in recent summers, when there’s reliably been a ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ or a ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ to attract filmgoers. This year? Not so much.

The offbeat family dramedy ‘The Kids Are All Right’ comes closest to earning the crossover crown -- it’s grossed just over $19 million since being released in early July. For a $5-million acquisition of worldwide rights out of Sundance, that’s not a shabby investment for distributor Focus Features. But it’s hardly the blowout success of ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’ a movie to which ‘Kids’ has been compared but which grossed nearly $60 million, or even the quirky breakup dramedy '(500) Days of Summer,’ which grossed $32 million last summer.

In only one other summer in the past decade did a specialty movie not crack the $20-million mark (it happened in 2007, when ‘Waitress’ just missed the cut). ‘The Kids Are All Right’ will probably make it to $20 million, but barely. And the Lisa Cholodenko film is actually the exception -- there isn’t a single other specialty movie so far this year close to it. Many years there are multiple films. And sometimes there’s even one blowout one, a ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ or, all the way at the upper end of the register, a ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding.’ This year the well is dry.

Executives we spoke to ranged around for explanation about the crossover crisis. There’s the matter of changing audience appetites, they said. Or maybe the specialty business is simply cyclical, and we’re at a low point. And then there’s the fact that this summer’s breakout, ‘Inception,’ a kind of big-budget art-house film, sponged up many of the moviegoers who might have otherwise seen specialty counterprogrammers.


But it’s the simplest explanation that may be the truest: The number of financiers and distributors that might have produced and pushed these films are no longer doing business. The brothers Weinstein -- who regularly churned out counterprogrammers earlier in the 00s, have been laying lower this year. Miramax and Bob Berney are off the scene. So are a lot of indie financing instruments. Sure, Fox Searchlight and Focus Features are still here as well-funded, infrastructure-heavy producers and distributors, but they’re increasingly the exception. Searchlight also took a rare pause form its usual crossover dominance this year as it released ‘Cyrus,’ which grossed just over $7 million. (It did have the urban romantic comedy ‘Just Wright’ gross $21 million, though that doesn’t fit the typical definition of a specialty film.)

There is, however, some hope for those who toil in specialty fields, or simply appreciate its fruit: a number of word-of-mouth movies that quietly found a nice niche audience. The screwball family romp ‘City Island,’ an Anchor Bay movie that few wanted even after a strong showing at the Tribeca Film Festival two years ago, has cranked out nearly $7 million on a minuscule marketing budget. Ditto for the Swedish-language crime thriller ‘The Girl Who Played With Fire.’ And a host of well-reviewed, micromarketed dramas have hovered at or near a respectable $5 million in domestic box office -- Michael Douglas’ ‘Solitary Man,’ Tilda Swinton’s ‘I Am Love’ and critics’ darling ‘Winter’s Bone.’

When the financial crisis hit a few years ago, we heard often that indie films would now be left in indie hands, making indie money. This summer, we began to see it.

--Steven Zeitchik