There were close to a thousand limited-release titles that opened in 2016 in North America. Assessing the specialty box office is not as tidy as with the studios. The area requires some subjectivity given when factoring in cast, release strategy and any other number of factors. From well north of 100 distributors, specialties — for the purpose of this article, titles that opened in limited release and spent most of their theatrical rollouts outside of wide release — grossed less than $550M in 2016, according to figures provided by comScore, which provided numbers for all titles assessed in this article.
Numbers from comScore quoted in this year-end assessment include theatrical grosses through Christmas weekend unless otherwise noted. While the service provided the raw data, its senior media analyst, Paul Dergarabedian, gave a shout-out to some titles for their prowess at the box office and beyond.
“While a mixed bag on the blockbuster side of the ledger, specialty distributors delivered some of the most compelling, diverse and best-quality films to grace the big screen in 2016, and the cumulative excellence of these films created a well-deserved aura of quality that surrounded this year’s auspicious crop,” Dergarabedian said. “Titles as diverse as Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Lion, Jackie and A Monster Calls drew accolades, and though they enjoyed varying degrees of box office success, these along with other notable films such as Eye in the Sky, Hell or High Water and Love & Friendship — and far too many other great specialty films to mention — generated a massive amount of goodwill and appreciation for the smaller scale films that the industry had to offer in 2016.”
Roadside Attractions landed atop the heap of exclusively specialty distribution outfits at the box office this year with a combined cume of around $70M among all of its releases. Like a half-dozen of its counterparts, the figure includes releases it did with Amazon Studios, which co-released its titles in partnership with established distributors. Roadside’s co-releases with the online giant include Manchester by the Sea and Love & Friendship, which have been giants among the specialties this year.
Many expected Amazon’s entry into the specialty space to upend conventional practice and some feared a takeover, though Amazon’s head of marketing and distribution, Bob Berney, has a decidedly sanguine outlook.
“It’s exciting to see our films perform along with everyone else’s,” he said. “There’s a growing audience for these kinds of films. … It is crowded, especially now in awards season, but [generally] I don’t think the total audience taps out. There isn’t a ceiling, though it’s tough when your film isn’t quite there and it’s crowded.”
Jack Foley, President of Theatrical Distribution at Bleecker Street: “There’s a lot of good adult films out there, particularly at the end of the year, so it’s a competitive niche. When you can come in at the $5 million-and-above range, you’re doing all right. … What A24 did with Moonlight is brilliant. They got in early, and they have a lot more to come. People played smart with that early-November edge. I think Manchester by the Sea is a tide that lifted all boats.”
Manchester by the Sea and Lionsgate’s La La Land likely will be the year’s top specialty draws before their theatrical lives are completed, but the current reigning title among limited releases is CBS Films and Lionsgate’s late-summer release Hell or High Water by David Mackenzie. The action-drama starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Dale Dickey has cumed $27M at the box office.
Damien Chazelle’s La La Land scored the best per-theater average debut of any title this year — and the 10th-best ever. The musical bowed December 9 in five locations, grossing more than $881K in its first weekend with an impressive $176,221 PTA. A24’s Moonlight had the second-highest opening PTA of the year at $100,519 when it bowed in October.
On the nonfiction side, Quality Flix’s Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party, came in at $13M, while Imax’s A Beautiful Planet, featuring narration from Jennifer Lawrence, grossed nearly $7.9 million at the box office. Drafthouse Films’ Where to Invade Next by Michael Moore grossed $3.8 million, while Abramorama’s The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years grossed $2.9M.
Some studios took the specialty route for some releases this year. 20th Century Fox opened Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures on Christmas Day in 25 locations, and the drama has cumed about $1.46M. Paramount also had a few limited-release bows including Anomalisa ($3.75M) and its Christmas rollout Silence by Martin Scorsese ($227K). It also bowed Fences in mid-December in limited release, though it has since gone wide. Warner Bros released the sci-fi Midnight Special in March in just five locations. The film directed by Jeff Nichols grossed about $3.7M in theaters.
VOD numbers continue to be a closely guarded secret among most distributors, but it’s important to note that some companies such as Magnolia, IFC Films and others regularly release titles day-and-date.
Here is an in-depth look at the 2016 numbers and details for some key specialty distributors:
The online behemoth instantly became a crucial player in the specialty landscape when Deadline announced last January that veteran producer Ted Hope would top Amazon’s original movies creative development and vet distribution exec Bob Berney signed on to lead marketing and distribution at Amazon Studios. Some in the industry quietly (or not so quietly) shuddered that along with rival Netflix, the company would dominate the field. It certainly has made its presence felt, but Amazon Studios has also spread the wealth so to speak. The outfit has released 14 films in 2016 (including this week’s roll-out of Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson), but it has tapped the services of seven distributors to participate in the release of its titles.
Excluding Paterson, which opened Wednesday, Amazon’s 13 other titles have collectively cumed $54.3M, ranking it among the top tier of this year’s specialty companies.
With Roadside Attractions, Amazon released the year’s second-highest grosser as of Christmas weekend, Manchester By the Sea, by Kenneth Lonergan and starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler. Since opening in mid-November, the Oscar hopeful has cumed $21.1M at the box office. The film will likely find further gusto after Oscar nominations are announced this month.
Amazon also partnered with Roadside on its second-highest box office grosser, Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship starring Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny, taking in $14M. Cannes opening film Café Society by Woody Allen bowed via Lionsgate in July. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Steve Carell, the title cumed over $11.1M in theaters, making it a mid-ranging number for Allen. His previous title, 2015’s Irrational Man grossed only $4M, while his 2014 release, Magic in the Moonlight cumed $10.5 million. His 2013 film Blue Jasmine, however, cumed over $33.4 million. Those three were Sony Pictures Classics releases.
Several other Amazon films scored seven-figures on the big screen including Elvis & Nixon ($1.06M, released by Bleecker Street), The Neon Demon ($1.33M, Broadgreen), The Dressmaker ($2.02M, Broadgreen) and The Handmaiden ($1.85M, released by Magnolia).
Amazon did have a slow start with its first theatrical release, Creative Control, which Magnolia opened in March, grossing only $63K. September documentary release, Author: The JT LeRoy Story (Magnolia), grossed about $86K, and August opener Complete Unknown with Erin Drake and Rachel Weisz cumed $175K (IFC Films) in theaters.
“In terms of our slate, it’s been exciting,” said Berney. “Whit Stillman had one of the longest [releases] of the summer. … In 2017, we’ll continue to release films with our partners. It’s an interesting way to do it.” He said Amazon works with its filmmakers in spearheading each title’s marketing and creative strategies and works with its partners to execute the plan, though it has final say. Added Berney: “We’ve found partners that get the model and we want to continue to do it this way.”
Roadside holds the title of the year’s highest-grossing distributor, coming in at just under $70M as of last weekend, according to numbers from comScore. The company touted recently that 2016 was its, “strongest performance in its 13 year history.” The company’s previous highest-grossing year was 2013, when it took in $44.8M. Last year, Roadside grossed nearly $37.4M.
Two films Roadside released with Amazon Studios, Manchester by the Sea ($21.1M) and Love & Friendship ($14M), represented about half of the distributor’s 2016 box office. The two ranked first and third, respectively, among the company’s slate of 11 releases including Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, which it opened in December 2015. The Sally Field comedy-romance Hello, My Name Is Doris placed second in Roadside’s slate with a total of $14.4M.
Manchester by the Sea, incidentally, will overtake Roadside’s former reigning top grosser, Mud by Jeff Nichols, which cumed $21.6M in 2013.
L.A.-based Roadside had six additional films grossing seven figures this year. Michelle and Barack Obama drama Southside With You landed at $6.3M, while April release A Hologram for the King grossed $4.21M. The others are Indignation ($3.4M), Our Kind of Traitor ($3.15M), Priceless ($1.4M) and Genius ($1.36M).
“We’re obviously thrilled,” said Roadside Co-president Howard…