Forget the pirates and newbie X-men: This summer is all about the small films

Though the summer movie slate includes a record 27 prequels, sequels, and spinoffs, it it still shaping up to be a great year for smaller, specialty films, say experts.

By , Staff writer

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    In this film publicity image released by The Weinstein Company, Craig Roberts portrays Oliver Tate in a scene from 'Submarine,' a Scottish movie opening today with rave critical reviews – which are key to the success of a specialty film.
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This year’s franchise-laden summer movie slate – with a record 27 sequels, prequels, and spinoffs – casts a mighty shadow over the warm-weather filmgoing landscape.

But despite the presence of every popcorn fave from X-Men to Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean, there are some signs that small films – which make up three-quarters of theatrical films in any given year – just might be on track to get some sunshine of their own.

Consider this past weekend’s performance of such high-toned films as Terence Malick’s “Tree of Life” and Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” While both opened in only a handful of theaters, each placed in the top 12 on a per-screen box office basis, says Paul Dergarabedian, a box office expert with Hollywood.com.

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“It looks like we are on track to have a very good summer for the specialty films,” says Mr. Dergarabedian, noting that while blockbusters tend to sell themselves, “these smaller, specialty films rely heavily on critical reviews.”

Many in the film industry were wringing their hands not even a month ago as box office returns dropped 20 percent from the previous year. But in a few short weeks, particularly bolstered by the strongest Memorial Day weekend box office in movie history – some $280 million – the box office take has rebounded to surpass the same period in 2010.

“There’s nothing like one good movie to get film fans back into the moviegoing habit,” says Harry Medved, spokesman for Fandango.com. “The summer started off with the universally-well-liked Fast Five… 87 percent of our moviegoers said Fast Five fueled their interest in checking out other movies at the theater this summer.”

'Something for everyone'

Studios have realized that, more than ever, diversity is the key to survival, says Ean Mering, senior creative producer of Pomegranate www.pom8.com, a digital media network agency. Even big films have bowed to this necessity, he points out.

“Look at the marketing campaign for ‘Horrible Bosses,’ ” he says, referring to a film starring Jennifer Aniston opening July 8. A different character and storyline appear on virtually every piece of the campaign, he says. “This way, they can reach out to as many segments of the marketplace as possible.”

As most of the major film studios have shuttered their specialty film divisions, and a shrinking DVD market has dried up funding for smaller films, this ray of light in the small film world is welcome news for aspiring filmmakers with movies to sell.

Producer Brandon Yankowitz’s film “Trophy Kids” begins its journey through the film festival marketing process this weekend with its debut at the Dances with Films Festival in Los Angeles. The film, budgeted at under $1 million, details a generation raised on praise and trophies: “We all just got trophies simply for showing up,” he says with a laugh.

Mr. Yankowitz happily plunks down his own eight or ten dollars to support his fellow small filmmakers, he says. “The better those films do, the better it is for all of us starting out.”

This is a glorious summer, says Fandango’s Mr. Medved. “There’s something for everyone,” he notes via email. “Just look at the better-than-projected openings for small films like Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris’ and Terence Malick’s ‘Tree of Life,’ which enjoyed the best per-screen average in Fox Searchlight history last weekend.”

This summer’s roster of specialty films offers a few prospects for sleeper breakout on the par of a “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Slumdog Millionaire.” Two strong possibilities, both opening Friday, are “Submarine,” a Scottish coming-of-age tale about a 15-year-old in the throes of first love, and “Beginners,” a father/son comedy/drama starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer.

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