UPDATED with additional distributors and adjustments. As blockbusters battled it out at the box office, the specialty space hit high notes with Judy, flew with The Peanut Butter Falcon, shined with Uncut Gems, gave us one helluva Farewell and took us back to Downton Abbey. Major box office strides were made in 2019 with fare from indie, art-house-driven distributors that delivered confident numbers, proving that audiences are craving bold and intimate narratives told through a scaled-down lens. Of the distributors in the specialty box office space, Focus Features, A24, Roadside Attractions and Neon had a banner year with a slate of films that garnered critical acclaim.
Under Universal, Focus Features dominated with a mind-blowing $208 million total gross for 2019. The film adaptation of Downton Abbey was its top title, as fans of the popular series came out and put $96.85 million in the film’s domestic box office till.
The upstairs-downstairs feature did so well that it became the Focus Features’ highest-grossing title of all time stateside beating out Brokeback Mountain, which owned the record for the last 13 years. Even before it was released, Downton Abbey was destined to do well as its first-day advance sales for the pic on Fandango were outpacing titles such as Universal’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and Sony’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. That said, Downton Abbey was the star for Focus this year.
Also opening in the fall was the Kasi Lemmons-directed biopic Harriet starring Cynthia Erivo. The film made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival and as it went through the film festival circuit and critics screenings, it was getting mixed reviews. Even so, audiences were drawn to the biopic about the iconic abolitionist did well for Focus, earning over $42.6 million at the domestic box office.
Rounding out Focus’s top three was the Todd Haynes’legal thriller Dark Waters starring Mark Ruffalo. Based on a true story about attorney Rob Bilott (Ruffalo) who uncovers a dark secret that connects a growing number of unexplained deaths to one of the world’s largest corporations. The film uses Nathaniel Rich’s 2016 New York Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” as a jumping-off point to tell the story about Bilott, who risks everything in his life to expose the truth about the contaminated water supply and the big company that is responsible — something that is still affecting the community today
It debuted in the midst of awards season to the tune of $102K in its limited release. Word of mouth, critical acclaim and a very impressive Rotten Tomatoes score of 90% helped fuel its wide expansion where it earned $10.7 million domestically.
The rest of the titles on Focus’s top films for 2019 all crossed the million-dollar mark and beyond at the specialty box office including the campy thriller Greta ($10.5 million), Jim Jarmusch’s zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die ($6.6 million) as well as Captive State ($5.96 million), The Mustang ($5.04 million) and Everybody Knows ($2.66 million).
2019 was a good year for A24 as they released 15 titles and grossed nearly $95 million, landing at No. 10 on the list of the top-grossing distributors of the year. This is a 5% boost from last year, which, according to Box Office Mojo, saw the Ari Aster horror pic Hereditary starring Toni Collette as its top-grossing film, earning over $44 million domestically. This year, Aster took the top spot again with the off-the-rails, cult-driven Midsommar starring Florence Pugh. Complete with its flower crowns and haunting sacrificial rituals, Midsommar earned $27.4 million domestically.
More recently, the Safdie Brothers pic Uncut Gems starring Adam Sandler has proven box office gold for A24. The thriller had a limited release in five theaters in New York and Los Angeles, earning more than $525,000, with a per-screen average of $105K — the biggest per-screen average opening ever for A24. In its second limited-release weekend, Uncut Gems crossed the $1 million mark before opening wide on 2,341 screens Christmas Day. It earned a sizable $5.9 million and came in at No. 4 in that frame’s top 10, making it the highest-grossing day for a film in A24 history. To date, the film has earned $27.3 million domestic.
Rounding out the greatest hits of A24 is Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. The family dramedy starring Awkwafina accomplished a major feat: it took on Avengers: Endgame and won. In addition to becoming a formidable awards-season contender since its Sundance debut, The Farewell saw a per-theater average debut of nearly $89K, beating out the Marvel blockbuster which opened with a per-theater average of $76K. A24 opened Farewell in select theaters in July before expanding in August. After a domestic opening of over $355K, it went on to gross $17.7 million in the U.S. and Canada. Who would have thought that The Farewell‘s Nai Nai could topple the villainous Thanos?
Honorable mention for the studio goes to Robert Eggers’ nautical fever dream The Lighthouse starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, which earned more $10 million at the domestic box office.
Coming in at No. 12 overall for distributors was Roadside Attractions, which earned over $43 million. The gross is considerably (down by over a half) from a 2018 slate that included the faith-based I Can Only Imagine, which earned over $83M alone at the box office. Still, it was quite a year for Roadside as it released nine titles, with two of them finding both box office success and awards-season buzz.
Directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, The Peanut Butter Falcon — the Huck Finn-esque road-trip drama starring Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson and newcomer Zack Gottsagen — premiered at SXSW where it won the Audience Award. That led to a slow rise through the ranks as a critically acclaimed darling before entering the awards-season fray. The Roadside Attractions/Armory Films pic had a solid debut in 17 theaters in seven markets in August, with an opening gross of more than $205K. As it continued to expand, word of mouth and critical acclaim fueled its numbers and it went on to gross over $20.4 million domestically.
From road trips to musical icons, Roadside also released Judy. Directed by Rupert Goold, the musical biopic premiered at Telluride and the Toronto Film Festival, and audiences were over-the-rainbow for Renee Zellweger’s portrayal of the iconic Judy Garland. The festival buzz remained alive and well when it opened on 461 screens in September, earning $2.9M and cracking the top 10 during its first frame.
The strong opening led to an October expansion, with 1,458 runs in 202 markets. Judy skyrocketed 52% from its debut and earned $4.4 million before it would go on to bank a domestic gross over $24 million — not to mention awards-season love for Zellweger.
A total of 17 titles were released under the Neon banner including critically acclaimed documentaries Apollo 11, Honeyland and The Biggest Little Farm, and under-the-radar dramas Monos, Luce and most recently Clemency. Its crown jewel during the year however was Bong Joon Ho’s dark comedy and awards-season contender Parasite. Overall, the distributor was up 10% from 2018’s totals, earning $48.7 million.
Parasite premiered at Cannes where it won the Palme d’Or and first premiered stateside at Telluride before heading to the Toronto Film Festival. It went on to have a limited U.S. opening in October with a peachy $375K, good for a per-screen average of about $125K — the highest PSA for a foreign-language film of all time. Parasite became the highest-grossing Palme d’Or winner in France and North America in 15 years, after the release of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004.
Parasite has grossed over $22.3 million domestically and $127 million worldwide and is also the best-reviewed film of 2019 with a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Its accolades already include three Golden Globe nominations (for Best Picture – Drama, Best Director and Best Foreign Film). In addition, it has received a SAG Award nom; seven Critics’ Choice noms including Best Picture; an Indie Spirit nom for Foreign Film; and love from the Los Angeles Film Critics, National Board of Review and New York Film Critics among others.
Amazon Studios released nine titles in 2019 and grossed $30.9 million. Its biggest accomplishment of the year was when its walked out of Sundance with two major titles after bidding battles: the Nisha Ganatra-directed Late Night written by Mindy Kaling and starring Emma Thompson and John Lithgow for $13 million, and Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Brittany Runs a Marathon starring Jillian Bell for $14 million.
All the ingredients were there to make the two films box office successes — and justify the hefty acquisitions. But the numbers told a different story.
Late Night kicked off its release in four theaters and earned about $250K in its opening weekend with a strong per-theater average of $62K+. From there, the title struggled through its expansion before banking a domestic gross of $15 million, just above its price tag.
It was the same story for Brittany Runs a Marathon. The film opened in five theaters in New York and Los Angeles, earning a little under $180K in its limited debut — more a jog than a sprint. Eventually, the film hit a wall before wrapping its theatrical run with a domestic gross of $7.1 million.
Amazon also released Tom Harper’s balloon adventure The Aeronauts starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. The film was originally to have a theatrical run involving Imax, but Amazon decided to go a different direction: They eventized the film with a traveling 19th-century carnival experience called “The Fair of the Aeronauts” ahead of a small theatrical run before hitting the streaming platform. From the sampling of 48 theaters in which it debuted, it earned $30K-$31K; it’s booked at 186 locations, and some are four-walled, so that is not the total opening-weekend gross. These figures are coming via industry estimates from what’s spotted on exhibitors’ POV sales systems.
A silver lining for Amazon was Shia LaBeouf’s semi-autobiographical Honey Boy directed by Alma Ha’rel, which premiered at Sundance and continued to maintain buzz and acclaim through its festival run. The film had a limited release in November grossing $288K, and continued to climb in its box office bank. Since then, the film has grossed $2.9 million domestically and sits at a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, receiving awards-season recognition from numerous critic groups, the Gotham Awards and the Spirit Awards.
Amazon joins the ranks of Netflix when it comes to streaming services that release select titles without reporting box office numbers. Netflix had numerous awards-season titles from the The Irishman to Marriage Story, The Two Popes and Dolemite is My Name — all got short theatrical qualifying runs before making their way to streaming. This year, Amazon did something similar with Scott Z. Burns’ CIA drama The Report starring Adam Driver. Instead of doing a traditional limited opening and nationwide rollout, the pic had a truncated theatrical debut before hitting streaming. Amazon says it plans to continue traditional theatrical rollouts with future titles.
Despite the Fox-Disney merger, it seemed to be business as usual at Fox Searchlight, which saw a balance of hits and misses — but it still came out of 2019 with a healthy $57.12 million in its box office bank The R-rated thriller Ready or Not topped the specialty label’s list with a domestic gross of $28.7 million. The genre film starring Samara Weaving is poised to achieve cult status with its R-rated bloody fare.
Still, everyone had their eyes on Taika Waititi’s World War II satire Jojo Rabbit, which immediately became the talk of the Toronto Film Festival where it made its world premiere and won the fest’s Audience Award. Searchlight opened the pic in limited release in October to a three-day gross of nearly $350K and joined the ranks of other label films that have performed well in their limited October openings before going on to win Oscar gold — including 2014’s Birdman and 2013’s 12 Years a Slave.
Since its limited release, Jojo has expanded and grossed more than $21 million domestically, earning awards season shine including Golden Globes nominations for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and a deserving acting nod for the film’s breakout lead Roman Griffin Davis. AFI named it one of its movies of the year, and it earned SAG Award noms for the cast and a Best Supporting Actress nod for Scarlett Johansson.
On the downside, Terrence Malick’s latest A Hidden Life and Noah Hawley feature directorial debut Lucy in the Sky starring Natalie Portman. Despite the star wattage and cinephile appeal, the two films had less-than-desirable performances, with the former earning a domestic gross of $877K and the latter a disappointing $320K.
On the brighter side of things, Fox Searchlight also released Tolkien in May which earned $4.5 million as well as The Aftermath which netted $1.6 million. If you add the spillover from 2018’s awards season favorites Can You Ever Forgive Me and The Favourite, the 2019 gross comes to a grand total of $76.96 million.
Sony Pictures Classics
Sony Pictures Classics treated us to 19 titles this year with a handful of narratives and strong documentaries that will have long shelf lives. The division’s gross was down from last year to $23.6 million, with the top two titles being Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory and the female-driven sailing documentary Maiden.
Pain and Glory marks the eighth collaboration between Almodovar and Antonio Banderas, as well as the 12th collaboration between Sony Classics and auteur’s production company El Deseo. In its limited opening in New York and Los Angeles, it earned over $152K, surpassing Almodovar’s previous film Julieta, which netted $64,044 on its opening weekend. It has since earned $3.8 million domestically in its expansion and sits at a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The film premiered at Cannes, where Banderas won Best Actor and Alberto Iglesias took Best Soundtrack. It has been met with critical acclaim and is the official Spanish entry for the Oscars’ International Feature Film race. Like many other Almodovar films, it has become an awards-season fave garnering recognition from various critics groups and landing Golden Globe nominations for Best Foreign Film and an acting nod for Banderas.
Directed by Alex Holmes, the docu Maiden follows the competitive all-female sailboat crew that took on the Whitbread ‘Round the World Race at a time when women in the sport were practically non-existent. In its limited opening in New York and Los Angeles, it grossed over $50K on its way to $3.1 million domestically.
Bleecker Street came in with riveting — and lucrative titles in 2019 grossing over $19.67 million. Topping the list was the Anthony Maras-directed Hotel Mumbai starring Dev Patel. The film based on the true story of the Taj Hotel terrorist attack in Mumbai was a huge platform release for Bleecker and it earned $9.6 million domestically.
Also on their slate for the year was the prison reform drama Brian Banks starring Aldis Hodge in the film about the true story of a football player whose dreams to play in the NFL are put to an end when he is wrongly convicted and sent to prison. The film earned $4.6 million domestically.
Rounding out Bleecker’s top five for 2019 are the comedy The Art of Self Defense ($2.4 million), the Joe Penna-directed drama Arctic ($2.4 million) and the Max Minghella musical drama Teen Spirit ($441K) starring Elle Fanning.
Around the specialty landscape in 2019, Fathom Events further proved that eventizing films is a lucrative move, releasing 129 theatrical events, earning over $72.5 million. That slate included rereleases of iconic classics Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and Spirited Away, which each earned over $2 million. The BTS army was in full effect as the top-grossing title for Fathom was BTS World Tour, Love Yourself in Seoul. The event featuring the wildly popular K-pop group netted over $3.5 million at the box office.
Meanwhile, Greenwich Entertainment‘s gross skyrocketed from last year with its 13 titles in 2019. It grossed over $9.4 million compared to last year’s $2.6 million, with its top-grossing docus Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice ($4.2 million domestic) and Echo in the Canyon ($3.4 million domestic).