After a January of weak specialized openings (led by First Run's "56 Up"), February is showing some life with four new documentary releases and a shorts program. The standouts are Sony Pictures Classics' Oscar-nominated "The Gatekeepers" in two cities and Zeitgeist's "Koch" in New York. Arthouses in 2013– like much of 2012– will be sustained in part by a steady flow of decent if not spectacularly grossing non-fiction films. Still, multiple films scoring strong initial response in the same weekend is an anomaly.
As the three best new limited openings in recent weeks — "Quartet," "Amour" and the much broader "The Impossible" — all play beyond core theaters, any fresh blood is appreciated when there is plenty of room for films with any sign of audience interest.
"The Gatekeepers" (Sony Pictures Classics) – Metacritic score: 88; Festivals include: Jerusalem 12, Telluride 12, Toronto 12, New York 12
$66,700 in 3 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $22,233
After a below-the-radar qualifying run in November, this Oscar Best Documentary Feature contender opened for real in three New York/Los Angeles theaters for prominent exposure to Academy members). The result was impressive, backed with outstanding reviews and significant wins (from both the LA and National Society of Film Critics).
The gatekeepers in question are former heads of Israel's secretive Shin Bet security agency, all speaking out about that country's current situation in a candidly revealing manner to express their concern about the lack of progress towards resolution of the Palestinian Occupation. Though it is primarily a talking heads-doc, the bluntness of their comments stands in contrast to the usual view of Israeli politics, and this clearly has initially resonated with first weekend audiences.
SPC has another doc in competition, the likely frontrunner "Searching for Sugar Man" (although that category requires amembers to have seen all five films, which makes the voting group a small percentage of the body, meaning nothing is guaranteed). This opening has been aimed at getting this film maximum attention just as the voting begins (the other four already have moved on to DVD and/or streaming).
What comes next: The interest in this won't be limited to these initial runs, with this looking like it could be a solid performer for weeks to come irrespective of its Oscar chances.
"Sound City" (Variance) – Metacritic score: 76; Festivals include: Sundance 13; also available on Video on Demand
$70,000 in 16 theaters; PSA: $4,375
The first release of this year's Sundance films (this showed in the Documentary Premiere section), and the first to go out in the new normal multi-platform pattern, this weekend gross is only a small part of its playoff. Initially playing in 50 theaters last Thursday, then holding in 16 for the weekend, its theatrical take has already come to just under $200,000. Meantime, it is also available on Video on Demand and elsewhere, backed mainly by a social media campaign targeting its core audience.
The film, directed by Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters (who previously shot multiple videos) tells the story of a legendary San Fernando Valley (Los Angeles) recording studio that has been the birthplace of numerous great albums (among other artists Fleetwood Mac, Nirvana, Tom Petty, Paul McCartney). Grohl used his connections with them to get significant participation in interviews, making the potential fan base quite wide.
What comes next: The one-night only shows and this weekend will likely drive future viewers more to non-theatrical venues, but this did well enough to maintain a presence ahead in the more traditional manner.
"Koch" (Zeitgeist) – Metacritic score: 69; Festivals include: Hamptons 12
$40,000 in 2 theaters; PSA: $20,000
Playing to a hometown crowd in two prime theaters, Zeitgeist already had things positioned well for this documentary about New York's outspoken ex-Mayor, who made himself available to enliven the film with an up-to-date feel to go along with extensive historical footage. Then with a timing that paralleled his attention-getting methods throughout his life, Koch died just hours before this opened.
Koch was the quintessential New Yorker in many ways, and how this plays outside of his base remains to be seen. But he was something of a national figure, regularly in the news years after his political career was over, so it is premature to assume these numbers are totally a one-off event.
What comes next: Los Angeles was already set, but these numbers should guarantee this more extensive theatrical playoff than what might have been initially imagined.
"Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary" (First Run Features) – Metacritic score: 40; Festivals include: Mill Valley 12
$10,500 in 1 theater; PSA: $10,500
Relatively unheralded and not receiving positive reviews, this documentary about Abu-Jamal Mumia, imprisoned for 30 years in Pennsylvania for killing a policeman and later becoming a prolific writer as he fought to have his death sentence overturned, had a solid performance, particularly for its theater (the Cinema Village). Mumia has received much attention over the years, and this gross shows a core interest in him that goes beyond the normal path toward (at least initial) documentary success. This is First Run's second decent opening of the year so far after the solid start to "56 Up."
What comes next: Although this likely sees a lot of non-theatrical playoff at festivals, colleges and elsewhere ahead, this gross should be enough to raise its art-house profile.
"2013 Oscar Nominated Shorts" (Magnolia)
$390,000 in 105 theaters; PSA: $3,714
This collection of nominees has been a staple for the last few years, with this year's result ahead of past ones (this is eighth year for the program) as audiences try to not only discover off-beat films but gain an advantage in their Oscar pools for what often are the tie-breaking categories,
What comes next: Plenty of time yet for this to add to these totals before the Oscars.
"Quartet" (Weinstein) – Week 4
$1,184,000 in 202 theaters (+39); PSA: $5,861; Cumulative: $3,474,000
Impressively, the quite decent PSA fell off only about 15% despite adding more theaters and with Super Bowl competition hurting today, showing once again that this Maggie Smith-led cast of older actors continues to appeal to its core audience with good word of mouth and a further expansion justified.
This continues to show more strength than "Amour," the other expanding limited film in the market. With over twice the theater count, it continues to have a higher PSA. Although the latter film has Oscar heft behind it (and much better reviews), "Quartet" remains the easier sell and a film more able to crossover beyond art houses.
What comes next: As the Oscar films mostly run out of steam, and little else significant yet opening in the specialized world, this has a clear path to keep playing and going wider for weeks to come.
"Amour" (Sony Pictures Classics) – Week 7
$497,000 in 94 theaters (+30); PSA: $5,287; Cumulative: $2,488,000
"Amour" keeps adding runs and maintaining its performance as a strong subtitled film. Once again, playing at slightly more theaters, it continues to outgross what last year's "A Separation" made in a similar number of theaters. It has achieved a total gross in its seventh weekend about as much as the Iranian film did in its ninth (which had the boost of being Oscar weekend). It is also performing better than "Intouchables" did last year (that film never had a PSA above $5,000 after its first three weeks, even though it played in under 100 theaters for six more). With those films ending up with respectively over $7 and $13 million totals, and with three more weekends before the Oscars, further expansion plus one or more wins could still propel this film into a final gross somewhere between those two at a minimum.
What comes next: More expansion, with the ultimate course likely remaining to be seen after we see what it wins.
"The Impossible" (Lionsgate) – Week 7
$1,280,000 in 765 theaters (-17); PSA: $1,673; Cumulative: $15,189,000
Falling about a third with minor theater count losses, this Naomi Watts-starrer is still adding to gross totals even if the PSA is minor. The theater count is helping boost this results, but Lionsgate seems to be able to both hold its dates and move into additional theaters to keep this in the public eye as interest in Watts' Best Actress nomination continues to draw audiences.
What comes next: Lionsgate should be able to push this over the $20 million mark even without a win for Watts.
Other grosses ( + total)
"Hyde Park on Hudson" (Focus – Week 9) $176,000/$5,575,000
"A Royal Affair" (Magnolia – Week 13) $103,000/$1,007,000
"Rust and Bone" (Sony Pictures Classics – Week 11) $78,800/$1,842,000
"Anna Karenina" (Focus – Week 12) $64,800/$12,539,000