The latest indieWIRE Box Office Tracker (iWBOT) is topped by Michael Winterbottom's post-modernist meta-adaptation, "Tristram Shandy" and an Indian film, "Rang De Basanti," that compares the disillusioned youth of today with that country's courageous anti-colonial revolutionaries. They finished first and second, respectively. iWBOT is ranked by per-screen average.
[View the indieWIRE:BOT Box Office Table for this week's films here.]
Meanwhile, Lars von Trier's live iChat with patrons at New York's IFC Center contributed to a strong opening there last weekend for "Manderlay," his IFC-distributed Brechtian condemnation of America's legacy of slavery. It finished third on iWBOT with a $7,559 per-screen average at two New York theaters.
But the new film that had attracted the most advance interest and commentary, Steven Soderbergh's "Bubble," proved to be a dismal failure. Or did it?
Prior to release, it had received front-page news stories because Magnolia Pictures' owners - Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner - had elected to open it nationally the same day it played on their cable-TV network, HDNet, and just five days before releasing it on DVD.
A majority of the 32 art houses showing it were part of the Cuban/Wagner-owned Landmark Theatres chain. Soderbergh has signed to make six low-budget experimental movies for Magnolia. "Bubble," the first, was shot digitally in and around rural Belpre, Ohio, and used nonprofessional actors in a quietly atmospheric story featuring naturalistic pacing.
"Bubble" averaged a paltry $2,208 per screen for total revenue of $70,664. It finished 20th on the iWBOT. At the Landmark Sunshine 5 in New York, the gross was $6,088; at Landmark's NuArt in Los Angeles, $5,871. But elsewhere, results were weaker. At the five Cincinnati Film Society-sponsored screenings at University of Cincinnati, only a total of 23 patrons attended.
Those kind of theatrical results revealed the weakness of Magnolia's strategy, observed Greg Laemmle of Los Angeles' Laemmle Theatres art-house chain. "Difficult films need a slow roll-out to establish their critical bona fides," Laemmle said. "People aren't used to a national breakout on an art-house film. But I respect them for giving it a shot and will watch for future experiments."
Less kind was John Fithian, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners. He released a statement which read, in part: "Whatever happens with DVD sales, this much we already know. 'Bubble' garnered more media attention than any low-budget movie in cinematic history. Reviews were mixed, but a majority were favorable. Yet it failed in theatres. New movies with a tiny fraction of the exposure 'Bubble' received did significantly better in theatres."
Yet Eamonn Bowles, Magnolia's president, disputes that. First of all, he says, DVD pre-sales are at 100,000 - which never would have happened without the publicity. Second, he said, "Bubble" did about as well as expected theatrically. "Listen, this is an experimental film. These have always been tough to get out. Look at 'Gerry,' which was from a major filmmaker (Gus Van Sant) and did $230,000. And we had just one theater in each market; it's not like we went wide."
There was no argument over the performance of Picturehouse's "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story." It opened on three New York screens and averaged an outstanding $20,295 with a total gross of $60,886, starting Picturehouse off to a good 2006.
Bob Berney, Picturehouse's president, credited great reviews and a smart audience that "got" the film's conceit. Rather than being an attempt at an adaptation of Laurence Sterne's 18th century British novel, the tongue-in-cheek movie starring comic actor Steve Coogan is about an attempt at an adaptation.
Berney said there is a ready audience for such post-modernist conceptualism, if done well. "It's more like 'Adaptation' or a movie by Michel Gondry and that gave a hook for (reviewers) to write about. And it became a great hook for the film. You can never underestimate the smart audience. They're very willing to be pushed." The film opens in Los Angeles on Feb. 10 and expands to 15-20 markets on Feb. 17.
The second-place film on iWBOT, Rakesh Omprakash's "Rang De Basanti," did so well with Indian audiences in North America last weekend that distributor UTV Motion Pictures is thinking of trying to take it wide to art-house patrons. Opening on 61 screens, it averaged $11,503 and grossed $701,666. That broke records for Indian films in North America, said Lokesh Dhar, UTV's head of film distribution.
The movie, a drama rather than a Bollywood musical, concerns a British woman coming trying to make a film based on her grandfather's diary about Indian revolutionaries. In trying to cast it, she meets young men whose attitudes are a far cry from the revolutionary idealism of the past.
"It has a youthful appeal and a young audience as far as Indian films are concerned," Dhar said. "It's very real cinema, different from what Bollywood turns out."
Among the holdovers, Focus Features' "Brokeback Mountain's" expansion to 1,654 screens from the 1,196 of the Jan. 20 weekend caused it to slip to 12th place from ninth on iwBOT as its per-screen gross slipped almost 40% to $3,955 from $6,213.
Last week's first-place finisher on the chart, Sony Classics' "Why We Fight" documentary by Eugene Jarecki, cautiously expanded to nine screens from six and dropped to sixth. But its per-screen average of $6,478 was still strong - just a moderate 27% dip from its debut Jan. 20 weekend.
Sony Classics' French-language "Cache," a breakthrough for Austrian director Michael Haneke, did even better in its sixth weekend. Jumping up to 52 screens from 22, it grossed $378,257 and climbed past $1 million in total revenue. It held at fourth on iWBOT with a $7,274 average, down about 10% from the previous $8,065.
Overall, the 62 films on this week's iWBOT grossed $19.48 million on 5,480 screens, compared with the Jan. 20th weekend's $18.41million gross from 57 films on 4,050 screens. The average per-screen gross dipped to $3,554 from $4,768.
(Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles film writer and former movie critic at The Denver Post.)