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June 13, 2006 12:45 PM
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"A Prairie Home Companion" and "Inconvenient Truth" Spark Specialty BOT

A scene from Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion." Photo courtesy of Picturehouse.

The independent/specialty film business came up with its second unexpected new movie star of the summer season last weekend, as public-radio personality Garrison Keillor followed former Vice President Al Gore to success on the indieWIRE Box Office Tracking Report (iWBOT). Together, "An Inconvenient Truth" and "A Prairie Home Companion" were impressive in attracting large audiences to theaters - especially the elusive "sophisticated" adult audience, which responded to both as event films.

[View the indieWIRE:BOT Box Office Table for this week's films here.]

While "Truth" is slowly expanding, Picturehouse riskily opened "Prairie" - directed by Robert Altman and adapted from Keillor's public-radio variety show - at 760 theaters nationwide. Its per-theater average of $6,008 placed it fifth on iWBOT, a strong showing for such a wide release.

And its overall gross of $4.57 million ranked it seventh among all films in release - meaning Keillor, who is featured in the movie along with an all-star ensemble cast, was a more popular draw than Tom Cruise, whose fast-fading "Mission: Impossible III" ended up eighth. No word if Keillor has been signed to replace Cruise in the next installment. (The iWBOT is based on per-theater gross, according to numbers provided by Rentrak.)

Paramount Classics' (a division of Paramount Vantage) Davis Guggenheim-directed "An Inconvenient Truth" - featuring Gore teaching about global warming - led the iWBOT for a third weekend, playing well as it continued its expansion. In 122 theaters in the Top 25 North American markets, its per-location average was $12,334.

"Truth" already has grossed just under $4 million and still has major expansions ahead. This Friday, it will be in more than 400 theaters in the top 75-100 markets, said Rob Schultz, executive vice president for specialty films for Paramount Classics. "We really did have a wonderful weekend," Schultz said.

Mostly opening in single locations - although often on multiple screens - in major North American cities, the film last weekend posted numbers like $46,000 in San Diego, $35,000 in Portland, Ore., $31,000 in Phoenix, and $18,000 in Detroit.

"It was so nice to be busy again," said David Kimball, Denver-based senior regional publicist for Landmark Theatres, via email. The film opened there on all three screens of Landmark's venerable Mayan Theatre and did $27,379. "Our audience was looking for something smart, timely and provocative. This was just the ticket. A few were so passionate about the subject that they wondered why we didn't have recycle bins available at the theater."

It's not a topic likely to cool off any time soon, either. In fact, each week brings news that makes the film's message increasingly relevant. Recently, scientist Stephen Hawking - subject of Errol Morris' 1991 documentary "A Brief History of Time" - said humans need to get ready to colonize space to survive. "Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of," Associated Press quoted him as saying.

Bob Berney, Picturehouse president, was pleased with "Prairie Home's" debut. "It caught a wave from an audience that doesn't go to movies regularly," he said. "Anecdotally, I hear people say it plays like a show or a concert. There's even applause during the film."

Keillor has done his weekly live radio show - produced in St. Paul and distributed nationwide by American Public Media - since 1974. It is a knowing, loving and even gently mocking post-modern imagining of pre-television-era radio shows like Nashville's Grand Ole Opry and Cincinnati's Moon River. Enormously influential for its music and humor, it helped fuel an ongoing folk-music revival and is on more than 500 stations.

But for the movie, Keillor and Altman pretended "Prairie Home" really is one of those old-style shows. They surrounded Keillor with top-notch talent - Meryl Streep, Woody Harrelson, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, John C. Reilly, Lily Tomlin - in supporting roles as fictional performers at an imaginary broadcast.

That appears to have worked for opening weekend, partly because the audience trusted the 81-year-old Altman, whose masterpiece is "Nashville," to deliver on such a conceit. And Altman's own profile has been raised as a result of his emotional speech at this year's Oscars, where he received a lifetime achievement award.

"Both of them have in their backgrounds a love of music," Berney said. "So the film plays like a musical."

Because National Public Radio reaches into small cities as well as the big ones, "Prairie Home" had a waiting audience in unexpected places. In Columbia, Mo., for instance - home of University of Missouri - it grossed approximately $13,000 last weekend. Opening night was at the historic, 1,200-seat Missouri Theatre and the film then moved to RagTag Cinema (which serves beer).

"With students mostly gone on break, this film's appeal to an older demographic was a perfect recipe for our theater," said Ragtag's Paul Sturtz, in an email. "Because we realized that the audience was going to be primarily 50-plus, we went with traditional advertising, playing frequent spots on the public radio station KBIA, which offers up the radio program every weekend, and placing ads in the daily newspaper. This old-fashioned kind of marketing would not have worked so effectively with a younger audience.

"I can say that audiences here in Columbia seemed to lap it up over the weekend, and from the reach of the radio show all across the U.S., it appears that there's a ready-made audience for the film," he continued.

Picturehouse will slowly build "Prairie Home" until it reaches its widest release over the July 4th weekend, when Keillor will bring his live "Prairie Home Companion" revue to Massachusetts' Tanglewood on July 1, with Streep as guest.

With those two films as the big stories, there wasn't that much else happening in indie/specialty theaters. First Look's "The Proposition," the grim Australian Western directed by John Hillcoat from a screenplay by singer-songwriter Nick Cave, quietly crossed the $1 million mark in overall gross by jumping to 200 screens from 78. While its per-theater average of $1,333 was only good for 27th on iWBOT, it earned $260,000 and now stands at $1.02 million in total gross.

Strand Releasing's musical documentary "Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul," did the best of the new exclusive releases, earning $9,161 at Manhattan's Angelika Film Center. It finished second on the iWBOT, ahead of two other exclusives - Cinema Guild's sturdily performing "La Moustache" and Cinema Tropical's new "El Perro."

And Rialto's "Army of Shadows" continues to be a sensation at the Film Forum, earning $11,640 in its seventh week. Elsewhere, however, the rediscovered 1969 Jean-Pierre Melville film about the French Resistance does well but hasn't captured the cinephile's imagination like it has in New York. Factoring in Laemmle's Royal in Los Angeles and Chicago's Music Box, its overall per-location average was $5,425, good for sixth on the iWBOT. It opens at Landmark's Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge on Friday.

Lost in the excitement over "Inconvenient Truth" and "Prairie Home Companion" was Miramax Film's well-reviewed documentary about a Seattle high school's girl's basketball team, "Heart of the Game." Opening at three theaters in New York and L.A., it averaged but $3,750 and finished 11th on the iWBOT.

"When folks go see 'Heart,' they are extremely moved and excited by it, but its key challenge is overcoming an art-house audience's trepidation about a 'sports movie," said Sturtz, via email. The film showed at his True/False Film Festival in Columbia earlier this year.

The Top Ten indie/specialty films in the marketplace last weekend, including the Bollywood romance "Fanaa" from Yash Raj Films, grossed $6.39 million at 955 locations, for a per-theater average of $6,693. For the previous weekend, the top ten films - again including "Fanaa" - grossed $1.92 million at 172 locations, for a per-theater average of just over $11,100.

[Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles-based film writer and former movie critic at Denver Post. James Israel contributed to this story.]

indieWIRE:BOT tracks independent/specialty releases compiled from Rentrak Theatrical, which collects studio reported data as well as box-office figures from North American theatre locations. To submit information about your film to Rentrak, please email studiogrosses@rentrak.com

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