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A Soft Awards Week in the Specialty Box office; "Tsotsi" Solid

By Indiewire | Indiewire March 7, 2006 at 11:02AM

Now that this year's Academy Awards broadcast is history, the film in the best position theatrically to capitalize on an Oscar win may be "Tsotsi." Director Gavin Hood's South African drama, which won in the Best Foreign-Language Film category, finished first on the latest indieWIRE Box Office Tracker (iWBOT). That's its second win in a row -- iWBOT is based on per-screen averages.
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Now that this year's Academy Awards broadcast is history, the film in the best position theatrically to capitalize on an Oscar win may be "Tsotsi." Director Gavin Hood's South African drama, which won in the Best Foreign-Language Film category, finished first on the latest indieWIRE Box Office Tracker (iWBOT). That's its second win in a row -- iWBOT is based on per-screen averages.

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

But like virtually all movies last weekend, "Tsotsi's" business was soft. It added just one screen from its debut weekend, opening in Toronto in addition to holding its previous New York and L.A. sites, but still saw its per-screen average drop about 27% to $9,326 from its debut weekend's $12,721.

But considering art-film buffs might well have stayed home to watch the Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday and the Academy Awards on Sunday, the Miramax Films release did pretty well. There were fewer art/specialty titles in the marketplace overall last weekend than the previous one - 69 compared to 74 - but they occupied more screens, 5,404 to 5,169. Nevertheless, business was down a modest 4% to $10.27 million from $10.68 million.

Only two other movies on iWBOT had per-screen averages above $5,000, and both were debuts. Koch Lorber's release of Rachel Boynton's thought-provoking political documentary "Our Brand is Crisis" finished second with $7,970 at New York location. Sony Classics' "Joyeux Noel" (Merry Christmas), French writer-director Christian Carion's Oscar-nominated foreign-language film, was second with a $7,122 average on six screens.

Miramax's executive vice president of general sales, Elliot Slutzky, noted that "Tsotsi's" post-Oscar Monday numbers were up 39%. And he's hoping to capitalize further on the Oscar win. "Everything else has been out there a long time," he said. "What we're doing now is expanding."

This weekend, the film will leap to 28 screens by expanding in New York and Los Angeles and adding Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, San Francisco, Chicago, Vancouver and Montreal. The plan is to keep expanding it into seven new markets each week as long as the grosses justify it.

Truth be told, last Sunday's Oscar telecast didn't do much to showcase the foreign-language-film category. There were no clips from the films and presenter Will Smith's introductory remarks were irrelevant to the nominated films.

Despite that, Slutzky said the exposure does count. "I think it's seen as a lesser category, but the fact the presentation is in the body of the telecast and the winners get to go up and thank everybody does matter," he said. "It's probably not considered a major event of the evening - but it was for us."

Meanwhile, "Our Brand is Crisis" is the latest political documentary to get off to a good start in art houses. Previous ones included Eugene Jarecki's "Why We Fight" from Sony Classics (still 21st at iWBOT with a $2,203 average at 32 screens), Alex Gibney's "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" from Magnolia Pictures, and Michael Moore's films.

But "Brand" is different. It's not another leftist/liberal critique of America's conservative power structure; it doesn't preach to the choir. Rather this documentary is an investigation of the applicability and relevance of exporting the American political process to an outside world where elections are life-and-death affairs. It also winds up criticizing the gamesmanship of that process, period.

And the protagonists in this case are liberals who worked with President Clinton, the firm of James Carville, Stan Greenberg and Jeremy Rosner. In using their campaigning/polling tricks to help an aloof but humane, pro-democracy millionaire get elected president in Bolivia, they set in place a violent revolution against him.

Buoyed by excellent reviews and features in the New York media, "Brand" did $7,970 last weekend at New York's Film Forum. (It opened midweek and did another $3,400 on Wednesday and Thursday.)

And it has Koch Lorber wondering how far the film can go. "Unlike the advocacy films, this has been embraced critically as something that works beyond the serving of a political cause," said Richard Lorber, company president. "It's complex and nuanced and deals with a wide range of passions and topics. Its meaning is rich enough to lead to multiple interpretations."

Because the film is so much about politics, Koch Lorber is next opening it in Washington on March 31, preceding the date with special screenings to political groups. It's set for Los Angeles on April 14. Lorber has hopes of topping the $900,000 gross earned by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus' 1993 "The War Room," which chronicled Clinton's 1992 election and featured Carville in a major role. "He has marquee value," Lorber said.

Among other films on iWBOT, the 25th-placed "Brokeback Mountain" will be "contracting slightly" this weekend, according to Focus Features, after failing to win Oscars for Best Picture or in acting categories. Still at 1,272 screens in its 13th week of release, far and away the most of any film on iWBOT, it has grossed $78.9 million to date and is averaging just under $2,000 per screen.

Sony Classics intends to hold 22nd-placed "Capote" close to last week's 744 screens after Philip Seymour Hoffman's Best Actor win, and co-president Michael Barker said he hopes it can reach $30 million domestically. Meanwhile, he said, it has earned another $5.2 million in its first nine days of international release, debuting at second in Argentina and doing especially well in Britain, Brazil, Germany and Australia.

Documentaries about rock and roll figures are scattered throughout this week's iWBOT. The Paramount specialty division's Jonathan Demme-directed "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" finished ninth, average $3,278 on 40 screens. That represented a 33% drop in per-screen average; last week it averaged $4,912 on 40 screens.

Elsewhere, Palm Pictures' Margaret Brown-directed "Be Here to Love Me: Townes Van Zandt" finished 15th with a $2,369 average on two screens; Shadow Releasing's Jim White-guided tour through Southern music, Andrew Douglas' "Searching for the Wrong Eyed Jesus," was 37th with a $1,425 gross at one theater; and First Independent Pictures' "New York Doll" by director Greg Whitely was 38th with $1,282 on one screen.

Small numbers, maybe, but these films about cult rockers hang around, a good sign for the upcoming March 24 release of Sony Classics' Jeff Feuerzeig-directed "Devil and Daniel Johnston."

(Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles-based film writer and former movie critic at the Denver Post.)