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November 7, 2006 7:22 AM
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Almodovar Returns to the Top of the Box office with "Volver"

Carmen Maura and Penelope Cruz in a scene from Pedro Almodovar's "Volver." Image provided by Sony Pictures Classics

Sony Pictures Classics' belief that Spain's Pedro Almodovar has become America's most well-known European director since Fellini received plenty of filmgoer support last weekend, as "Volver" topped this week's indieWire Box Office Tracking Report (iWBOT) by averaging just under $40,000 from its five debut engagements in New York and Los Angeles. "Volver'' slightly pushed down Paramount Vantage's "Babel," Weinstein Company's "Shut Up and Sing," and Miramax's "The Queen," but they also continued performing very well.

The iWBOT is based on per-theater averages reported by Rentrak Theatrical, the complete indieWIRE BOT weekly chart is available here at indieWIRE.com

The independent/specialty film market in general had a strong weekend, as overall gross for the 80 films listed on the iWBOT jumped more than $1 million - to just under $7.9 million - from the $6.83 million generated by the 73 iWBOT-listed films last week. The jump came primarily because of "The Queen's" expansion and despite cult comedic actor Sacha Baron Cohen's multiplex hit "Borat" attracting many adult fans of indie/speciality films. Business also was helped by the debut of Adlab Films' fifth-ranked Bollywood feature "Umrao Jaan," which averaged $7,462 at 65 sites. The iWBOT is based on per-location gross and is based on numbers provided by Rentrak Theatrical.

Actually, Sony Classics' confidence in Almodovar's reputation is so strong that it's awarded him a one-name appellation in its advertising for "Volver." It's "a film by Almodovar." And "Volver" was the right film for such a push, said Michael Barker, Sony Classics' co-president.

"There's a substantial Almodovar following," he said. "This appears to be his most accessible film and is getting people who haven't seen him before."

That turnout also is helped by the dazzling star appeal of Penelope Cruz in her breakthrough starring role. "The adoration of Penelope Cruz is evident," Barker said. "This is the perfect vehicle for her and he wrote it for her."

Sony Classics also chose to whet appetites for "Volver" by leading up to its opening with a road-show "Viva Pedro" retrospective that played "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," "All About My Mother," "Talk to Her," "Bad Education," "Live Flesh," "Flower of My Secret," "Law of Desire" and "Matador" in repertory at selected theaters. It proved to be a hit attraction, itself, and will play in over 100 theaters nationwide by the end of the year. So far, it has grossed $567,000.

"Since he's the Fellini of his era, it made sense to have a retrospective," Barker said. "It served to remind people of work they had seen before, but it also introduced new people to him."

"Volver" will follow Sony Classics' "Capote's" release plan, Barker said, with a three-stage expansion - moderate increases for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and then a wide release in the new year.

"Babel," Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's multi-character omnibus drama about the state of the world today, nicely increased to 35 theaters in top markets from the previous weekend's seven in New York and L.A. Its strong per-theater average of $26,264 represented a 52% drop from the extraordinarily high $55,622 of its debut, but the film grossed just over $900,000 for the weekend as it opened well in Chicago, San Francisco and Canadian cities.

It also dropped just 15% total in its holdover theaters. In particular, word-of-mouth interest is growing in Brad Pitt's performance as an American tourist in Morocco thrown into crisis when his wife is shot.

"The interesting thing from my perspective is how well the existing runs held up," said Rob Schulze, Paramount Vantage's executive vice president of distribution. "Union Square and Times Square in New York actually went up, and the Arclight in Hollywood went down because we lost a screen to the AFI Film Festival."

"Babel" increases to 1,250 locations on Friday. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed," Schulze said.

Stephen Frears' "The Queen," the speculative take on Queen Elizabeth II's response to Princess Diana's death that stars Helen Mirren in what's become a must-see performance, jumped to 387 theaters last weekend from 152. While it slid to fourth from second on the iWBOT as the per-site gross declined to $7,519 from $12,560, it grossed a tremendous $2.9 million overall compared to last weekend's $1.9 million.

Meanwhile, while John Cameron Mitchell's sexually explicit "Shortbus" is only a steady, modestly grossing release for ThinkFilm, it has quietly proved its point. The indie/specialty-film audience, as well as the cities where such patrons live, is ready to accept the film's claims to being art not smut without argument. It's even played uneventfully for two weeks in Cincinnati, where public officials in 1990 charged a museum director with obscenity for displaying Robert Mapplethorpe photographs. (A jury voted acquittal.)

In its fifth week of release, at 69 theaters, "Shortbus" ranked 20th on the iWBOT with a $2,268 per-theater average. It has grossed $1.28 million to date.

"In the end, the most shocking thing about 'Shortbus' is that no one was shocked by it," said Mark Urman, head of ThinkFilm's theatrical division, via e-mail. "Those who care are going, those who would be shocked by it don't want to go or don't even know it exists. No pickets or protests or arrests."

"But, alas, no wide expansion," he continued. "The film is going to play every city in North America but few suburbs and almost no multiplexes. The film is allowed to exist but it has to stay where it belongs. Fair enough, if you think about it. It is doing steady business and whatever it has grossed it has done on very, very few screens. And it will play for quite some time into the future. All things considered, it's a win. Perhaps not a triumph, but a win."

The 80 films on the iWBOT averaged $3,063 at 2,567 locations last weekend, startlingly up from the previous $2,473 that 73 films averaged at 2,763 locations the previous weekend. If "Babel" and "Volver" can maintain momentum as "The Queen" continues to do well, the prospects for the indie/specialty business look good in coming weeks.

ABOUT THE WRITER: Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles-based film writer and former movie critic at the Denver Post.

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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