"Ask the Dust," Robert Towne's film about Los Angeles - based on a 1939 John Fante autobiographical novel considered one of the finest about the City of Angels ever written - finished first on this week's indieWIRE Box Office Tracker (iWBOT) with a $9,826 per-screen average. Numbers are provided by Rentrak Theatrical. Overall, with "Tsotsi" as the other major exception, the indie business suffered post-Oscar doldrums. Still, "Capote" and "Brokeback Mountain" both grossed more than $1 million overall, although their per-screen averages were unremarkable.
[View the indieWIRE:BOT Box Office Table for this week's films here.]
The Paramount specialty division's "Ask the Release" earned its grosses, fittingly, by posting exceptionally strong numbers on its first weekend at three Los Angeles theaters. According to the Nielsen EDI Exclusives Report, "Ask the Dust" grossed $18,855 at the upscale Pacific Arclight complex in Hollywood, $10,826 at AMC Century City and $9,489 at Laemmle's Monica 4 in Santa Monica. (Numbers for a Costa Mesa booking, in Orange County, weren't available).
By comparison, in Manhattan it grossed $10,489 at AMC Lincoln Square, $6,084 at AMC Village and just $5,847 at Regency's UA 64th and 2nd theater. Usually, adult-oriented specialty films perform better in New York than L.A., at least initially. But then, other films have not had Towne - an eminence grise of contemporary Los Angeles film noir by dint of writing "Chinatown" - heralding the source material as better than Nathaniel West's far-better-known "Day of the Locust."
"'Day of the Locust' is a flashy book, but 'Ask the Dust' has a purity about it and is deeply felt," he told this writer. "I recognize those streets, I recognize those locations, I recognize the climate in the air, I recognize those people. It has the shock of the real thing."
Elsewhere in the iWBOT Top Ten, Miramax Films' expansion of Gavin Hood's Oscar-winning South African "Tsotsi" was a smashing success. It leaped to 30 from seven screens and saw its per-screen average dip only a slight 7% to $8,668 from $9,326 while taking in $260,000. It finished second on iWBOT.
Elliot Slutzky, Miramax's executive vice president for general sales, said the per-screen Friday-Saturday increase was up 92% last weekend, a testament to both word-of-mouth and the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar it won on March 5.
"Our expansion worked perfectly," he said. This weekend "Tsotsi" increases to 57 prints as it enters Detroit, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis and Seattle in the U.S. and Calgary, Edmonton and Victoria in Canada.
Meanwhile, Koch Lorber's documentary about American political consultants in Bolivia, "Our Brand is Crisis," finished third on iWBOT with $6,920 from its second weekend at New York's Film Forum. It grossed $7,970 in its first weekend and now, following its modest 13% drop in gross, will move over to the IFC Center.
The film may be one of the first to benefit from a new way to attract audiences: podcasts. Film Forum recently began offering free podcasting to MP3 players of its Q&A sessions with filmmakers on iTunes and its own website, filmforum.org. It has made available "Our Brand's" opening-night session with director Rachel Boynton.
Mike Maggiore, Film Forum's programmer and publicist, said these podcast sessions will grow in historical value in the long term. And in the short term, he said, they may help sell more tickets locally and nationally for small movies. "They can raise the interest in a film while we're showing it," he said. "And we think audiences might want to hear about the film before seeing it. It also can help get the word out about a film around the country. Many of the films we show play months later around the country. So people will have the luxury of hearing the Q&A with the filmmaker (early)."
Only one other film among the 70 on this week's iWBOT reached a $5,000 per-screen gross - Palm Pictures' two-screen opening of Asia Argento's adaptation of JT LeRoy's "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things." Warner Independent's launch of the acclaimed Mexican film "Duck Season" faltered with a $4,110 average at six screens.
And the Weinstein Co.'s relaunch of Laurence Dunmore's "The Libertine," after a one-week Oscar showcase for Johnny Depp's controversial performance, proved just a tad overly ambitious. On 815 screens, it averaged only $2,703 per-screen and finished 14th.
Amid the generally soft business are some hard-luck stories of films that deserve better, such as Zeitgeist Films' "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days." Marc Rothemund's German-language film about an anti-Nazi activist, nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, had a slow weekend. It opened at Cambridge's Kendall Square Cinema to just $2,852 for the weekend. Overall, it had a 13% drop in per-screen gross, to $2,919 from $3,371.
Emily Russo, Zeitgeist's co-president, is fighting hard to hold its 11 screens and still slowly expand bookings through April. "We really believe in this film," she said. "We're really trying to get it out there."
The 70 art/specialty titles in the marketplace marked a slight increase from the previous weekend's 69, but the number of screens dropped markedly to 4,885 from 5,404. The per-screen average dipped to about $1,700 from roughly $1,900 as overall business dropped markedly to $8.34 million from $10.27 million.
(Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles-based film writer and former Denver Post movie critic.)