Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Paramount Vantage-released "Babel," a multi-character omnibus drama about the state of the world today, got off to an exceedingly strong start by finishing first on this week's indieWIRE Box Office Tracking Report (iWBOT) of independent/specialty films with a $55,622 average from seven theaters in New York and Los Angeles. But Miramax Films' "The Queen" - previously number one for four weeks - is hardly abdicating. Stephen Frears' speculative take on Queen Elizabeth II's response to Princess Diana's death, starring Helen Mirren, came in second with a $12,560 average at 152 sites. More important, it increased overall business by 26.4% by adding just 53 new theaters and has now grossed $6.29 million from 152 theaters. It is on track to be one of year's biggest indie hits as it starts to expand in earnest. Not destined for such glory, however, is Newmarket Film's controversial "Death of a President." It debuted on the iWBOT with a lowly 23rd ranking.
The iWBOT is based on per-theater averages reported by Rentrak Theatrical, the complete indieWIRE BOT weekly chart is available here at indieWIRE.com
Among the many other new titles debuting, there were two surprises. The Weinstein Company's "Shut Up and Sing," Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck's documentary about the Dixie Chicks' battle to stay popular after criticizing President Bush's Iraq war, opened in third place with a $12,526 average from four theaters.
A case could be made - at least this week - that the Dixie Chicks now are bigger than John Lennon, as far as the movie business is concerned. "Shut Up and Sing's" per-screen average was higher that that of Lionsgate's "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" ($11,523) when it opened in mid-September.
However, "Lennon" opened on six screens and grossed $69,143 in its first weekend. "Shut Up and Sing's" total for last weekend was $50,103. Neither opened as well as Lionsgate's "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man," which did $17,130 at one location when it debuted in June on its way to an impressive $1.04 gross to date.
The other surprise was the fine opening in a crowded market for Zeitgeist's release of Turkish director Niri Bilge Ceylan's "Climates." The film, hailed for its cinematic beauty and Antonioni-like meditative quality, did $9,665 at New York's Film Forum. That was good for fourth on the iWBOT.
Emily Russo, Zeitgeist's co-president, thinks "Climates" may have benefited from The New York Times' new policy of sometimes waiting for the theatrical release of New York Film Festival entries before reviewing them. The "Climates" review, a rave, received prominent inside placement in The Times when it opened.
"I'm beginning to feel there are so many indie films coming and going that it's hard to get people's attention," Russo said. "We were lucky and we were pleased. It's a really classy film and it's encouraging there's still an audience out there, small as it might be."
With a budget reported by the Los Angeles Times as $25 million, and featuring Brad Pitt and Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett among its cast, "Babel" is a small film by Hollywood rather than indie standards. But as an adult drama about the search for meaning - in relationships as well as politically - it's a marketing challenge, especially since it has a globetrotting plot.
One thing helping was the fact that Mexican-born Inarritu has won a following for this type of film from his previous "Amores Perros" and "24 Grams." Discerning audiences have also grown to understand and appreciate omnibus films with interlocking narratives because of "Pulp Fiction," "Jackie Brown," "Before the Rain," "Traffic," "Syriana," and "Crash."
As a result, said Rob Shulze of Paramount Vantage, Inarritu had enough of a following in New York and L.A. to guarantee a good turn out, as long as "Babel" got good reviews. It did. But this did especially well. "21 Grams" averaged $34,307 from eight theaters when it opened in November 2003. "Babel" was helped by being on two and even three screens in its locations, but as a 2+-hour film it needed that.
Schulze also said word-of-mouth helped the film increase business by 28% on Saturday and that 40-45% of the audience was under 30. There was also a higher-than-usual Hispanic audience at three theaters - Pacific's Arclight in Hollywood and Grove in L.A.'s Fairfax District, and Regal's Union Square in Manhattan. "We're not sure if that's a function of Alejandro being the director or the story line, but we're excited to see it," Shulze said.
One question not yet answered is whether Pitt - who has gotten excellent reviews - can help the film win acceptance in America's suburban multiplexes. It opens in 13 more markets this Friday and then goes wider on Nov. 10. "Ask me that question in two weeks," Schulze said. "I'm suspicious I'm going to be smiling."
Not smiling, however, is Richard Abramowitz, head of distribution for Newmarket Films. Its release of Gabriel Range's "Death of a President," a speculative film about President Bush's assassination, averaged just $1,970 at 143 theaters. Newmarket picked it up after its debut at the Toronto Film Festival.
The subject matter was considered so sensitive - or insensitive - that some chains refused to book it and CNN wouldn't take ads. Abramowitz said even some internet sites such as cnn.com, foxnews.com and historychannel.com wouldn't take ads.
"There was a tremendous awareness, but not the kind that would drive people to see the film," Abramowitz said. "The noise drowned out the message of what the film was. It's a political thriller, a what-if and not a how-to."
But Jonathan Taplin, a professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and a former producer ("The Last Waltz," "Under Fire"), said the film's failure was just the result of its fair-to-middling reviews.
"Honestly, the film was very poorly reviewed and didn't pass the who-cares test," he said. "The distributor got caught up in the perfect storm (of publicity) in Toronto and thought it was more than it was."
The 73 films on this week's iWBOT averaged $2,473 at 2,763 locations, a rebound from last week when 70 films averaged $2,386 at 2,800 theaters. Additionally, the overall gross of iWBOT-charted films rebounded modestly - to $6.83 million from the previous $6.68 million.
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 email@example.com