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by Peter Knegt
August 15, 2011 1:16 AM
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Box Office: "Senna" Scores Year's Best Doc Debut (UPDATED)

Asif Kapadia's acclaimed documentary "Senna" found glowing numbers in its limited debut this weekend. Released via the Producers Distribution Agency (the company's second release after forming for "Exit Through the Gift Shop"), the film scored $73,497 from its 2 theaters ($40,713 in LA and $32,784 in NY), according to final numbers. That gave it a fantastic average of $36,749 (well above its estimated $33,038).

"Senna" follows the story of Ayrton Senna, perhaps the greatest race-car driver who ever lived. In the mid '80s, Senna burst onto the world of Formula One racing. As a Brazilian in a predominantly European sport, he had to fight hard both on (against his nemesis, French World Champion Alain Prost) and off (against the politics that infest the sport) the track.

Its numbers saw it come in as the best debut of a documentary so far this year, coming in just ahead of "Bill Cunningham, New York," which averaged $33,677 this past March (though it's quite likely final numbers could see "Senna" surpassing it.) It's also the fourth best specialty debut of the year overall, behind the mighty likes of "Midnight in Paris," "The Tree of Life," and "Jane Eyre."

"Obviously, we're thrilled with the opening," John Sloss, co-founder of the Producers Distribution Agency, told indieWIRE today. "What it proves, both numerically and anecdotally, is that the film plays well beyond the core. We knew from our advance screenings, to our surprise, that the film played better to women that even gearheads, and they showed up. This movie is much more playable than it is marketable, so we couldn't be happier with this word-of-mouth base."

Sloss and company's current plan is to expand to 15 screens in 11 markets next weekend.

Also debuting was Sophie Fiennes' documentary "Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow," an impressionistic portrait of artist Anselm Kiefer. On a sole screen at New York's Film Forum, the film grossed $7,000 over the weekend and $11,034 since opening Wednesday. "Cities" was released via the Alive Mind Cinema label of Kino Lorber Films.

Among holdovers, Samuel Goldwyn's release of political thriller "The Whistleblower" expanded from seven to 22 screens in Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego and Washington DC (in addition to LA and NY, where it opened lats weekend). As as result, the film, which stars Rachel Weisz, pulled in $113,340 for a $5,152 per-theater-average. Its total now stands at $200,721.

Rashaad Ernesto Green's "Gun Hill Road" expanded from five to 10 theaters in its second weekend and stumbled. Taking in $24,069, it actually lost a considerable portion of its grosses despite the additional screens. The film averaged $2,407 and now has a total of $76,095. Distributed by Motion Film Group, the film opens in San Francisco next weekend and MFG plans on a national launch on September 16th to the top 20-40 markets.

Gilles Paquet-Brenner's French import "Sarah's Key" had an excellent fourth weekend for distributor The Weinstein Company. Expanding from 64 to 101 theaters, the French-language film starring Kristin Scott Thomas took in another $467,000 for a per-theater-average of $4,624. The total for "Key" now stands at $2,004,929. The film should end up a sizable late summer hit for the Weinsteins.

Also doing very well was Sony Pictures Classics' release of John Michael McDonagh's "The Guard." The Irish black comedy starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle expanded from 19 to 47 theaters in its third frame and shot up 45% in grosses, taking in $278,723 for a potent $5,930 per-theater-average. The film's total now stands at $666,129.

Expanding from eight to 40 theaters in its third weekend was Joe Cornish's acclaimed British science fiction horror film "Attack The Block." The film, which follows a London street gang which have to defend themselves from rowdy alien invaders, rose 29% in grosses as it took in another $100,000, averaging a somewhat disappointing $2,500. The film premiered at SXSW earlier this year and is being released through Screen Gems. So far, the film's total stands at $446,136.

Miranda July's "The Future" also expanded in its third weekend, going from 17 to 20 theaters. The result was a 24% drop in grosses, with "The Future" finding $64,900 for a disappointing $3,245 average, taking its total to $236,000. By comparison, the anticipated second feature from July is not finding quite as impressive numbers as her 2005 debut, "Me and You and Everyone We Know." That film averaged $9,301 - nearly three times that - in its third weekend from 26 theaters. The next few weeks should be telling as to how much success "The Future" holds.

Lionsgate found respectable numbers from the third weekend of Lee Tamahori's "The Devil's Double," which went from 33 to 89 screens and managed a $250,000 gross, averaging $2,809. The film's total now stands at $688,531.

"El Bulli: Cooking in Progress," released via Kino Lorber Alive Mind Cinema label, saw a strong third weekend hold at New York's Film Forum. It grossed an estimated $6,000 over its third weekend, and its total now stands at $57,178 from a single theater. It will expand to Boston, Los Angeles and other national markets next month.

Not doing so well was Kevin Macdonald's "Life in a Day." A documentary shot by filmmakers all over the world on the 24th of July 2010, the film dropped from 19 to 17 screens in its second frame and grossed just $15,009. That made for a weak average of $883 and a new total of $190,460 for distributor National Geographic.

Meanwhile, Mike Cahill's "Another Earth" expanded from 55 to 82 screens via distributor Fox Searchlight in its fourth weekend. The film was written by Cahill and Brit Marling, who is also the film's star and generally regarded as one of 2011's indie breakouts. This weekend, the film took in a $148,057 gross, averaging a mild $1,806 per theater. The film actually dropped 13% despite the 27 added screens. Either way, the film's new total stands at $682,698, with the $1 million mark the only major milestone the film should hope for.

Fox Searchlight's release of Wayne Wang's "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" aggressively dropped from 116 to 104 screens in its fifth frame and took a steep 60% hit in grosses. The film took in $71,000 for a $683 average. The film's new total stands at $1,184,809 and shouldn't end up with much more than that in the end.

In its sixth weekend, Michael Rapaport's doc "Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest" went from 38 to 35 screens and held on to a decent gross, crossing the $1 million mark in the process. "Beats" took in $54,500 for a $1,557 average. That took the film, which documents the inner workings and behind the scenes drama of the Queens hip-hop collective A Tribe Called Quest, to a strong new total of $1,038,586. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

Finally, Woody Allen's "Midnight In Paris" continued its momentous run, dropping from 399 to 328 theaters in its whopping 13th weekend but losing just 31% of its grosses. Taking in $675,623, Allen's 42nd feature averaged a strong $2,060 and took its total to a stunning $49,636,944. The $50 million mark is all but assured for the Sony Classics release in the next week or so.

Check back with indieWIRE for an updated version of this story that includes films that did not report estimates today, including "Littlerock," "Bellflower," and "Mysteries of Lisbon."

Peter Knegt is indieWIRE's Associate Editor. Follow him on Twitter and on his blog.

indieWIRE 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 be included in the indieWIRE Box Office Chart, distributors must submit information about their films to Rentrak at studiogrosses@rentrak.com by the end of the day each Monday..

7 Comments

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  • anon | August 18, 2011 1:29 AMReply

    you analysis of ANOTHER EARTH is laughably off base.
    (1) it's a different mike cahill then directed KING OF CALIFORNIA
    (2) the film received no support from sundance. the sloan award is given during the festival.
    get your facts straight greg and knowles.

  • Greg | August 16, 2011 11:23 AMReply

    Sundance is a SCAM
    www.sundancefilmfestival2012.com

  • Knowles | August 16, 2011 11:22 AMReply

    Everyone knows, Sundance is a big scam fest. They rip off filmmakers, better know it.

    Check this http://www.sundancefilmfestival2012.com

  • JapeMan | August 15, 2011 10:32 AMReply

    Is Bellflower going to expand this week. I can't wait to see that!

  • Brian S. | August 14, 2011 11:40 AMReply

    Mary -

    Probably a lack of faith in the film's crossover potential. In other hands, EXIT probably would've been marginalized and though the film speaks for itself, it needed to creatively and tactfully craft a plan to get butts in seats.

    PDA can do great things if they stay at it the way they are. Leveraging people's opinions and responses as their ammunition to fuel the fire, rather than doing traditional and largely ignored common advertising initiatives.

    On paper, who the hell sees a doc about a formula one driver that almost no domestic viewers know about - not to mention the sport itself - and would likely dismiss it outright. People talking is a powerful tool, they seem to recognize and capitalize on this. Good on 'em.

  • mary | August 14, 2011 5:53 AMReply

    “Attack The Block” will expand to six other cities on this Friday, so the well-received film film still has some chance at box office.
    http://www.sacbee.com/2011/08/09/3826703/attack-the-block-to-invade-phoenix.html

    Happy to see that “Senna” opens strongly. However, I am surprised that Universal is releasing “Senna” through Producers Distribution Agency…. Why Universal didn’t let Focus Features to handle the US theatrical release of “Senna”?.