As the summer enters its final frames, two docs - Amir Bar-Lev's "The Tillman Story" and Yael Hersonski's "A Film Unfinished" - led a batch of specialty debuts at the box office this weekend. The films share the distinction of being handed down controversial R-ratings by the MPAA (of which both "Tillman"'s Weinstein Company and "Unfinished"'s Oscilloscope understandably lashed back). Oscilloscope ended up deciding to release "Unfinished" unrated (wanting students to have full, unrestricted access to it), while the Weinsteins sent out "Tillman" with the R-rating. Both films seemed to manage quite well despite their respective ratings.
"Tillman" spotlights Pat Tillman, a former NFL star-turned-soldier who died in Afghanistan in 2004 after joining the military because he thought it was the right thing to do. Bar-Lev's doc tracks the investigation into his death that his family launches after it begins becomes clear that the military manipulated the circumstances of his death for propaganda purposes. The film debuted on 4 screens and grossed $52,400, and its $13,100 average was the highest of any film in release.
"Unfinished," meanwhile, examines the infamous Nazi-produced film about the Warsaw Ghetto, which was discovered after World War II with no soundtrack. Historians began using the film as an authentic record, but Hersonski's "Unfinished" brings a strong light to its propagandist construction, suggesting the Warsaw Ghetto was a place of luxury. Opening at the Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza in New York City on Wednesday (where it played to sold-out shows starting on Wednesday through the weekend), and then on 2 screens in Los Angeles starting Friday, "Unfinished" took in $37,500 over the three-day weekend, and $51,200 since Wednesday. Its weekend per-theater-average, $9,375 is hopeful for the film's national expansion, which begins on September 24th.
Other debuts included Bruce Beresford's "Mao's Last Dancer," a frequent audience favorite on the festival circuit since it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. The feature opened on 31 screens in 10 markets. The Samuel Goldwyn and ATO Pictures release managed a decent $192,200 gross as a result, averaging $6,200. The story of a Chinese Ballet Dancer who defects to the US played exceptionally well with older female centric audiences, its distributors noted. It also sold out shows in Houston, Texas, where the film is partly set. "Dancer" will expand to 15 new markets next weekend. Including its previous release in Canada, the film's domestic total now stands at $776,253.
IFC Films saw a respectable debut from Fatih Akin's "Soul Kitchen." On two New York screens, the German import grossed $20,120, averaging $10,060. Another foreign film, Robert Guediguian's French resistance drama "Army of Crime," opened on 3 screens (2 in New York, 1 in San Francisco) via Lorber Films, taking in a $10,000 gross and averaging roughly $3,333.
David Michôd's "Animal Kingdom" - which led last weekend's debuts - expanded from 5 to 19 screens in the U.S. in its second frame. The result was a respectable $95,036 gross, giving the Sony Pictures Classics release a $5,002 average. "Kingdom," a crime drama set in the underground of Melbourne, Australia, also screened on 3 screens in Canada (via E1 Entertainment), where it took in $11,434 for a $3,811 average. In total, the film grossed $106,471 in North America this weekend, and found a 10 day total of $203,512.
Sony Classics found greater success with an aggressive expansion of Aaron Schneider's "Get Low." In its third weekend, "Low" went from 53 to 146 screens and grossed a very promising $759,212. The film's per-theater-average dropped off only slightly to $5,200, and further expansion (it hits 400+ theaters next weekend) could prove quite lucrative. The film, which follows Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), a hermit who decides he wants to throw himself a "funeral party" before he actually passes, has now totalled $1,743,295.
Also in its third weekend, National Geographic expanded Anthony Geffen's documentary, "The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest," from 14 to 17 screens. Employing a release pattern blending IMAX, digital and 35mm screens, "Dream" grossed $49,123 and averaged $2,890 - taking its new total to $262,817.
In its seventh weekend, Focus Features' release "The Kids Are All Right" cut its screens from 830 to 404 but managed to drop only 42%, seeing its per-theater-average actually rise from $1,630 to $1,958. Taking in $791,189, "Kids" now stands at an impressive $18,212,701.
Finally, two big winners at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival hit two big milestones.
In its eleventh weekend, Debra Granik's "Winter's Bone" (winner of the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance) kept impressively holding on to audiences, and passed the $5 million mark while doing so. The film, which follows a young woman living in the Ozark Mountains played by Jennifer Lawrence, dropped from 136 to 131 screens but only lost 6% of its grosses, taking in another $210,900. That gave the Roadside Attractions release a $1,610 average and took its total to $5,176,604. "Bone" is now the distributor's second highest grossing film behind only 2007's "Bella."
Sundance's doc Grand Jury Prize winner "Restrepo" by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger dropped from 52 to 44 screens in its ninth weekend but still grossed $56,235 - only a small drop from last weekend. That gave the National Geographic-released film, which examines the men of the Second Platoon in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, a $1,280 average, and new total of $1,046,783. The film joins "Babies," "Oceans," "Exit Through The Gift Shop" and "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" as one of only five 2010 documentaries to cross the $1 million mark.
Peter Knegt is indieWIRE's Associate Editor. Follow him on Twitter and on his blog.
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