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by Peter Knegt
January 10, 2011 3:20 AM
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Box Office: "Valentine" Big In Expansion; "Swan," "Speech" Keep Specialty Market Rolling (UPDATED)

A scene from Derek Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine."

Derek Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine" was not so blue in its first weekend of expansion, finding excellent numbers as it went from 4 to 40 theaters. According to estimates provided by Rentrak earlier today, the Michelle Williams-Ryan Gosling relationship drama has clearly piqued an interest from audiences, grossing a strong $718,800 - a 271% increase over its debut weekend. That made for a $17,970 average for The Weinstein Company release, which will continue to expand the feature into January. Nearly a year after its Sundance Film Festival debut, and after the controversy related to its successfully appealed NC-17 rating from the MPAA, it seems "Blue Valentine" is en route to having a very happy ending.

"Valentine" was just one of many year-end releases that are continuing to ring in the 2011 specialty box office in style. Major Oscar contenders like Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" and Tom Hooper's "The King's Speech" in particular have been showing somewhat remarkably strong numbers weekend after weekend, and this was no exception. "Speech," the story of the relationship between King George VI (Colin Firth), who is plagued by a horrible stutter that challenges his reign, and his eccentric speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush), slightly expanded from 700 to 758 screens and grossed $6,811,400, averaging $8,986 and placing 7th in the overall top 10 despite playing on a fraction of the screens of its competitors. It gave The Weinstein Company (clearly having an celebratory 2011 thus far) release a total gross of $33,293,658, a fantastic number for a film that hasn't even expanded to 1,000 screens yet. With much Oscar attention very likely en route, it appears that the sky's the limit as to how long "The King's Speech" may reign.

Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" continued its sensational run at the box office in its seventh weekend as Fox Searchlight pushed it to 1,584 screens (up a slight 31 screens from last weekend). "Swan," a psychological thriller about a ballerina (Natalie Portman) competing for the lead role in "Swan Lake," saw a tiny 6% drop in grosses as a result, raking in $8,350,000 and hitting its highest spot in the overall top ten yet at number 5. That made for a strong $5,271 per-theater-average, and took "Swan"'s total to a stunning $61,455,493 as it continues to benefit from awards notices. The film has now grossed more than Aronofsky's other four films combined, and stands a reasonable chance at hitting the $100 million mark, which is well beyond the greatest expectations anyone had going into its release.

indieWIRE spoke to Aronofsky this weekend about "Swan"'s success, and he was clearly taken a back by the phenomenal response the film has been receiving.

"This is way beyond my expectations," he said. "One never knows really how something is going to work or click... And I'm just excited that people are having fun seeing it and there's a lot of people seeing it more than once. The one adjective that keeps coming back to me is that word 'fun' and that's the best compliment you can have as a filmmaker."

Check out more on "Swan," and other 2010 success stories, in indieWIRE's recent recap of the specialty box office winners of 2010. Next weekend, the film will expand to over 2000 theaters, just as the Golden Globes air and likely bestow its star Natalie Portman with an award.

Also faring well this weekend was Mike Leigh's "Another Year," which expanded slightly in its sophomore frame from 6 to 7 for Sony Pictures Classics. Detailing a year in the life of a long married couple (Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent) and their rather dysfunctional friends (notably alcoholic Mary, played by Lesley Manville), "Year" grossed $91,791 for a $13,113 per-theater-average, and has now totalled $308,245 since opening December 29th. That puts it ahead of Leigh's last film, 2008's "Happy-Go-Lucky," which averaged $11,994 from 9 theaters in its second weekend, then totalling $217,388 ("Happy" would find a $3,512,016 final gross).

Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere," meanwhile, expanded from 8 to 17 theaters in its third weekend, and found respectable numbers. The Focus Features release, which stars Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning as a movie star and his daughter struggling to connect, grossed $159,554, averaging $9,386 and taking its total to $660,225.

"Saturday’s box office increased substantially with a 61% increase over Friday’s results," "Somewhere" distributor Focus Features noted to indieWIRE today. "The increase indicates 'Somewhere'’s consistent appeal to the core Saturday arthouse audience. The greatest increases (equal to or greater than the 61% average), arose in the theaters that opened on 12/22. The new theaters had increases in the 40% to 50% range which is typical for an arthouse film's Friday to Saturday increase at opening."

Sylvain Chomet's "The Illusionist" held steady on 3 screens in its third weekend. Based on an unproduced work by Jacques Tati, the well-reviewed animated French import grossed $34,370, averaging $11,457. That's a decent number, and bodes well as the film expands in the coming weeks. Since opening Christmas Day, the Sony Pictures Classics-released film has totalled $179,792 from just 3 screens.

Not fairing quite as well were Roadside Attractions' release of the long delayed Jim Carrey-Ewan McGregor dark romantic comedy/biopic "I Love You Phillip Morris" and Lionsgate's critically acclaimed "Rabbit Hole." "Morris" expanded from 68 to 100 screens in its sixth weekend, and managed $226,126. That made for a $2,261 average, and gave the film a new total of $1,444,000.

On 35 screens (up 1 from last weekend), the John Cameron Mitchell-directed "Rabbit Hole," which stars Nicole Kidman as a woman grieving the death of her son alongside her husband (Aaron Eckhart) and mother (Dianne Wiest), grossed $109,000. That was only a hopeful 23% drop from last weekend, though still made for a problematic $3,144 average as the film's total rose to $627,037. The real test will be when distributor Lionsgate expands the film further in the coming weekends.

Finally, the lone reporting opener was Kenneth Bowser's doc "Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune," which had a strong debut at a single location at NYC's IFC Center. A look at protest singer Phil Ochs, the film grossed $18,989 over the weekend for a 5 day tally of $27,624 since opening Wednesday. The film's distributor, First Run Features, told indieWIRE that the success was "no doubt thanks to good press and finding long-lost Ochs devotees and other folk music fans through an aggressive grassroots campaign."

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

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 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..

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