Last weekend was relatively quiet for specialty films with no major new releases, but the ones that previously had been doing best on the indieWIRE Box Office Tracker (iWBOT) - "Cache," "Fateless" and "Transamerica" - again finished first and second in per-screen average. And the chart's highest-profile film, Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain," also held up strongly while showing some signs of wear.
[View the indieWIRE:BOT Box Office Table for this week's films here.]
For the three-day weekend of Jan. 13-15, Sony Pictures Classics doubled the number of screens for Michael Haneke's political thriller "Cache" from five to 10, and added Boston and Chicago to its run. As a result business shot up almost 70%, while the per-screen average dipped by roughly 15% from $13,851 to $11,732. It has a cumulative gross of $478,000.
Besides strong word-of-mouth and reviews, "Cache" also may be able to benefit from a growing controversy about its ineligibility for a best foreign-language film Oscar nomination. It was nominated by Austria - Haneke's home - but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences disqualified it because the French-language film is set in Paris with a French cast. There was a major story about that this week in the Los Angeles Times.
"It's helpful," said Michael Barker, Sony Classics' co-president, of that controversy. "The stories say it's wrong because it's one of the year's great movies. So the story is not about the arcane rules of the Academy, but about how good a film 'Cache' is. That gains traction with the audience."
Close behind "Cache" on the iWBOT chart is a foreign-language film that does qualify for an Oscar nomination - the Hungarian Oscar submission "Fateless," a Holocaust drama adapted by Lajos Koltai from an autobiographical novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertesz. It again finished second on the iWBOT by grossing $10,805 in its second exclusive week at New York's Film Forum. That was also roughly a 15% drop in business - last week it earned $12,680. Its cumulative gross to date is just under $30,000.
ThinkFilm is expanding "Fateless" very carefully, in part because of the extra expense of preparing the bleached-bypass color prints, with laser-applied subtitles, for the two-and-one-half-hour film. "In the concentration camps, it becomes more monochromatic. And after the liberation, the color comes back in," explained Mark Urman, head of ThinkFilm's U.S. theatrical department. "So it's visually extraordinary.
"But I have to be careful - every print has to earn its own way. Every market has to be well-prepared for the engagement."
As of now "Fateless" will continue playing exclusively at Film Forum until a Jan. 27 opening at the Royal, on Los Angeles' west side.
"Transamerica" moved into third place from fourth on iWBOT by holding virtually steady with its per-screen average, down slightly to $10,108 from $10,191, while jumping to nine screens from six. Next weekend, the impact of Felicity Huffman's Golden Globe award on Monday for best actress - drama will reveal its impact. The Weinstein Co. film has earned $492,000 in seven weeks of very limited release.
"Brokeback" meanwhile fell to fourth on the iWBOT and saw its per-screen average slip about 28%, to $8,499 from $11,856. But it added 200 screens last weekend, mostly on theaters in small cities and suburbs where weekend grosses in excess of $10,000 are rare. Nevertheless it generated $5.8 million overall for the weekend, up a bit more than 1% from the previous weekend.
Jack Foley, distribution head of Focus Features, said only 15 of "Brokeback's" total 683 screens grossed less than $3,000. And in cities like Odessa, Texas, where "Brokeback" earned $3,000, that was very good on a big football weekend. (Odessa is the setting for "Friday Night Lights.")
"You have to expect some drop in (urban) houses where it's now been playing for five weekends," he said. "And the drop was relatively slight. The new markets did two things. They brought in enough revenue to bring the gross to $5 million and they continued to localize the film. This is an art film and look at what it's doing across the country. It's achieving a populist status."
This weekend, "Brokeback" will again add 200 screens in new small markets and suburban locations as Focus sees if the publicity from four Golden Globe awards on Monday helps it. It won for best motion picture - drama, best director, best screenplay and best song.
Of last weekend's new releases, New Yorker Films' French "When the Sea Rises" performed best with a modest $4,029 per-screen average on two screens. Following it, in descending order of per-screen average, were Palm Pictures' "Henri Cartier Bresson: The Impassioned Eye" ($7,235), Regent Releasing's "April's Shower" ($2,313), and UPS's "Following Sean" ($1,996).
Unusually, one of the better per-screen averages came from a film that's 32 weeks old - tiny Arrival Pictures' "The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyan." Produced in Uzbekistan and with dialogue mostly in English, it appeals both to Iranian-Americans (Uzbekistan is considered the heart of the old Persian empire) and art-film aficionados. Made by Iranian-American director Kayvan Mashayekh, it's about a boy discovering the poetry of Omar Khayyan, who wrote "The Rubaiyat" in the 12th Century.
After slowly playing throughout the West and Midwest since June, it opened at Landmark's Sunshine Cinema in New York and earned $8,291. That was good for fifth on the iWBOT and brought its total gross to $215,000. "The approach has been to utilize word-of-mouth in each market and have the filmmaker attend each opening," said Arrival's Charles Acosta. "It's worked out well."
Last weekend, the 45 films on the iWBOT occupied 2,284 screens, had a total gross of $10.89 million and a per-screen average of $4,768. The previous weekend, the iWBOT's 46 films held 1,847 screens, earned a total gross of $10.84 million and had a per-screen average of $5,869. The per-screen decline was just under 20%.
[Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles-based writer and former movie critic for The Denver Post.]