How well did independent/specialty films work as counterprogramming against a movie, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," that had the biggest weekend opening in history by seemingly appealing to everyone? Not bad, it turns out, according to the latest indieWire Box Office Tracking Report (iWBOT), which is based on per-location average and uses numbers provided by Rentrak Theatrical. Three films did especially well - Richard Linklater's "A Scanner Darkly," French director Laurent Cantet's "Heading South" and the Amy Sedaris-starring "Strangers With Candy" finished 1-2-3 with per-location averages above the $10,000 mark. And the World Cup-timed Miramax release of a documentary about the New York Cosmos, "Once in a Lifetime," pulled in $9,805 at its sole location, New York's Angelika Film Center. It finished fourth.
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Warner Independent Pictures' "A Scanner Darkly," which uses digitalized rotoscoping to create an animated adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story, had a $23,039 average from 17 theaters in eight cities - New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, Boston, Chicago and Linklater's home base, Austin.
Surprisingly, Warner Independent decided to open it last weekend as a "hip alternative" to "Pirates," according to Steve Friedlander, executive vice president of distribution for the company. This despite the fact that "Pirates" is seen as being - among other things - a "hip alternative" to comic-book superhero movies because Johnny Depp's turn as Captain Jack Sparrow is inspired by Rolling Stone Keith Richards.
"It's a PG-13 movie," Friedlander said of "Pirates." "Because it appeals to everyone, it's filled with kids. For hip adults 18-25 who don't want to wait in line with all those kids, this is an alternative. They can see ('Pirates') its second weekend."
There are other reasons why the R-rated "Scanner" was seized upon as hip, according to Friedlander. There is a ready audience for alternative animation, having gotten used to anime, graphic novels, and Linklater's previous experiment with rotoscoping, "Waking Life." And the late science-fiction writer Dick only grows more popular with time. Finally, Friedlander said, "Scanner" had become pre-sold to its core audience because of early publicity and a long wait until it finally was ready for release.
That's why Warner Independent opened it immediately in seven cities. "Anticipation was so high there could have been a backlash if we'd only opened it in New York and Los Angeles," Friedlander said.
In L.A., it benefited from being the big new film at Hollywood's high-end Pacific Arclight complex because "Pirates" was at the nearby El Capitan, a showcase for new Disney films. Winding up on four screens there, "Scanner" grossed $73,842 - far and away its best performance. In New York, it did just under $46,000 at Landmark's Sunshine 5 in the East Village and $40,470 at AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 on the West Side. Its best date outside these cities was in San Francisco, where it grossed $34,000 at the Embarcadero. (Numbers come from Nielsen EDI and Warner Independent; other specific theater grosses in this column come from Nielsen EDI.)
This week, it moves to 200 screens in 73 cities "to take advantage of the buzz," Friedlander said.
The iWBOT's second-place film, Shadow Distribution's "Heading South," also offered an alternative to "Pirates" - and to most other Hollywood pictures, for that matter. One of its subjects is the sexual desires of middle-aged women - Charlotte Rampling plays a sexual tourist in Haiti in the late 1970s.
Playing New York exclusively, it grossed $24,249 at the slightly-older-skewing West Side's Lincoln Plaza 6 and $18,622 from the Angelika. "It's a film dealing with sexuality in a woman of an age where they're not always seen like that, and that appealed to people," said Shadow's Ken Eisen. "And that maybe explains why it did a little better with an older audience, although it certainly did well at the Angelika."
Eisen said the film was crucially helped by Rampling's decision to come to New York from her European home to do interviews. "That's not something she often does, and a lot of people think her performance is award-worthy," he said.
Although "Heading South's" dialogue is about 50% in English, it continues a mini-revival of American interest in adult-oriented French films begun earlier this year by the success of the French-language "Cache."
And Emmanuel Carrere's mysteriously Kafkaesque "La Moustache," distributed by Cinema Guild, did well in its Los Angeles debut after a strong, prominently displayed Los Angeles Times review. That's especially noteworthy because of a belief - expressed in a forum at the recently concluded Los Angeles Film Festival - that foreign-language art films just don't do well in celebrity-oriented L.A. At Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills, "La Moustache" grossed $7,447; at Laemmle's Pasadena Playhouse 7 it did $6,184.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles certainly did take to the celebrity-sprinkled comedy "Strangers With Candy," a prequel to Sedaris' Comedy Central series directed by Paul Dinello and released by ThinkFilm. Among those doing cameo appearances are Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Allison Janney and Matthew Broderick. Expanding from two Manhattan screens to 21 nationally - including five in L.A. - in its second week, the film averaged $10,660 per site. At West Hollywood's Laemmle Sunset 5, it did $18,384. (Its four other metro L.A. locations did less well.)
ThinkFilm's moderate expansion helped keep "Strangers" hot, since it lost 49% of the previous weekend's audience at Manhattan's Clearview's Chelsea Cinemas and 39% at Landmark's Sunshine 5. At both theaters, it grossed over $10,000.
One film that had a disastrous expansion was First Look's "Wassup Rockers," Larry Clark's look at a group of Latino skateboarders who travel from South Central L.A. to Beverly Hills in search of adventure.
After doing killer first-week business three weekends ago at New York's Angelika and again the next (five-day) weekend in its exclusive run at L.A.'s Landmark Nuart, it tried to expand last weekend to 56 locations - including multiplexes. But Clark's rough aesthetic and anecdotal storytelling apparently didn't prove palatable to that big an audience, as the film averaged only $911 per site and tumbled from second to 43rd on the iWBOT.
Sony Classics continued its challenging effort to build a national audience for Chris Paine's documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?," a film with a California-centric subject matter, but broad national implications. It expanded to 19 theaters from 8 and slipped to 10th from sixth on the iWBOT with a $3,764 average. Venturing out of New York and L.A., it opened in Northern California, Cambridge, Chicago and even Detroit - the belly of the beast.
Overall, the 74 indie/specialty titles in the marketplace last weekend grossed $3.984 million at 2,198 locations for a per-site average of $1,812. Direct comparisons with the previous, five-day July 4th weekend aren't apt, but the 61 titles in the market during that long holiday weekend generated $7.54 million at 2,267 theaters for a per-site average of $3,326.
[Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles-based film writer and former Denver Post movie critic.]
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