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French Films Storm the U.S. Specialty Box office Fortress

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire July 18, 2006 at 11:48AM

The French are coming! The French are coming! Fears that American audiences for independent/specialty films have tired of artful, adult-oriented French movies seem to be premature, given results of the latest indieWIRE Box-Office Tracking Report (iWBOT). Based on per-theater grosses as reported to Rentrak Theatrical, it shows French films - featuring some of that nation's biggest stars - in the top three positions. They are Andre Techine's "Le Temp Qui Changent" (Changing Times) from Koch Lorber, Laurent Cantet's "Heading South" (Vers Le Sud) from Shadow Distribution, and Patrice Chereau's "Gabrielle" from IFC's First Take. A fourth, Francois Ozon's "Time to Leave" from Strand Releasing, also finished in the top ten.
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The French are coming! The French are coming! Fears that American audiences for independent/specialty films have tired of artful, adult-oriented French movies seem to be premature, given results of the latest indieWIRE Box-Office Tracking Report (iWBOT). Based on per-theater grosses as reported to Rentrak Theatrical, it shows French films - featuring some of that nation's biggest stars - in the top three positions. They are Andre Techine's "Le Temp Qui Changent" (Changing Times) from Koch Lorber, Laurent Cantet's "Heading South" (Vers Le Sud) from Shadow Distribution, and Patrice Chereau's "Gabrielle" from IFC's First Take. A fourth, Francois Ozon's "Time to Leave" from Strand Releasing, also finished in the top ten.

[CHECK OUT THIS WEEK'S COMPLETE indieWIRE BOX OFFICE CHART AT indieWIRE.com.]

Overall, last weekend was strong for indie/specialty films as the Top 13 films all had per-location averages above $4,000. Warner Independent's big expansion of Richard Linklater's "A Scanner Darkly" worked well for an R-rated alternative-animation film. It slipped to eighth from first on the iWBOT with a $5,863 average, after jumping to 217 theaters from 17. And it grossed $1.27 million over the weekend and is quickly moving toward $2 million.

Most interestingly, the French-film boom may not just be a New York-intelligentsia phenomenon. Distributors of the latest French movies - small independents, for the most part - are racing forward with plans for national distribution. This follows a cache of other recent French films that have done well this year, including "Cache," "La Moustache" and the revival of "Army of Shadows."

"Le Temp Qui Changent" (Changing Times), starring Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu, debuted on Bastille Day at, appropriately, midtown Manhattan's Paris Theatre and grossed $31,702 last weekend.
"It's a beautiful theater and with these two icons (the actors) it was the perfect place to open it," said Suzanne Fedak, distribution head for Koch Lorber. "And this is a very energetic film; it has a lot of vitality."

This week the film expands to a Lower Manhattan location, Cinema Village, plus Landmark's Lumiere Theatre in San Francisco and Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. The early Bay Area opening is due to Techine having a loyal gay following going back to "Wild Reeds," Fedak said.

In the second weekend of its two-theater Manhattan run, "Heading South" didn't head south at all. Instead, it was down just 26% at the Lincoln Plaza, where it brought in $17,914, and just 16% at the Angelika Film Center, where it grossed $15,680. Overall, the film averaged $16,798.

There is some debate as to how French this film is. It stars Charlotte Rampling - the 60-year-old English-born actress who appears in French, British and American films - and has a sizable amount of English dialogue. But one thing is clear: Audiences are responding because its subject matter - older women's sexual desires - is something American films tend to avoid. Last weekend, the film even generated a Fashion & Style feature in The New York Times.

"They pointed to it as a phenomenon because middle-aged women are turning to it as a film that deals with the sexuality of a woman of an age other than pubescence," said Shadow's Ken Eisen. Seizing upon the spillover interest in the film into mainstream culture, Shadow is adding 16 metropolitan New York theaters this weekend as well as five in metropolitan Los Angeles, including retiree center Palm Springs.

"Gabrielle," featuring Isabelle Huppert, took in a total $30,676 from two Manhattan locations, Greenwich Village's IFC Film Center and the West Side's Lincoln Plaza 6.

Another adult-oriented French film still doing well, if still below the radar, is Cinema Guild's Kafkaesque "La Moustache," which came in 12th in its eighth week on the iWBOT with a $4,053 average from three screens.

Most promisingly, it held up well in its second weekend at a critical Los Angeles art house, Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills. The Emmanuel Carrere-directed film lost just 10% of its audience there. It had a bigger drop while switching Laemmle theaters in Pasadena, and this weekend escapes from there to a Laemmle house in Encino. The film has prompted so much discussion among those who have seen it that Cinema Guild this week started a message board on its website at cinemaguild.com.

This weekend, Cinema Guild is joining with Ira Deutchman's Emerging Pictures to digitally project "La Moustache" at four theaters in Buffalo, Fort Lauderdale, Lake Worth, Fla., and Wilmington, N.C. "We'll be watching this closely," said Ryan Krivoshey, Cinema Guild's director of distribution. "This could be good for us as a company that doesn't make a lot of prints."

Turning to American comedies, ThinkFilm expanded Paul Dinello's Amy Sedaris-starring "Strangers With Candy" to 79 theaters last weekend from 21, mostly adding exclusives in major markets while broadening in Los Angeles and New York. It dipped to 11th on the iWBOT as its per-theater average slipped to $4,500 from $10,660. But it also reached $785,000 in total gross as it prepares to cross the $1 million mark next weekend, just its third.

Michael Tuckman, ThinkFilm's vice-president of theatrical sales, said it opened to more than $20,000 last weekend in both Chicago and San Francisco and at $10,000 or more in Dallas, Phoenix and Atlanta. Next week, it will reach 100 locations.

Mark Urman, head of theatrical distribution at ThinkFilm, said "Strangers" is drawing strongly for several reasons besides Sedaris' presence and the following for her Comedy Central TV series upon which the film is a based. Her co-star and co-writer on the film, Stephen Colbert, has himself become a major attraction, Urman said, because of his recent success on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report." And it's attracting a cult-like following among the urban-edge crowd, especially gays, for pushing satire over the top into a parodistic "deconstruction" of genre, according to Urman

"It's like a Lindsay Lohan movie - 'Mean Girls' - but with a 46-year-old junkie whore who's hideously obese at the center rather than Lindsay Lohan," Urman said.

"At this point in time, we're still in limited release and we're trying hard not to spread it too thin," Urman said. "In my experience, you have to be careful not to go too far too fast so that people who aren't prepared for this kind of comedy see it and then trash it."

And in a hopeful sign, Chris Paine's environmental documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" - a disarmingly brilliant dissection of the selfish interests pushing U.S. gasoline consumption - in its third weekend actually increased its gross at New York's Angelika Film Center and theaters in Hollywood, Santa Monica and Pasadena. It ranks 22nd on iWBOT based on 48 bookings as Sony Classics tries to get it out nationally.

"The key is to try to keep a film like this on screens, and the exhibitors seem interested in holding it," said Michael Barker, Sony Classics' co-president. "We know we have an important film, but it's not an easy one to sell to the public. But it seems to be getting traction."

Overall, the 78 indie/specialty titles in the marketplace last weekend grossed a terrific $5 million at 2,322 theaters for a $2,153 average. The previous weekend, 74 titles grossed $3.984 million at 2,198 locations, for a $1,812 average. That marks a 26% increase in per-location average for the week, an indication that audiences are supporting their art houses during a summer of Hollywood blockbusters.

[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 studiogrosses@rentrak.com

To read the weekly box office column, check out indieWIRE's box office section.