It appears that spring has sprung in the art/specialty film business. After several sluggish weeks, there are now two films heading for quick wide release and possible mainstream appeal - Sony Classics' "Friends With Money" and Fox Searchlight's "Thank You For Smoking." Nicole Holofcener's "Friends With Money" debuted in first place on this week's indieWIRE Box Office Tracking Report (iWBOT) with a strong $21,048 average at 28 screens in six cities. And while "Thank You" slipped to fourth from third after its performance last weekend, with its per-theater average dipping 39% to $7,723 from $12,749, it expanded to 299 sites from 126 and took in $2.3 million.
[View the indieWIRE:BOT Box Office Table for this week's films here.]
That gross was almost four times as much as any other iWBOT title. Fox Searchlight is going to book the Jason Reitman political satire into some 1,000 theaters this weekend, just its fifth in release. (The iWBOT is based on a per-theater average, which is usually but not always the same thing as per-screen. Numbers are provided by Rentrak.)
Most important, the overall box-office gross for art/specialty jumped dramatically last weekend - to $4.91 million from the previous weekend's $3.96 million. The number of titles inched up to 79 from 76 while overall per-screen average climbed 47% to $2,562 from $1,744.
To Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Classics, "Friends" represents what the discerning public wants most from independent/alternative American cinema. While it features name actresses Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener and Frances McDormand, it is primarily a character study rather than a star-driven vehicle. It's about the acting rather than the actor's charisma.
"There's something refreshing about movie stars being in an ensemble film - people want to see actors stretch themselves in their role," Barker said. "These are not movie-star roles where the whole film rests on one person's shoulders. Plus, it has a very fine script."
Barker said word-of-mouth was so strong in advance - the film opened this year's Sundance Film Festival - that he decided to open it on 28 screens in six cities rather than just New York and L.A. (It also opened in San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and San Diego.) It will be on approximately 45 screens in 11 markets this coming weekend and then leap to 800 screens on April 21.
Meanwhile, Stephen Gilula - Fox Searchlight's chief operating officer - thinks that part of "Thank You's" initial appeal has been the ensemble of familiar names surrounding Aaron Eckhart's breakthrough portrayal of cigarette lobbyist Nick Naylor. The cast features Rob Lowe, Robert Duvall, Katie Holmes and Maria Bello. "The broader cultural trend is that upscale movie audiences would rather have a good story served by an ensemble than a star in a mediocre vehicle," he said.
Last weekend, "Thank You" did well in such heartland cities as Indianapolis ($15,000), Milwaukee ($16,000) and Orlando ($13,000), as well as in the tobacco-belt population centers of Charlotte ($11,000) and Raleigh ($9,000). Because it's playing deep, he advanced his release schedule so it could get several weeks in suburban/midsized-city multiplexes before the May onslaught of Hollywood blockbusters claims all the screens.
Interestingly, on April 21 it will face direct competition from the rare wide release of a Hollywood film also being marketed as a sharp-witted political satire - Paul Weitz's "American Dreamz."
But more than "Friends With Money" and "Thank You" kept iWBOT lively last weekend. Focus Features' high-school-noir "Brick" finished second with a per-screen average of $9,490. Rian Johnson's one-of-a-kind directorial effort expanded to 21 screens in strong art-film cities from the previous weekend's two exclusive runs in New York and L.A.
It continued to do well in most of its locations. But there were trouble spots, according to Jack Foley, Focus' distribution chief. The film's weekend gross in Austin and Denver was in the $4,000-$5,000 range where he wanted $7,000-$8,000. So it may need to continue to build word-of-mouth in media-center exclusive runs before broadening. "I take that as a cautionary note for the future," he said. "So the issue now is the longevity of the run. Wherever I stay exclusive, it's fine. It's a delicate picture."
And Matthew Barney's avant-garde "Drawing Restraint 9," his collaboration with paramour Bjork that is being distributed by IFC Films, continued to have powerful if not universal appeal in its second weekend. It averaged $8,422 at three theaters.
That was down 53% from its opening-weekend take of $18,011 at Manhattan's IFC Film Center, where it played exclusively. But the film increased its weekend gross by 8% (and continued selling out prime screenings) at the IFC, where it took in $19,534. Its problem was Huntington Cinema Arts Centre on Long Island, where its weekend take was just $790. (It also grossed about $5,000 at one Chicago theater.)
"We are seeing 'Drawing Restraint 9' play extremely well in the big markets with a word-of-mouth that should keep the film playing for a long time in each market," said Mark Boxer, IFC's vice president of distribution, via email. Its next test will be Los Angeles - it opens April 21 at Landmark's artiest venue, the NuArt, there.
The NuArt had such a good weekend showing Rialto's new print of the 1948 Carol Reed/Graham Greene thriller "The Fallen Idol" that the revival finished fifth on iWBOT with its $6,456 gross. Landmark plans to keep it in metropolitan L.A. this weekend, too, by shifting it to its Rialto Theatre in South Pasadena.
A new foreign-language film, the surreal and allegorical Russian "4," finished in sixth place by earning $5,815 at Manhattan's Cinema Village. It was proof that, in New York at least, good reviews can help a small distributor do good business with a small and difficult film.
"The unanimously positive press from the local media and the fact that '4' was the critic's weekly pick for Time Out NY, Village Voice, and New York Times helped immensely," said Bruce Pavlov, of Leisure Time Features, via email. "For a film as strikingly different as '4' you have to depend on very positive critical response. I think the lengthy Time Out review was particularly helpful since it positioned '4' as an 'authentic head trip' which 'evokes the great midnighters of yesteryear, especially David Lynch's 'Eraserhead.'"
This upcoming weekend sees Picturehouse introduce Mary Harron's "The Notorious Bettie Page" with Gretchen Mol's much-anticipated performance as the 1950s pinup/fetish queen, while Miramax releases "Kinky Boots," a comedy about a British footwear company selling boots to transvestites.
[Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles-based 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