An ingenuous example of alternative programming produced a "wondrous" result on this week's indieWire Box Office Tracking Report (iWBOT), as Palm Pictures' "Wondrous Oblivion" came out of nowhere to take second place. The iWBOT is based on per-location grosses of independent/specialty films, which sometimes but not always are the same as per-screen grosses, and is based on numbers provided by Rentrak Theatrical. The film, an inspirational "dramedy" starring Delroy Lindo about how cricket brings together German-Jewish and Jamaican families in a bigoted English neighborhood, did $11,749 last weekend during its American theatrical premiere at Washington, D.C.'s, Avalon Theatre.
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The only other film on the iWBOT with a per-theater gross above $10,000 was IFC First Take's "Gabrielle," which averaged $12,781 on three New York screens in its second week of release. The expansion out of Manhattan of the Patrice Chereau-helmed film - where it's at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza - went well, grossing $8,738 at the Scarsdale Fine Arts, according to Nielsen EDI. The gross in Manhattan at Lincoln Plaza was $17,326; at IFC Center $12,274.
"Wondrous Oblivion" is written and directed by Paul Morrison, whose 1999 "Solomon and Gaenor" also had a Jewish-interest theme and was nominated for a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar - it was in Welsh, Yiddish and English. "Wondrous Oblivion" uses English and some Hebrew.
"It opened in the UK a couple years ago and despite good reviews just didn't happen," said Ed Arentz, Palm Pictures' national sales manager. "Maybe it went too wide. Then it was released in Australia, another cricket-playing nation, and it did OK. So we were not sure what we had.
"A lot of distributors screened it and thought it was too sentimental, or too this-or-that," Arentz said. "But a movie at its most basic level should generate emotion, and this does that without making you feel too manipulated."
Arentz said he knew that the Avalon, a privately-operated non-profit art house in northwest Washington, did well with Jewish-oriented films. And Washington also is receptive to films with racial-understanding themes.
So he discussed the prospect of booking it there with Andrew Mencher, the theater's programming director. Mencher liked the film and agreed to a booking. Aviva Kempner, a Washington filmmaker ("Life and Times of Hank Greenberg"), was hired to do grass-roots promotion with an Avalon staffer, Jessica Wolfley. "We also pushed the idea that we're doing it first," Mencher said. "That resonated with people as well. We were able to say we have something special." (It had screened at festivals.)
"It's a case where a well-programmed theater can offer its audience a sense of discovery - as if it had been curated for them," Arentz said. "That's a different feeling than what people get in a multiplex. Those films are everywhere. There is no programming."
Also helpful was a positive, full-length review by Desson Thomson in the Washington Post comparing it to "Bend it Like Beckham" and bearing a rather-wondrous headline in its own right: "Overcoming Society's Sticky Wickets."
The film grossed a soft $2,300 on Friday but leaped to $6,000 on Saturday before declining - amid beautiful weather - to about $3,500 on Sunday. Palm's Arentz said the Avalon's gross will encourage his company to seek national bookings. It's already pushed back the DVD release to 2007. "We've now got a nice gross in the real world, so that should embolden us to release it," he said.
Meanwhile, Mencher predicts more such experiments like this from the small, tightly budgeted specialty distributors unaffiliated with studios. "It's just too hard with so many films out there," he said. "They can get lost, especially if they're depending on the New York/Los Angeles gross as a catalyst. Theater owners look at the per-screen and say, 'If it didn't work there, why will it work here?'"
"Wondrous Oblivion" shows a way to shortcut around that pile-up.
The French film invasion slowed down a bit last week in terms of per-screen gross, but picked up with a fresh title entering the Top Ten - Rialto Pictures' new 35-milimeter print of Christian-Jaque's 1952 high-spirited action-adventure film "Fanfan la Tulipe." It opened to $6,070 at Manhattan's Film Forum.
Koch Lorber's release of Andre Techine's "Changing Times" (Les Temps Qui Changent) took advantage of its fantastic debut two weekends ago at midtown Manhattan's Paris Theatre to expand to seven screens in New York and San Francisco. The film averaged $6,070 while grossing a total of $42,487 and held up extremely well at the Paris with $26,046. Curiously, it did but $8,998 at New York's Cinema Village 3. Might New Yorkers - and Americans - be much more receptive of French films when they play in a theater named Paris? And if so, are there franchise possibilities?
The other hot French film of two weekends ago, Laurent Cantet's "Heading South" (Vers Le Sud) ran into a slight bump during its third weekend of release - Los Angeles in the heat. It finished 10th on the iWBOT with a $5,728 per-screen gross from 23 theaters. On its previous weekend, the film averaged $16,798 at two Manhattan venues.
Shadow Distribution's Ken Eisen said $107,929 of "Heading South's" $131,165 weekend gross came from its 18 New York play dates - a $5,996 per-screen average. The five L.A. sites (including a Palm Springs booking) garnered a total of $23,236 or $4,647 per site. It was strongest in L.A. at Laemmle Royal, where it took in $9,586. At Laemmle's Encino Town Center - in the heart of the sun-baked San Fernando Valley - it did only $2,972.
"Since the review in the Los Angeles Times was not as strong as the one in The New York Times, and Los Angeles famously is not as strong a foreign-film market as New York, we thought we did pretty well," Eisen said. "That was the first expansion of the film outside New York. We move into Washington and Philadelphia next week (Aug. 4)."
Overall, the 79 indie/specialty titles in the marketplace last weekend grossed $3.95 million at 1,915 theaters for a $2,063 per-location average. The previous weekend, 78 titles earned $5 million at 2,322 theaters for a $2,153 average.
Where did the audiences - and screens - go? It could be that some of the indie/specialty audience went to see Kevin Smith's "Clerks II." Although released wide by MGM/Weinstein Company at 2,150 locations, and thus not listed on the iWBOT, Smith's and "Clerks'" roots are in the indie world. The film averaged $4,679 per theater and would have finished 11th on the iWBOT had it been included.
[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