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October 6, 2004 2:00 AM
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"Huckabees" Sets Specialty Average Record, while "Diaries" Travels Well in Expansion and "Woman Thou

"Huckabees" Sets Specialty Average Record, while "Diaries" Travels Well in Expansion and "Woman Thou Art Loosed" Debuts Strongly

by Brian Brooks

David O. Russell's "I ♥ Huckabees" experienced an avalanche of box office love in its debut weekend, shattering the iW: BOT per screen average record broken just last week by self-distributed feature, "Guiana 1838," which itself ranked second for the weekend, as calculated on a per screen basis. Walter Salles' "The Motorcycle Diaries" continued to cruise strongly, taking in seven-figures in capital, while music doc "Dig!" debuted with rockin' numbers in limited release. "Woman Thou Art Loosed" unleashed on over 400 screens throughout the country, also reaped grosses in the millions.

If initial numbers are any indication, Fox Searchlight's "I ♥ Huckabees" should easily join the specialty outfit's string of recent hits including "Garden State," and "Napoleon Dynamite" as a stellar iW: BOT performer. The dark comedy opened on four screens in New York and Los Angeles, taking in a record-breaking $73,044 per screen average ($292,177 gross).

"We're thrilled, [the gross] blew way past our best wishes for the film, it's exciting," commented Fox Searchlight president of distribution, Stephen Gilula in a conversation with indieWIRE yesterday. "After we saw the reviews, we thought maybe it would be in the $50K [per screen average] range. It was thrilling to have it work."

Gilula said that the film resonated well with younger audiences because of its relevance today. "As best as I can tell, it connects with younger audiences, especially college students. The film [has an] extraordinary blend of comedy and absurdity, but [deals] with real issues. Younger audiences see a troubled world, and they relate to this film, especially the Jason Schwartzman character." Additionally, Gilula credited O. Russell, and the reviews in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times for drawing large crowds. The word-of-mouth factor also gave a hefty boost to the film, beginning in Toronto, according to Gilula, where cast members including Mark Wahlberg attended press dates in support of the film, and with screenings at universities like Columbia in New York, and targeted television advertising on Comedy Central and "The Daily Show."

Fox Searchlight will add 12 additional cities this coming weekend, and add slots in L.A. and New York. By October 22nd, according to Gilula, the film will go wide with more than 1,000 screens.

Last week's box office heavy-hitter "Guiana 1838" remained on one screen, taking in $35,970, down from its debut at $70,910 (almost a 50% drop). The self-distributed film has grossed $106,880 in two weeks.

Focus Features added 64 screens for its Ernesto "Che" Guevara biopic about the revolutionary as a young man, grossing almost $1.1 million at 67 sites. "Diaries" averaged $16,201 (it had a $53,273 opening weekend), and has cumed over $1.34 million in its two-week run.

Ondi Timoner's doc exploring the relationship between bands The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre grossed $20,437 from two locations. "Dig!" which debuted earlier this year at Sundance, averaged $10,219, placing fourth on the iW: BOT.

"I'm pleased with our numbers," commented Palm Pictures director of distribution, Neal Block in a conversation with iW on Tuesday. "We had stiff competition downtown (Manhattan) with 'Huckabees' opening and 'Motorcycle Diaries' coming off its big first weekend, but we achieved a healthy per screen average. We were certainly helped by uniformly positive reviews [and] I feel there are a number of different audiences to exploit with a film like "Dig!" and I think we're off to a good start in reaching them." Palm will expand the film in L.A. this weekend, and will open in Brooklyn, San Francisco, Berkeley, Seattle and Detroit on Friday. The film will be in most of the top 15 markets throughout October.

Magnolia Pictures' spiritual feature, "Woman Thou Art Loosed," opened on 408 screens, taking in more than $2.32 million. The film, directed by Michael Shultz, averaged $5,700.

"We're really happy," Magnolia Pictures president Eamonn Bowles told iW yesterday. "We thought we would do some biz, and the film totally lived up to our expectations." When asked if he felt the Christian/religious market was still an underserved niche, Bowles said he felt that "there is a strong potential market in the Christian sector," adding, "There are so few films for that market, and far fewer quality ones. People who are interested in the subject matter have scant choices."

Magnolia first became aware of the film after reading a Variety review out of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Tom Quinn, acquisitions exec at Magnolia, then tracked down the feature and set up a screening. "We both liked it, and thought there was a strong, 'targetable' audience for the film." Magnolia will expand the film "slightly" this week, and add theaters, according to Bowles, "where the market will bear." The feature will open a number of major markets as well on October 22nd.

Along with "The Motorcycle Diaries" and "Woman Thou Art Loosed," three additional titles, "Shaun of the Dead," "Napoleon Dynamite," and "Hero" scored seven-figure grosses last weekend. Combined, the five films totaled almost $8.52 million of the entire iW: BOT's $12.31 million from 81 films on 5,638 screens, representing almost 70% of the entire specialty take.

The overall box office average was $2,183, a 22% increase from the previous average of $1,700, although minus the top five grossing titles, the average calculates to $1,505 for the remaining 76 iW: BOT films for the three-day tracking period, ending Sunday, October 3rd. Those films grossed nearly $3.8 million on 2,523 screens. The previous weekend's tally from 86 titles was $12.2 million with 1,544 additional screens showing "indie" titles.

Last year, in the weekend ending October 5th, the specialty gross included 57 films on 2,583 screens, which took in $6.45 million. The iW: BOT topper for that weekend was "The Station Agent," debuting on three screens with a $19,262 average.

Wellspring opens "Tarnation" in limited release tonight, while Pathfinder Pictures debuts "Andromedia." Warner Independent Pictures will open "Around the Bend" in select cities, and Strand Releasing's "The Child I Never Was" bows in New York. THINKFilm will release Sundance-winner "Primer," and First Run Features will open "Silent Waters," and Lions Gate brings out "Stage Beauty." Also in limited release is New Yorker Films' "Vodka Lemon."

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