By Indiewire | Indiewire August 29, 2006 at 11:19AM
Successful expansions of Yari Film Group's "The Illusionist," ThinkFilm's "Half Nelson" and - once again - Fox Searchlight's phenomenal "Little Miss Sunshine" dominated this week's indieWire Box Office Tracking Report (iWBOT) of independent/specialty releases. Of the few new late-summer titles, City Lights Pictures Releasing's "Suicide Killers" documentary came virtually from nowhere and, despite some negative reviews, finished second on the iWBOT by earning $10,601 last weekend at AMC's Empire 25 in Times Square. IFC First Take's "Princesas" did a fair $5,147 at IFC Film Center in Greenwich Village to rank seventh, while Sony Pictures Classics' "The Quiet" finished 10th with a small per-screen average of $3,935 at seven locations in New York and Los Angeles.
[CHECK OUT THIS WEEK'S COMPLETE indieWIRE BOX OFFICE CHART at indieWIRE.com]
The iWBOT is based on per-location average, which is sometimes but not always the same as per-screen. Numbers are provided by Rentrak Theatrical.
Neil Burger's "The Illusionist" with Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel jumped to 144 locations from 51 and climbed to first from second on the iWBOT. It averaged $12,745 per site and had a total weekend gross of $1.835 million, the only film on this chart after "Little Miss Sunshine" to take in $1 million or more.
The romantic suspense film is doing equally well in art houses and multiplexes as its word-of-mouth propels its reception. The best performance last weekend came at Angelika Film Center in Greenwich Village, where its $46,871 gross from two screens represented a 4% increase from the previous weekend. Yet it did almost as well at the ultra-commercial AMC Empire 25, where its $46,648 gross from two screens was a 29% climb from the previous weekend. In L.A., its best performance was at Regal's Irvine Spectrum 21 in Orange County - $35,975. It did lose 43% of its business on two screens at Pacific's Arclight 15 in Hollywood, although it still took in $31,008. (Specific theater grosses are from Nielsen EDI.)
"The Illusionist" also marks the return of David Dinerstein, formerly co-president of Paramount Classics until forced out last October. This is Yari Film Group's first release since he took charge of theatrical distribution. He planned "The Illusionist's" aggressive platform release - it jumps to 900+ runs this weekend - at both art houses and multiplexes believing word-of-mouth would help. He also chose to open it the same day as "Snakes on a Plane," believing that audiences wanting a good, entertaining but not necessarily art film would not go near that title.
"I knew the core group that wanted to see ('The Illusionist') didn't want to see 'Snakes on a Plane,'" he said. "And I know late August is a dumping ground for studio fare and a great time to set yourself apart from the competition."
Previously, "Half Nelson" had only been screening in New York. The Ryan Fleck-directed film, a Sundance Film Festival favorite because of Ryan Gosling's strong performance as a drug-addicted teacher, expanded last weekend to 21 from 3 screens and took in $210,762 - a $10,036 per-site average that was good for third place. Last week, it finished first on the iWBOT.
Mark Urman, ThinkFilm's U.S. head, said last weekend's performance is great news for the film's national release because it did so well in Los Angeles. It grossed $24,221 at Laemmle's Sunset 5 in West Hollywood; $9,632 at Laemmle's Pasadena Playhouse 7; and even a strong $8,014 at Regal's University Town Center in Irvine.
"'Half Nelson' did indeed expand very effectively this past weekend and L.A. was particularly strong - one of the best openings we've ever had in the market," Urman said via email. "L.A. has become a tough town to crack with specialty films. In general, we have found that what works well in New York doesn't necessarily work there, while only the specialty films that work well everywhere work well in L.A. The fact that we opened so strongly - in West Hollywood as well as in Pasadena and Irvine! - augurs well for the rest of the country."
Continueing he commented, "as for why the film is working, I truly think that the galvanic performance and the strong, sweet aroma of Oscar have helped enormously," he said. "Let's face it: L.A. has a penchant for what's hot, young and new, and that has been the theme of our entire sell on 'Half Nelson.' I really think that's why it's clicking where a lot of other fine films don't."
The iWBOT's second-place finisher, "Suicide Killers," is a 75-minute documentary by French filmmaker Pierre Rehov about Middle Eastern suicide bombers and the Islamic-fundamentalism philosophy that fuels them. It opened the AMC Empire 25 to qualify for an Academy Award in the documentary division. A short New York Times review labeled it "haphazard" and said it was most successful as "preposterous counterprogramming to 'Beerfest'" (which also opened last weekend, but surprisingly not at the Empire). But Newsday and the Daily News were more positive. Michael Califra of City Lights, who acknowledged the box-office performance surprised him, said the film will probably play several other cities before a DVD release.
Meanwhile, "Little Miss Sunshine" just keeps reliably chugging along like the old VW bus featured in the film. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' film in its fifth week rolled out to 1,430 locations from the previous weekend's 691 sites. The resultant $7.37 million overall gross was the third best of all films in release and its $5,155 per-site average was strong enough to finish sixth on the iWBOT. In fact, the film featuring Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell and Toni Collette took in 62% of the entire gross of the 75 titles on this week's iWBOT.
Its cumulative gross already is at $23 million and it's now in wider release than such other recent Fox Searchlight hit comedies as "Thank You for Smoking," "Garden State" and "Napoleon Dynamite." At this rate, it could surpass "The Full Monty" ($47 million) if not yet "Sideways" ($71.5 million).
"It has played in a broader and wider range of theaters than any of our films except 'Sideways,'" said Stephen Gilula, Fox Searchlight's chief operating officer.
And he credits the strengths of platform releasing - rather than the saturation booking so common of Hollywood studios - for "Little Miss Sunshine"'s success because that has allowed people to feel like they're discovering the movie via word-of-mouth. It also allows Fox Searchlight to carefully discover each weekend just how deeply into mainstream America the film's edgy comedy, with references to drug abuse, gayness, teen rebelliousness, child beauty pageants and Marcel Proust, can travel.
"What happens with a platformed film is people are able to find it rather than being force-fed it through massive advertising," Gilula said. "When you have a fairly sophisticated (comedy) that's well-written and not reliant on slapstick, the market determines how far you can go. It's not a matter of subject matter, but whether it's funny."
Fox Searchlight will take the film up to 1,600 locations this weekend, probably its widest point of release.
Overall, 75 films were tracked last weekend at 3,131 theaters, averaging $3,802 per site. That marked almost a 15% increase over the previous weekend's $3,336 average at 3,030 screens. Best of all, the $11.9 million overall gross was almost a 20% jump from the previous weekend's $10.1 million. It also marked the sixth best weekend this year, and the best since Feb. 14 when Oscar buzz propelled overall gross to $12.26 million.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Brian Brooks is indieWIRE's Associate Editor.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org