After following "Kids" with several movies so tough in their sex, violence and pessimism they barely found audiences, Larry Clark's change-of-pace "Wassup Rockers" seemed to be just what independent/specialty filmgoers wanted last weekend. It finished first on the indieWIRE Box Office Tracking Report (iWBOT) by grossing a surprisingly powerful $29,400 for its exclusive run at New York's Angelika Film Center. The iWBOT is based on a film's per-theater gross, usually but not always the same as per-screen, and is derived from numbers provided by Rentrak Theatrical.
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But "Wassup Rockers" wasn't the only impressive debut last weekend. Lian Lunson's Lionsgate-distributed "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man" finished a strong second on iWBOT by earning $17,130 at New York's Film Forum last weekend. (It actually opened on Wednesday; its five-day gross was $25,300.)
As a result, Canadian singer-songwriter-poet Leonard Cohen became the latest "brainy older guy" featured in an initially successful indie/specialty film this summer, following "Wordplay's" Will Shortz, "A Prairie Home Companion's" Garrison Keillor and "An Inconvenient Truth's" Al Gore. Can J.D. Salinger be far behind?
"Father figures? I don't know," wondered Tom Ortenberg, Lionsgate president, when asked if there might be a trend developing here.
Meanwhile, IFC Films' expansion of Patrick Creadon's crossword-loving documentary "Wordplay" to 45 theaters in the Top 15 markets went well. It averaged $7,228 per location and finished fifth on the iWBOT. It was first on the previous iWBOT as a result of a $16,423 per-screen average from two Manhattan sites.
While "Wassup Rockers" is R-rated, Clark's latest film -- about some skateboard-riding, punk-loving Hispanic kids from L.A.'s South Central neighborhood who seek adventure in Beverly Hills -- has a lighter and less nihilistic tone than "Kids," "Another Day in Paradise," "Bully" and "Ken Park." Village Voice's J. Hoberman even compared it to "A Hard Day's Night" and "West Side Story," not two films usually mentioned in the same sentence as Clark.
Andy Gruenberg, executive vice president of theatrical distribution for "Wassup" distributor First Look, was ecstatic about the numbers. "We totally dominated the theater. A lot of people went and everybody loved it. It totally worked. It even did better on Sunday than on Friday."
Gruenberg said the film drew not only the kind of 18-24 male moviegoers that for the most part patronize multiplexes -- and fluff like "Nacho Libre" -- during summer, but also attracted New York Latinos. "Everyone's trying to connect with a Latino market," he said.
"We certainly went for the 18-24 male moviegoer, and also the sophisticated moviegoer, because the film presents an interesting issue about Latino/Hispanic urban consciousness that Larry's trying to tap into," he said. "It's about how they live, not about how they're co-opted."
This Friday, the film moves into theaters in Chicago and Evanston, Ill., plus Landmark's NuArt Theatre in West Los Angeles. Clark will appear at the Nuart on Friday and Saturday, possibly with some of the kids in the film. The theater has been closed for a month for a refurbishment, so "Wassup Rockers" constitutes a grand reopening.
Meanwhile, First Look -- already buoyant at taking the violent and somber Nick Cave-penned, John Hillcoat-directed Western "The Proposition" to $1.5 million gross nationally -- is planning on aggressively getting "Wassup Rockers" out nationally.
"I'm Your Man," which combines an interview of Cohen with concert performances of his songs by Rufus Wainwright, Beth Orton, Antony of Antony and the Johnsons, Nick Cave and others (plus a staged "Tower of Song" performance with U2 backing Cohen in a New York burlesque club), sold out most of its screenings at the Film Forum's 147-seat theater.
Ortenberg said exit-polling showed a 94% good-to-excellent rating, that women outnumbered men 54%-46%, and that 95% of the audience had a college degree. He said most had heard about the film through word-of-mouth. "Anecdotally, what brings most people to the film is their adulation for Leonard Cohen. And what satisfies them most about the film is equally divided between his interview and the concert performances," he said.
Not counted in the "I'm the Man" numbers was a sold-out Saturday-night screening at Los Angeles' open-air John Anson Ford Amphitheatre showing, part of the Los Angeles Film Festival. Cohen, who made a brief appearance, received an approving ovation from a crowd that also cheered the performances.
That same night, at another Los Angeles outdoor event co-sponsored by the film festival, Grand Performances and the Downtown Los Angeles Center Business Improvement District, Al and Tipper Gore were on hand to introduce a free screening of his Paramount Classics-distributed "An Inconvenient Truth."
The event, which celebrated the film's milestone in reaching 1 million paying moviegoers, drew several thousand to a downtown plaza before the fire department closed off the area because it reached capacity. Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora played a short acoustic set, then joined Gore, director Davis Guggenheim and others at a dinner at the nearby prestigious Noe Restaurant as the movie played.
Now in 514 theaters in its fifth week of release, the film finished a respectable 13th on the iBOT with a $3,923 per-location average. It's already the seventh most successful documentary of all time as it closes in on a $10 million gross, according to Box Office Mojo.
Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross' "The Road to Guantanamo" met a cooler reception in its debut weekend, finishing 11th on the iWBOT by averaging $4,076 at 15 theaters in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington and San Francisco. It did best in New York.
Howard Cohen, co-president of Roadside Attractions, said the film might have been harmed by reviewers noting that it took its subjects' explanation of their actions on faith. "Guantanamo" uses documentary and narrative elements in telling the true story of three British Muslim youths arrested in Afghanistan and sent to Guantanamo. They were held two years without charges and released, all the while proclaiming their innocence of being terrorists or having violent intentions in traveling to Afghanistan.
"The aggregate of the reviews isn't that people don't think it's not true, but that the movie didn't go out of its way to prove it's true," Cohen said. And, he said, that may have made some moviegoers fearful that seeing the film might in some way be an act of disloyalty.
"We would like (the gross) to be double that, so we're trying to stay optimistic," Cohen said. "It's in a gray area between bomb and hit. People view it as a challenging movie. We didn't think of it is that. I think it's exciting, fast-paced and plays like a thriller."
Finally, the performance of Hou Hsiao Hsien's "Three Times" constitutes a rare case of a movie doing far better than its position on the iBOT shows. The IFC First Take release finished 16th with a $3,923 average from three screens. But really, it did $9,208 at Chicago's Music Box, which would have been good for fifth on the iWBOT, as a result of rave reviews in the Chicago Tribune, Sun-Times and Reader. However, a small screening in Rochester also was reported as a separate weekend venue, and the film earned about $650 from a third engagement in Hawaii.
Overall, the 79 indie/specialty titles in the market on 2,388 locations last weekend generated $6.875 million for a per-location average of $2,879. The per-location average for the Top Ten films was $9,141, helped by the strong performance of a Bollywood debut, Adlabs Films USA's "Krrish."
[Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles-based film writer and former movie critic at the Denver Post.]
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