By Indiewire | Indiewire April 29, 2008 at 1:46AM
With the Tribeca Film Festival underway at cross-town venues, "Up the Yangtze," the Zeitgeist Films documentary about China's Three Gorges Dam and its destructive impact, led all specialty films with a standout $15,851 in earnings at New York's IFC Center. Director Yung Chang's first feature-length documentary also became 2008's top non-fiction debut; out-performing Sony Pictures Classics' highly anticipated "Standard Operating Procedure," veteran filmmaker Errol Morris' documentary about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. Other new releases in the iWBOT top five, which ranks by per-screen average, included "Roman de Gare," French master filmmaker Claude Lelouch's thriller for Samuel Goldwyn Films; and ThinkFilm's "Then She Found Me," actress Helen Hunt's directing debut. Returning to the iWBOT for the third straight week was Overture Films' "The Visitor," featuring Richard Jenkins as a middle-aged professor whose life changes after helping an illegal immigrant. "Holly," a drama about child prostitution from Priority Films and Slowhand Cinema Releasing, took advantage of corporate sponsorship from business information provider LexisNexis and advance group sales to earn $15,687 at New York's Quad Cinema.
The iWBOT is based on per-theater averages reported by Rentrak Theatrical, the complete indieWIRE BOT weekly chart is available at indieWIRE.com.
"Up the Yangtze" director Yung Chang's debut feature film, earned an impressive $15,851 from its exclusive shows at New York's IFC Center; surpassing the per-screen averages of "Planet B-Boy" and "Young@Heart" to become the leading documentary debut for 2008. Chang's film, which examines the gargantuan hydroelectric project through two young adults working at a Yangtze River cruise firm, also became Zeitgeist Films' top documentary debut, surpassing 2004 release "The Corporation" and 2007's "Into Great Silence." Strong grassroots marketing paid off for the environmentally themed picture, said Nancy Gerstman, co-president, Zeitgeist Films, who confirmed thirty U.S. cities confirmed for future play dates. "It really does touch audiences in an amazing way," said Gerstman. "It's a very emotional movie. It's a beautifully done movie. We were at a couple of screenings and the audiences were visibly moved."
Samuel Goldywn's "Roman de Gare" the latest film from French master Claude Lelouch, reached 12,742 in per-screen average from the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Angelika Film Center in New York for strong weekend earnings of $25,484. Featuring Fanny Ardant, Audrey Dana and Dominique Pinon as a trio of strangers whose paths crisscross in mysterious fashion, "Roman de Gare" outperformed the per-screen debut of LeLouch's 2003 specialty release "And Now Ladies and Gentlemen." "It was great to see audiences coming out and enjoying one of the cinema's true masters," said Michael Silberman, president of Independent Distribution Partners, who confirmed May 9 expansions in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington DC and May 16 for Los Angeles, Boston and Seattle.
"Then She Found Me," featuring Helen Hunt on both sides of the camera, averaged $8,066 for $72,594 in debut weekend earnings for ThinkFilm from nine engagements in New York and Los Angeles. Based on Elinor Lipman's novel about a middle-aged woman desperate to have a baby, "She Found Me" matched the per-screen debut performance of a recent actress-turned-filmmaker effort, Sarah Polley's 2007 melodrama "Away From Her." The film skewered older and performed particularly strong in suburban Los Angeles said Mark Urman, head of U.S. theatrical for ThinkFilm, strong signs of the film's commercial potential. "My films, even the ones that work well, are very metropolitan," said Urman. "We normally open them in Manhattan only and are never sure how they will play in the suburbs. We never had a film do the sort of business in Pasadena like this one and there are many, many more places in America like Pasadena then there are like Manhattan. The box office at those LA theaters are much more telling to me about the film's potential to travel than a strong gross in the Lower East Side of New York."
Sony Pictures Classics' highly anticipated "Standard Operating Procedure," veteran filmmaker Errol Morris' documentary about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, entered the iWBOT top five with weekend earnings of $14,108 from two New York venues. However, its $7,054 per-screen debut average ranked below all previous Morris films, indicating specialty audiences' continuing apathy for Iraq War- themed topics. The rare exception turned out to be another debut release, the Warner Bros/New Line comic farce "Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo."
Remaining in the iWBOT for the third straight week was "The Visitor" filmmaker Tom McCarthy's follow up to his 2003 film "The Station Agent." "Visitor" earned $477,711 in weekend box office for Overture Films, the new film division of Starz LLC, for a $6,286 per-screen average, a modest 30% drop from the previous weekend. Already the career highpoint for veteran character actor Richard Jenkins who stars in the film, as well as Overture's top-performing release, the goal, said Kyle Davies, executive vice president, theatrical distribution, Overture Films, is to continue to build on the film's great word of mouth and position the film as the leading alternative to the impending summer blockbusters. "Audiences want a movie with interesting characters and a compelling story and "The Visitor" delivers," said Davies, via e-mail. "It's a great contrast to the summer tent pole and effects-laden fare. Each week introduces a host of new films into the marketplace. "The Visitor" is building its success through incredible word of mouth that is allowing us to withstand the flurry of new releases each week. We have also been touring into markets we are opening which allows audiences to discover the film and its amazing filmmakers and cast."
Advance group ticket sales and extensive promotional support from sponsor LexisNexis led "Holly," a drama about child prostitution in Cambodia from Priority Films and Slowhand Cinema Releasing, to $15,687 in weekend earnings at New York's Quad Cinema; its first Manhattan shows since last fall. For Priority Films, formed in late 1999, the idea of a corporate sponsored specialty release has turned out to be a unique success story.
Just behind the iWBOT top five was First Run Features' "Without The King," director Michael Skolnik's documentary about impoverished Swaziland and its wealthy, out-of-touch ruler, King Mswati III. "Without The King" earned $4,237 at New York's Quad Cinema.
The strongest performing holdovers included "The Singing Revolution," co-directors James Tusty and Maureen Caste Tusty's documentary about Estonia's struggle to end Soviet occupation via popular song festivals. In its 21st week of release, the Abramorama documentary earned $12,842 in weekend grosses from three runs. Koch Lorber Films's "Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts," director Scott Hicks's documentary about acclaimed composer and musician Philip Glass, earned $4,356 from its sophomore weekend at New York's IFC Center; a modest 20% drop from its debut earnings. "Tuya's Marriage," director Wang Quan An's Mongolia-set family drama, the debut release from the Chicago-based film outfit Music Box Films, earned $4,675 from its exclusive run at its home base, the Music Box Theatre.
Sony Pictures Classics' Israeli comedy "The Band's Visit," director Eran Kolirin's story of an Egyptian band lost in rural Israel, failed to receive a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination due to its scenes of English dialogue. Instead, it surpassed 2004's "Walk On Water" to become the highest grossing Israeli film in the U.S. with total earnings of $2,791,808 after 12 weeks in release.
Steve Ramos is a Cincinnati based writer.
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 be included in the indieWIRE Box Office Chart, distributors must submit information about their films to Rentrak at firstname.lastname@example.org by the end of the day each Monday.