Led by "God Grew Tired of Us," the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award-winning documentary at last year's Sundance Film Festival, the top independent/specialty films on this week's indieWIRE Box Office Tracking Report (iWBOT) did strong business during the four-day Martin Luther King Day weekend. Everything in the Top Ten averaged at least $5,000, including films like Fox Searchlight's sixth-ranked "Notes on a Scandal" and Sony Pictures Classics' tenth-ranked "Volver" that have more than 200 runs.
Five films averaged $10,000 or better - Picturehouse' second-place "Pan's Labyrinth"; Miramax's third-place "Venus"; Adlabs Films USA's latest Bollywood entry, Mani Ratnam's fourth-ranked "The Guru," and Koch Lorber's strong new Claude Chabrol film, fifth-ranked "Comedy of Power."
The iWBOT is based on per-theater averages reported by Rentrak Theatrical, the complete indieWIRE BOT weekly chart is available here at indieWIRE.com
Richard Abramowitz, distribution and marketing head for Newmarket Films, said the company was planning to release "God Grew Tired of Us" last November when he joined it in summer. "I felt the film would be ill-served given the number of high-profile films released at that time," he said. "I wanted to wait several more months."
Opening at Manhattan's Landmark Sunshine Cinema and West Los Angeles Laemmle Sunset Five, the documentary directed by Christopher Dillon Quinn and Tommy Walker about Sudan's "lost boys" grossed $27,076 over four days. It averaged $13,538. "Too bad there wasn't a Noon Theater in Kansas City," Abramowitz joked, referring to the sunrise-sunset nature of the bookings.
Its gross was helped by the press done by three "lost boys" featured in the film, especially John Dau, Abramowitz said. And it was especially aided by the Hollywood celebrities who supported it - among the producers are Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney and Brad Pitt. All three, plus Nicole Kidman, Edward Norton and Angelina Jolie, attended its LA premiere in order to show support and garner media attention. "That was a very philanthropic use of celebrity," Abramowitz said. "It helped it get more attention than it would otherwise."
This weekend, the film opens an additional L.A. run in Encino plus goes into single theaters in Boston, Washington, Atlanta, Chicago and San Francisco.
Meanwhile, Picturehouse's president, Bob Berney, thinks there's a chance Mexican director Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" - which mixes Spanish Civil War politics with dream-world fantastical creatures - could become the biggest Spanish-language film ever released theatrically in the U.S. To date, it has accumulated $4.83 million in just three weeks.
That top-grossing honor now is claimed by "Like Water From Chocolate," which earned $21.7 million; second place belongs to "The Motorcycle Diaries" at $16.8 million. "We have a chance but we still have a long way to go," Berney said.
Last weekend "Pan's Labyrinth" jumped from 44 runs to 194 and saw its per-theater average remain high at $13,464, down modestly from the previous (three-day) weekend's $17,359. But it took in $2.6 million over the four-day weekend, more than triple the $763,000 it earned the previous weekend.
While it previously showed strength among both critic-influenced upscale urban audiences and horror/adventure-fantasy fans, last weekend also showed "Pan's Labyrinth" could turn out Latino audiences. Picturehouse opened it in the Rio Grande Valley and Berney was pleased with the results. In Harlingen, Texas - not a city that usually matters in a round-up of indie/specialty films - it pulled in $13,000 over three days at four theaters, including the Tinseltown 17. At one theater in Corpus Christi, it grossed $6,825 and in El Paso it earned $11,023 in three days. Laredo was softer.
In Austin, a city strong for all three of "Pan's Labyrinth's" target audiences, it grossed $50,000 during three days at three theaters last weekend - Alamo Draft House, Regal Arbor and Landmark Dobie.
"Pan's Labyrinth" is leaping to 600 runs this Friday. "The theater chains all really want it," Berney said. "This is really exciting. I'm happy for Guillermo and happy for us."
The third-place film, Roger Michell's "Venus" starring Peter O'Toole as an aging thespian smitten by a young woman, continued holding at three screens. But its per-screen gross for the (four-day) weekend remained strong - $12,304 - versus the $9,065 it averaged over the previous weekend's three days. And Koch Lorber's fifth-ranked "Comedy of Power," earned $10,945 over four days at New York's IFC Film Center. The previous (three-day) weekend had brought it $10,061.
"Notes on a Scandal," Richard Eyre's juicy drama about the testy relationship between schoolteachers Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench, increased from 93 theaters to 200 and saw its average hold at a strong $9,666, less than a 30% decline from the previous weekend's $12,100. But it saw its four-day weekend gross climb about 85%, to $2.6 million from the previous three-day weekend take of $1.125 million. It slipped from second to sixth on the iWBOT.
Overall, the 47 titles on the iWBOT took in $12.02 million during the four-day holiday weekend at 2,992 screens, more than double the $5.78 million that 46 grossed at 1,482 sites the previous (three-day) weekend. It's the highest since Thanksgiving's $14.41 million total. Going into awards season in earnest - Golden Globes were announced this week; Oscar nominations come next week - hits are emerging in "Pan's Labyrinth," "Notes on a Scandal," Warner Independent Picture's release of John Curran's "The Painted Veil" and Sony Classics' continued slow rollout of Pedro Almodovar's "Volver." If award nominations revive Paramount Vantage's "Babel," Miramax's "The Queen" and Fox Searchlight's "Last King of Scotland" - and spur "Venus" on - there could be some good weeks ahead.
(Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles-based film writer and former movie critic at the Denver Post.)