By Indiewire | Indiewire August 15, 2006 at 10:52AM
Once again, Sundance buzz has propelled a new American movie to a great debut on the latest indieWIRE Box Office Tracking Report (iBOT) of independent/specialty films, as "Half Nelson" finished first. At the same time, two other films that were highly praised at this year's Sundance Film Festival - "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Quinceanera" - remained in the top ten based on last weekend's business. And a Brazilian movie that won Sundance's Alfred P. Sloan Prize for its depiction of science/technology's impact, Andrucha Waddington's "House of Sand," also got off to a top ten start. Meanwhile, a non-Sundance sleeper benefiting from the fact it's pitched to an older audience of retirement-age boomers - "Boynton Beach Club" - crossed the $1 million mark. (The iWBOT is based on per-theater average, which sometimes but not always is the same as per-screen. Numbers are provided by Rentrak Theatrical.)
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ThinkFilm's "Half Nelson," directed by Ryan Fleck and starring Ryan Gosling as an inner-city junior-high teacher with a drug problem, averaged $26,992 from its two Manhattan playdates at the Angelika Film Center and the Lincoln Plaza. The film benefited from extraordinary reviews that singled out Gosling's performance as Oscar-worthy.
Substituting for the ailing Roger Ebert on the "Ebert & Roeper" TV show, filmmaker Kevin Smith called it the best film of the decade so far. The film already had finished first in an informal indieWIRE critics' poll of best movies seen at this year's Sundance.
"I think it's not just a well-reviewed film but there's a level of superlative about the reviews that makes people take notice," said Mark Urman, ThinkFilm's head of theatrical distribution. "And certain performances are so electric that they presage a major career and people want to get in on the ground floor. My wife saw a screening and turned to me and said, 'Is anybody else this good?' She said it reminds her of seeing Robert De Niro in 'Mean Streets.'"
The 25-year-old Gosling is not a newcomer - critics hailed his turn as a conflicted neo-Nazi in 2001's "The Believer" and he won female fans for his acting in 2004's romantic mainstream hit "The Notebook." But Urman said he's yet to have an arthouse hit, which makes his "Half Nelson" performance feel like an arrival.
Knowing in advance reviews would be good, Urman chose to open the film now rather than Fall - the more traditional release date for serious-minded indies with award-season hopes. "This is the single most crowded Fall any of us can remember for serious movies of all types," he said. "So we couldn't have gotten the attention we feel the film deserves if we'd waited even three weeks until after Labor Day. Maybe there will be other good, serious movies coming along in the fourth quarter, but now we're the first."
Urman plans to basically hold the film as is this Friday, merely adding a suburban New York date at Westchester's Jacob Burns Film Center. On August 25, it expands to 20-25 locations in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington.
Fox Searchlight's smash-hit comedy "Little Miss Sunshine," from first-time husband-and-wife directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, leaped to 153 theaters in 27 markets in its third weekend, up from the previous 58 theaters in ten cities. It still came in third on the iWBOT with a $17,014 average.
That's an amazing result in that per-location average invariably declines significantly as a film widely expands. In fact, most distributors only find per-screen average important when launching a film. Once it's open and doing well, it's about the overall gross and how wide a "sophisticated" or "upscale" film can play. Individual-theater results were unavailable from Nielsen EDI, but Variety reported "Sunshine" lost only 17% of its business in its holdover cities and was strong in its debuts at Atlanta, Indianapolis and elsewhere.
"Sunshine" last weekend grossed $2.6 million and has taken in $5.64 million after just three weekends. The other nine films in the iWBOT Top Ten took in just $1.76 million last weekend. (And $1.35 million of that was from a Bollywood release, Yash Raj Films' "Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna.") With business like that, Fox Searchlight on Monday announced a speeded-up national release, to 620 theaters this Friday and more than 1,500 by Aug. 25th. One might also begin looking for "Little Miss Sunshine II."
Sony Pictures Classics had three titles in the top ten and two of them were out of Sundance. "House of Sand" opened on five screens in New York and Los Angeles and averaged a reasonable $6,281, good for sixth place. "Quinceanera," Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's edgy but heartwarming Los Angeles-set drama which won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, expanded to 27 theaters in seven North American cities from eight in New York and L.A. and saw per-screen average drop to $4,980 from the previous weekend's $11,925.
It slipped to 10th from second on the iWBOT. However, it doubled its cumulative gross, to $274,000 from $134,000. This week, it ventures into Dallas, Houston, Denver, Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Seattle and Portland.
The third Sony Classics title, fourth-ranked "Viva Pedro!" with a $13,400 gross from one theater, is the name given to a Pedro Almodovar retrospective that kicked off at Manhattan's Lincoln Plaza and will continue through the end of the year, leading up to the release of his latest film, "Volver."
Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films, which took over distribution of Susan Seidelman's independently made and released "Boynton Beach Club" after it had played at 28 Florida theaters (and one in California) and grossed more than $600,000, saw it cross the $1 million mark last week. A poignant comedy about finding love and renewal in a retirement community, it has played strongly to older audiences. Among its stars are Dyan Cannon, Sally Kellerman, Brenda Vaccaro, Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna.
Howard Cohen, Roadside's co-president, says the film is holding well and doing good mid-week business at its 35 locations. At Manhattan's Paris Theatre, it earned $12,268 last weekend. At West Los Angeles's Westside Pavilion, it occupies one screen full-time and shares another with Woody Allen's "Scoop." It took in $8,504 there. Overall, it was 12th on the iWBOT with a $3,963 per-theater average.
Cohen said the film is holding well as word-of-mouth slowly spreads among its "older" audience of over-60 boomers. "Older is a relative term in Hollywood," he said. "To studios, it means over 25. When you talk about over 60, there's been like five movies in the last 10 years. That audience has been underserved."
The film's cast also is a draw, Cohen said. "It's the boomer stars of the 1970s who now are senior citizens. It's good to see them and to see that they look pretty good. It's fun to see they're still attractive and vibrant."
There were 68 indie/specialty titles in the marketplace last weekend, down from the previous weekend's 70. But they performed spectacularly, grossing $7.09 million compared to the previous weekend's $5.77 million. That was the strongest performance since April 25. And that was amid a decline in locations, to 2,096 from 2,143. The per-site average was $3,382, up from $2,692.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles-based film writer and former Denver Post movie critic.
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 email@example.com