On a weekend when a PG-rated animated family flick, "Ice Age: The Meltdown," made almost $70 million at the multiplexes, art/specialty films fulfilled their mandate to give adults an alternative to Hollywood fare. And, according to the latest indieWIRE Box Office Table (iWBOT), adults - and teens - responded with support for an unusual variety of such films. "Brick," a one-of-a-kind high-school version of film noir, finished first with a sensational start at two theaters in New York and Los Angeles -- Angelika Film Center and Pacific Arclight 15.
[View the indieWIRE:BOT Box Office Table for this week's films here.]
The $41,787 per-screen average for the film directed by Rian Johnson was the second best on iWBOT this year, after "Thank You For Smoking." For Universal Focus Features, "Brick" marked the first super-hot launch since a very different kind of movie, "Brokeback Mountain." (The iWBOT rankings are based on per-theater average, often but not always the same as per-screen average.)
"This opening is phenomenal," said Jack Foley, distribution chief for Focus. "People who saw it at Sundance (in 2005) thought it was difficult. But we saw Rian's talent and went after it anyway." Foley said he's taking expansion slowly, to make sure the film finds its audience. This Friday it expands to 13 markets and 23 theaters in the U.S. and Canada, still playing mostly as an exclusive run in cities.
In second place - and about as different a film from "Ice Age" as possible - was the visual artist Matthew Barney's latest foray into avant-garde filmmaking, "Drawing Restraint 9." This collaboration with Icelandic singer/actress/partner Bjork, distributed by IFC Films, opened exclusively at New York's IFC Center and earned $18,011 during the weekend.
'"Drawing Restraint #9' opened very strongly to an $18,000 weekend number and a five-day total of over $27,000 at the IFC Center in New York," said Mark Boxer, IFC's vice president of distribution, via email. "Matthew Barney and Bjork have a built-in audience of extremely dedicated fans that have made the opening of the film feel like a special event. Lines were down the block as 'Restraint' sold out shows from its opening Wednesday through Sunday. There was an even mix between men and women, and the age range was predominantly younger than 35.
"The film will roll out slowly with Chicago as the only new market opening this Friday," he said.
In third place was Fox Searchlight's still-smoking "Thank You For Smoking," which leaped to 126 theaters from 54 and saw its per-theater gross decline by a very modest (for such a wide release) 31%, to $12,749 from $18,591.
That was good for third on iWBOT after two weeks in first place. But more to the point, this film from director Jason Reitman, based on Christopher Buckley's satiric novel about the cigarette lobby, is a hit that could break wide. After just three weeks, it has grossed $3.35 million and is playing on multiple screens at some upscale multiplexes, like AMC's Century City in Los Angeles.
Fourth place is a bit of a conundrum - Jeff Feuerzeig's Sony Classics-distributed "The Devil and Daniel Johnston," a documentary about a mentally troubled cult-favorite rocker and his relationship with fans and family. It debuted on iWBOT in fourth place, with a $4,638 average on five screens.
Because it won the Documentary Director's Award at last year's Sundance Film Festival and was subject of an extensive Sunday arts feature in The New York Times, hopes were high. And it did very well at its single New York site, according to Nielsen EDI - $12,917 at Landmark's Sunshine 5 in the hip East Village.
But the grosses were much smaller at four urban and suburban Los Angeles locations. (It received a negative review in The Los Angeles Times.) The best was $4,756 at Laemmle's Sunset 5 in West Los Angeles along the rock-friendly Sunset Strip; the worst $1,038 at the Edwards Island 7 in Newport Beach. (It also played in Santa Monica and Pasadena.)
"The distributor might have gone with it exclusively at the Sunset 5, but that doesn't mean you could take the aggregate (gross) of all the L.A. theaters and put it there," said Greg Laemmle, of the Laemmle chain. "The Sunset did double that of the other (L.A.) theaters - it did not play too well in the suburbs. It's of interest to small groups of urbanized, educated people."
"Devil" showed more promise than another music-related documentary that debuted last weekend, ThinkFilm's "Awesome; I Fuckin' Shot That!" A project of the Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch, who supervised fans shooting a Madison Square Garden concert with video cameras, it finished a disappointing 43rd on iWBOT. It opened on 18 screens and averaged but $1,004.
Meanwhile Rachel Boynton's Koch Lorber-distributed documentary about American political consultants working in Bolivia, "Our Brand Is Crisis," opened in Washington, D.C., and elicited enough interest to finish fifth on iWBOT with a $4,632 gross. That marked a 70% jump in per-screen average from last week, its fourth in New York.
And Liz Mermin's "Beauty Academy of Kabul," Shadow Distributing's documentary that last week opened in one theater and finished second on iWBOT with a $9,704 gross, added two screens and slipped to eighth with a $4,079 average.
Meanwhile, one of the happiest persons in independent film this week is David Redmon, whose self-distributed, digitally-projected documentary about globalization, "Mardi Gras: Made in China," improved in its second weekend at Cinema Village to $4,217 from its previous $2,670.
"By the end of the week, I will have covered my expenses for distributing the movie, and now I have three more bookings (in Boston, Hartford and San Francisco) and am talking to theaters in several other cities," he said in an email.
Very few of the 76 art/specialty titles reported by/to Rentrak this week were showing on more than 100 screens, and some of those that are played out - Weinstein Co.'s "The Libertine," for instance, averaged but $594 on 116 screens. As a result, overall business dropped to $3.96 million at 2,270 theaters from the previous weekend's $4.52 million at 3,436 theaters.
The overall per-theater average, however, increased about 32% to $1,744 from $1,318. The upcoming weekend should get a boost from the debut of Sony Classics' Nicole Holofcener-directed "Friends With Money," the opening-night film at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It features a cast that includes Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener and Frances McDormand.
(Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles-based film writer and former movie critic at the Denver Post.)