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December 28, 2006 2:47 AM
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iW BOT | Indies' '06 Recipe for Success: A Dame, Word of Mouth... Oh, and Patience

Edward Norton in John Curran's "The Painted Veil." Photo: Glen Wilson

The indieWire Box Office Tracking Report (iWBOT) for the four-day holiday weekend of Dec. 22 - 25 showed three new films off to solid starts and finishing one-two-three in ranking--"The Painted Veil," "Venus" and "Curse of the Golden Flower." But whether independent/specialty films in general are doing well in 2006--especially during the critical fourth quarter--is a matter very much open to question. When indieWire did its fall preview of independent/specialty films in September, Bob Berney, president of Picturehouse, was asked whether indies could adequately compete at a time when the studios, themselves, were offering upscale, "prestige" films. He was hopeful they could if they got good reviews and word-of-mouth. "If films are good, audiences can expand almost without a ceiling," he said. But as the year ends, the jury still is out on that.

The iWBOT is based on per-theater averages reported by Rentrak Theatrical, the complete indieWIRE BOT weekly chart is available here at indieWIRE.com

The good news from the last (four-day) weekend is that Warner Independent Pictures' "The Painted Veil," director John Curran's adaptation of a W. Somerset Maugham novel about troubled British newlyweds in the turbulent China of the 1920s, finished first by averaging a strong $17,953 at four locations in New York and Los Angeles. Its cumulative gross through Monday is $92,957, having opened on Dec. 20.

"The exit polls showed there was extremely high interest from women over 35, although overall responses were also high," said Steven Friedlander, WIP's executive vice president for distribution. "The marketing materials positioned it as a romantic/historical epic along the lines of 'The English Patient' or 'Out of Africa' and they came out for that."

Right behind was Miramax Films' "Venus," a Roger Michell-directed film starring Peter O'Toole in an elegiac turn as an aging actor smitten by a much younger woman. It opened on Dec. 21 and to date has grossed $54,634. At three locations, it averaged $16,290.

And Sony Pictures Classics' release of Zhang Yimou's costume drama/action-adventure epic "Curse of the Golden Flower" finished third by averaging $11,879 at 60 theaters. It opened in New York on Dec. 21 and wider the next day; its gross through Christmas was $726,657. Sony Classics is hoping to build on the following for the director's previous "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers."

Yet overall, the iWBOT numbers are unimpressive. The four-day gross for 41 titles was $3.48 million, according to Rentrak. (Rentrak did not report to indieWire results of two limited-release films that did well last week, David Lynch's self-distributed "Inland Empire" and Menemsha Films' "Live and Become.")

That was up just approximately 14% from the previous (three-day) weekend. And the 41 titles represented a drop of 19 from the previous weekend. Before these two consecutive weekends, the overall iWBOT gross hadn't dipped below $4 million since July 25, before Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine" and Yari Film Group's "The Illusionist" had come along to replace Paramount Vantage's "An Inconvenient Truth" and Fox Searchlight's "Thank You for Smoking" in doing blockbuster (by indie standards) business.

So the indies are still struggling while overall the industry is having a great fall. As of last weekend, year-to-date gross for all films was up 4.7% from 2005, according to Los Angeles Times statistics provided by Media By Numbers, and the three-day Christmas weekend was up 12.6% from the last. (Overall iWBOT numbers for Christmas weekend, 2005, are not available.)

And the increase is being driven not just by family-friendly fantasies like last year's "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" or "Chronicles of Narnia," but by studio movies that adults of all economic levels feel are substantive and even edgy--"The Departed," "Casino Royale," "Dreamgirls." Even the big studio comedy of the fall, "Borat," was taken seriously by adults as an outsider's observations on American values.

Meanwhile, as the year comes to an end, the studios continue to open arty films in limited-release that are like "indies" in appeal - Clint Eastwood's extraordinary 2-plus hour Japanese-language rumination on war and honor, "Letters from Iwo Jima"; Alfonso Cuaron's cautionary look at a (nominally) future society crumbling into urban warfare, "Children of Men."

A surprising number of fall-release indies--especially those released by studio "classics" divisions--that received good reviews had trouble finding an audience when they tried to expand. Right now, several of them are counting on Academy Award nominations to revive their fortunes, as Oscars earlier this year helped Focus Features' Ang Lee-directed "Brokeback Mountain" and Sony Classics' Bennett Miller-directed "Capote."

Paramount Vantage's highly praised "Babel," Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's tough-minded but redemptive interlocking narrative about the way sorrow and tragedy binds us together as humans, never recovered from jumping to 1,251 screens from 35 in its third weekend. The distributor had hoped Brad Pitt's presence would propel the film.

Fox Searchlight's "The Last King of Scotland," directed by Kevin Macdonald and featuring a sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated portrayal of Idi Amin by Forest Whitaker, had to retreat from a high of just 113 theaters on the Oct. 24 iWBOT, after its per-screen average had dipped below $4,000.

And while the above are dramas with sometimes-painfully controversial subject matter, WIP's Christopher Guest-directed ensemble comedy "For Your Consideration" also stalled in a fast expansion. According to the Nov. 28 iWBOT, the generally well-reviewed film jumped to 623 screens from 23 in just its second week of release. Two weeks later, it was back to 295 locations.

"There's an assumption that marketing materials being what they are, spending being what it is, and the Internet being as fast as it is, means that you can go faster into secondary and tertiary markets," WIP's Friedlander says.

"You can hit those markets on art-house runs, but you have to go slowly. Expanding into the malls (multiplexes) of those markets has been a problem. The films willing to go slow, like 'Volver,' have done well but you have to have patience."

Some of the iWBOT's bigger success stories this fall have been the films that benefited from strong reviews and word-of-mouth--often at festivals--and nevertheless expanded slowly into art-houses nationally rather than slugging for the malls.

Miramax's Stephen Frears-directed "The Queen," at a modest 302 screens after 13 weeks (and $26.64 million), is a sterling example. So, too, is Sony Classics' "Volver," still just at 118 screens in its eighth week but averaging a fifth-ranked $6,032 per screen. Pedro Almodovar's latest film has so far grossed $3.74 million.

Finally, what may be the most reliable measure of an indie/specialty film's artistic and often commercial success in 2006 is whether it has a veteran British actress--preferably a Dame--in the cast. Helen Mirren in "The Queen" is the chief case in point, but few people have noticed that ThinkFilm's "Keeping Mum" starring Maggie Smith has almost done as well ($1.6 million) as its much more highly publicized "Shortbus" ($1.9 million).

Vanessa Redgrave's supporting turn in "Venus" has been much praised, as has Diana Rigg's in "The Painted Veil" and Frances de la Tour's in Fox Searchlight's "The History Boys." And while it's finally fallen off the iWBOT, Cineville's "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont" starring Joan Plowright slowly passed $1 million gross.

All this bodes well for one of the last new indie/specialty films of 2006, Fox Searchlight's "Notes on a Scandal," which pairs Dame Judi Dench with Cate Blanchett and is just now opening.

ABOUT THE WRITER: 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 studiogrosses@rentrak.com

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