David Lynch's three-hour, self-distributed "Inland Empire" got off to a great start, finishing first on the latest indieWIRE Box Office Tracking Report (iWBOT) of independent/specialty films by averaging $13,754 last weekend at two theaters - Manhattan's IFC Film Center and Cambridge's Brattle Theatre. In an otherwise quiet weekend, another notable debut was "Screamers," Carla Garapedian's documentary about the Turkish massacre of Armenian civilians in World War I. It finished fourth on iWBOT by averaging $5,902 at four Los Angeles-area theaters. Sony Pictures Classics' slow roll-out of Pedro Almodovar's "Volver" continued to work its magic as the Spanish-language film came in second with an $8,450 average from 44 theaters. Last week, "Volver" finished first on the iWBOT by averaging $12,675 at 30 theaters. It so far has already grossed $2.376 million with most of the nation left to go. As with its handling of Michael Haneke's "Cache" earlier this year, Sony Classics has showed how it can make a bona fide indie hit out of an auteurist foreign-language title.
The iWBOT is based on per-theater averages reported by Rentrak Theatrical, the complete indieWIRE BOT weekly chart is available here at indieWIRE.com
And speaking of auteurists, filmmaker Lynch certainly is one - with a reputation for movies ("Blue Velvet," "Lost Highway") and a TV series ("Twin Peaks") than limn the subconscious and just in general mess with the viewer's head. "Inland Empire" is set in a territory where movies and life cross over.
But as a businessman, he's the utmost practical-minded rationalist. He's using his 100%-owned Absurda company to supervise "Inland Empire's" distribution. It, in turn hired 518 Media to handle North American theatrical distribution.
"It was a really big gamble for David, but he thought the film would do best if he got behind it," said Eric Bassett, Absurda's managing partner. "There had been offers to distribute it in the U.S., but they were not that strong because it's three hours."
Also helping Lynch decide to take this route, Bassett said, was the fact his last film, 2001's "Mulholland Drive," lost $7 million during its theatrical release. That was because Focus Films ran up too many expenses distributing 700 prints of it to make the gross profitable, he said.
"Inland Empire" will be released as slowly and carefully as a Matthew Barney film. It opened on two of three screens at IFC Center on Wednesday and started selling out, buoyed by some strong reviews and Lynch's own innate ability to generate publicity. Lynch had decided to open it in the busy holiday season in belief Laura Dern's starring performance is worthy of an Academy Award nomination.
An extra print will arrive in New York by Friday so the film can occupy three IFC screens. Meanwhile, it will open at two Laemmle Theatres' locations in Los Angeles - West Hollywood and Pasadena - after having been screened last weekend at Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
"I've seen them (studios and their indie divisions) take out personal, visionary movies, but they have to do it very slowly," said Peter Langs, 518 Media's CEO. "What usually happens is they see an initial box-office report like we just had so they order 50 more prints and book them. The (resultant) gross looks great but the poor filmmaker never makes money because they're charging back all the expenses against the negative's costs."
Lynch and Bassett have been supervising each new 35-millimeter print of "Inland Empire," a slow process because of one print takes up 10 reels. And they want to keep the number of prints small. "We don't want to lose all our money on prints and then see half of them not get used," Bassett said.
"We will do a platform release and get it to all the theaters David is popular in," Langs said. "We will get it to the maximum gross, but we will contain the costs."
If "Inland Empire" at least initially benefits from Lynch's rock-star-like image, Maya Releasing's "Screamers" benefits from the support of actual rock stars - the Armenian-American band System of a Down. Not only did it provide music for the film, but frontman Serj Tankian has been a vociferous supporter of the film.
That support, plus Los Angeles' large Armenian-American population, helped the film get its surprisingly strong $5,902 average from four multiplex theaters not usually known for opening indies. They are Mann Criterion 6 in Santa Monica, Mann Chinese 6 in Hollywood, Mann Exchange 10 in Glendale and AMC the Block 30 in suburban Orange. Numerous organizations - including Armenian National Committee of America, Save Darfur, and the Genocide Education Project - are cooperating with "Screamers"' publicity efforts.
"Screamers' advertising is prominently using a quote from Maxim's Pete Hammond - "Never Again!" But "Ever Again," a cautionary documentary (with a title referencing the Holocaust) about a new wave of European anti-Semitism, including Islamic extremism, did less well than "Screamers" in its opening weekend.
Produced by Simon Weisenthal Center's Moriah Films, directed by Richard Trank and narrated by Kevin Costner, it averaged just $900 at 12 theaters. Its total gross of $10,802 was less than half of "Screamers'" $23,609 total gross. "Ever Again" is being distributed by Rocky Mountain Pictures.
The 73 titles on this week's iWBOT were a sizeable increase from last week's 63, but that didn't help overall gross. It fell to $4.08 million from the previous $6.85 million, the lowest weekend overall gross since July 25. The per-theater average from 3,358 sites - down from the previous weekend's 4,771 - was $1,217. That was down from $1,436, a reflection of the Weinstein Company's pullback of Emilio Estevez's "Bobby" and Paramount Vantage's retraction of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel." Both didn't work as quick wide releases.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org