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December 20, 2006 12:24 AM
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iW BOT | "Inland Empire" and "Volver" Keep Top Spots; "Live and Become" Opens Big

Laura Dern in David Lynch's "Inland Empire". Photo Credit: Canal Plus

The independent/specialty-film business bottomed out last weekend with its weakest performance of 2006, based on the results of the indieWIRE Box Office Tracking Report (iWBOT), as 60 titles took in just $3.076 million. Things should pick up, however, as that traditionally slow weekend passes and new movies like Miramax Films' "Venus" and Warner Independent Pictures' "The Painted Veil" start to arrive for the holidays this week. Still, there were two encouraging performances last weekend as David Lynch's "Inland Empire" came in first again on the iWBOT by venturing into Los Angeles and jumping to four engagements from its previous two.

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

"Inland Empire" averaged $11,223 and reached $100,000 in total gross - impressive for an art film that is, essentially, three hours of weirdness. It is being distributed by Lynch's own Absurda company, which has hired 518 Media to handle North American theatrical bookings. Meanwhile "Live and Become" - a "stealth film" whose distributor, Menemsha Films, has yet to start aggressively booking it nationally - opened at Washington's Avalon Theatre to a smashing $10,368. And it has been playing at Boston's West Newton Cinema for 12 weeks, recently splitting a screen with "Stranger than Fiction."

"It was the best art-house run in Washington, D.C., by far," said Andrew Mencher, Avalon's director of programming, of "Live and Become's" performance, in an E-mail. "'History Boys' did $7,606 at Bethesda Row. Considering we did this well on a traditionally soft week before Christmas, we're pretty excited. It's yet another example of a distributor investing time in a specific market and working hard to energize specific segments of the population base. Lead-actor Sirak Sabahat graciously came to D.C. and appeared at several events over the weekend and he turned out to be a terrific draw."

Mencher said "Live and Become's" Boston gross was a much smaller $1,100 for the weekend.

Menemsha has a history of releasing art films and documentaries, especially with a Jewish theme, that build slowly but play remarkably well in key cities. Its "Gloomy Sunday," a German-Hungarian thriller set in 1930s Budapest, played at L.A.'s Laemmle Music Hall Theatre for 55 weeks and at Boston's West Newton for 70 weeks. The distributor hopes to make "Live and Become" its biggest release to date.

"Sometimes we don't get out of the box with big numbers," explained Menemsha's Neil Friedman. "But we go north, unlike a lot of other films, and increase our gross from week to week. It was like that with 'Gloomy Sunday' and we're going to try to do it with 'Live and Become.'"

The drama, a French-Israeli production directed and co-written by Radu Mihaileanu, concerns an Ethiopian Christian boy whose mother pretends he's Jewish to get him airlifted to Israel and out of a Sudanese refugee camp in 1984. (At the time, in an evacuation called Operation Moses, Israel was airlifting Ethiopia's Falasha Jews out of the troubled, chaotic and uncooperative nation if they could get to Sudan first.) Once in Israel, the boy must pretend to be Jewish.

"It's a twist on the idea that it's not good to be a Jew when there's trouble," Friedman said. "In this case, it helps you survive."

In another twist, the actor who plays the Ethiopian Christian youth passing as Jewish, Sirak Sabahat, is in fact an Ethiopian Falasha Jew who came to Israel during another evacuation, 1991's Operation Solomon.

Friedman said "Live and Become" will be going into a wider release in 2007.

"Inland Empire" did best at Manhattan's IFC Center, where it was in its second weekend and grossed $17,057. At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, it brought in $5,924. In Los Angeles, it brought in about $14,000 at Laemmle's Sunset 5 in West Los Angeles and $7,500 at Laemmle's Pasadena Playhouse.

"I wouldn't say those are through the roof, but I'm cautiously optimistic," Greg Laemmle said of the L.A. numbers. "The feedback by and large has been positive. There were not masses of people fleeing to the exits that we know of. But we're dealing still with a fan base that goes for it."

Peter Langs, 518 Media's CEO, said more prints are being made to get to a total of 16 and that January, 2007, dates are set for Hartford and Palm Springs. "We're trying to time it with David's appearances," he said.

No word yet, by the way, on whether the film's apartment-dwelling hares, whose every enigmatic statement is met by a laugh track, will get their own sitcom.

Because of last weekend's low overall gross of $3.076 million, the 60 films at 2,078 theaters had a per-site average of but $1,480. But because of the drop in theaters from the previous weekend's 3,358, as well as the drop in titles from the previous weekend's 73, that average actually represented at increase of approximately 20% over the previous $1,217. Because so few indie/specialty films have broken out this fall, some upscale houses are playing "prestige" studio films like "Stranger than Fiction," "The Departed," "Running with Scissors," "Blood Diamond" and even "Apocalypto." Those aren't reflected in the iWBOT numbers.

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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