A surprisingly strong opening-weekend performance by Sony Pictures Classics political/ethical thriller from Germany, "The Lives of Others," resulted in its topping this week's indieWIRE Box Office Tracking Report (iWBOT) with a $16,430 average at 13 theaters. Another surprising performer - Weinstein Co.'s MGM-distributed "Factory Girl" - continued to disprove its pre-release bad buzz by coming in second with an impressive $10,872 average from 18 runs. It had expanded upward from the previous weekend's three theaters in New York and L.A., where it had averaged $29,159 and led the iWBOT.
The iWBOT is based on per-theater averages reported by Rentrak Theatrical, the complete indieWIRE BOT weekly chart is available here at indieWIRE.com
While the problems of opening art films in the sprawling, suburbanized Los Angeles market - too expensive not to open in multiple locations even though the audience is iffy outside of Hollywood and the West Side - hurt the per-screen average of Rialto Pictures' "Mafioso," it continues to go like gangbusters in its core urban theaters. It finished third on the iWBOT in its fourth week by averaging $5,237 at five theaters. One other new film finished in the Top Ten, Documentary Group's "Operation Homecoming" about soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It did $4,516 at New York's Film Forum.
Overall box office, meanwhile, remained relatively strong as the Oscar-nominated independent/specialty films in wide release - especially Picturehouse's Guillermo del Toro-directed "Pan's Labyrinth" continued its amazing (for a Spanish-language film) performance in wide release.
Michael Barker, Sony Classics' co-president, just back from the Berlin Film Festival this week, was enthused about how well "The Lives of Others" had opened. Among its numbers: $10,732 on Saturday alone at Hollywood's Pacific ArcLight; $16,488 on Saturday at the Angelika in downtown New York; $9,387 at the uptown Lincoln Plaza on Saturday. It also did very well in Toronto, he said.
"You have to remember it's 2 1⁄4 hours long, so it has fewer show times," Barker said. "This tells me it has potential not only in art houses but in commercial houses, too."
The film by newcomer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, about an East German secret policeman who eavesdrops on a popular dramatist, also appears to have benefited from a risky marketing move.
Sony Classics opened it in December, for one week only in Los Angeles, to qualify for major Academy Award nominations. The drawback to that approach is that when the film then re-opens, it won't be treated like a new release by newspapers where it first opened. (While "The Lives of Others" is nominated for a best foreign-language film Oscar, it didn't need to open theatrically in the U.S. to qualify in that category. It did not receive other major-category nominations.)
"That's definitely risky and that's why we didn't have a (December) opening run in New York," Barker said. "We hoped what would happen with one week in Los Angeles is we'd get a good Los Angeles Times review - and we got a great one from Kenneth Turan - and it would qualify for a Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award. And they gave it an award (for foreign-language film). That's proof all the Los Angeles film critics went out of their way to see the movie.
"Our marketing department did the job on this picture," Barker said. "It had early screenings for opinion makers and it's gotten rave reviews. I figured it would take a little time, but the word-of-mouth is out."
Barker is now hopeful the film - which is about state surveillance of its own citizens - will appeal to younger audiences as well as the older supporters of art-house fare. "Young audiences have a particular anxiety about surveillance because of what is going on now," he said.
There is a question as to whether or not young audiences really are that concerned. New York magazine's recent cover story concerns young people, raised on blogging and You Tube videos, who no longer understand the concept of personal privacy.
George Hickenlooper's "Factory Girl," featuring Sienna Miller as troubled Warhol "superstar" Edie Sedgwick, is now ready for the kind of wide theatrical release the late Sedgwick could only dream about. "We are pleased with the film's strong performance and our expansion strategy. We are going wide this weekend on over 300 runs," said Harvey Weinstein in a brief email statement.
"Mafioso," meanwhile, continues to perform like a major cinematic rediscovery in Manhattan. The 1962 dark comedy from Alberto Lattuada, hailed as a precursor to both "The Godfather" and "The Sopranos," grossed $10,463 in its fourth weekend at Lincoln Plaza and $6,536 at the Angelika. At Laemmle's Royal on L.A.'s west side, it earned an acceptable $4,966 in its third weekend. But Laemmle's One Colorado in Pasadena didn't do much business with it -- $1,756 in its second weekend - and Laemmle's Town Center in Encino pulled in just $2,465 in its first weekend. Regardless, the film has grossed $153,920 so far and still has much life left in it in Manhattan and the rest of the country, if not L.A.
Overall, the number of titles on the iWBOT held steady for the third consecutive week at 55. Total gross had a moderate decline of 27% - to $13.76 million from $14.14 million. The per-screen average of $2,081 at 6,612 engagements was a slight increase from the previous weekend's $2,023 average from 6,988 engagements.
The ongoing strength of the iWBOT is reflected in the continuing steady performance of major-category Oscar-nominated films like "Pan's Labyrinth" ($3,130 average from 1,143 screens in its seventh week of release; 12th on iWBOT); Miramax Films' Roger Michell-directed "Venus" ($3,561 average from 132 screens in its eighth week; 11th) and Stephen Frears-directed "The Queen" ($1,517 average from 1,564 screens in its 20th week; 27th); Fox Searchlight's Kevin Macdonald-directed "Last King of Scotland" ($2,483 average from 540 screens in its 20th week; 14th) and Richard Eyre-directed "Notes on a Scandal" ($2,377 average from 649 screens in its fifth week; 17th).
In fact, the A-list of prestigious major-category Oscar nominees on the iWBOT - the above films plus New Line Cinema's "Little Children," Sony Classics' "Volver," Paramount Vantage's "Babel" and Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine," still playing on 33 screens despite its DVD release - grossed almost $12 million of the iWBOT's $13.76 million. It pays to get an Oscar nomination.
(Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles film writer and former Denver Post movie critic.)