Queens, kings, saints and Jesus: Movies with titles naming powerful figures both secular and religious did well last weekend, according to the latest indieWIRE Box Office Tracking report (iWBOT) of independent/specialty films. Miramax Films' "The Queen," directed by Stephen Frears and starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II responding to Princess Diana's death in 1997, finished first with a spectacular weekend per-site average of $40,671 from three Manhattan theaters. Close behind was Fox Searchlight's "Last King of Scotland," starring Forest Whitaker as Uganda's charming but psychotic despot Idi Amin. Kevin Macdonald's film averaged $35,725 at three theaters in New York and Los Angeles. Dito Montiel's autobiographical drama "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" - set in Queens, incidentally - debuted on eight screens in New York and L.A. and averaged $12,012 for distributor First Look Pictures to take fifth place. And while Magnolia Pictures' Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady-directed documentary "Jesus Camp" is still slow in Heartland areas where it's trying to lure the same Evangelical Christians it portrays, it's catching on in big cities where audiences may be responding to it as a muckraking political film. It finished seventh on the iWBOT by averaging $5,141 at 19 theaters.
The iWBOT is based on per-theater averages reported by Rentrak Theatrical, the complete indieWIRE BOT weekly chart is available here at indieWIRE.com
Meanwhile, comic Ray Ellin's self-financed, self-distributed documentary, "The Latin Legends of Comedy," finished third by doing a robust $16,718 in the opening weekend of its one-week run at New York's City Cinemas Village East. Because 20th Century Fox is releasing it on DVD Oct. 10, he's not planning to book it elsewhere. "I always thought it'd do well in a theater, but not this well," Ellin said.
"The Queen" opened theatrically on Saturday, since it premiered Friday at the New York Film Festival. At two of its three New York theaters, Lincoln Plaza and Cinemas 1,2,3, it was on two screens. At the busy Angelika Film Center, it could get but one screen but showings were added to meet the heavy business.
Daniel Battsek, Miramax president, said the strong reviews and film-festival launch propelled interest from a traditional art- and historical-film crowd. "That showed the movie is a real event, but also very entertaining," he said. (Also helping lure that crowd was Mirren once again portraying a queen - she won an Emmy earlier this year as Elizabeth I in a miniseries.)
But there was another factor that drew younger audiences to the movie - Princess Di. "It made it contemporaneous, considering everything she brought to the world in terms of showbiz, star appeal, compassion," Battsek said. "The film is a tribute to her legacy as well as an insight into the inner workings of the British monarchy."
The film opens Friday in Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington - and Miramax may add some extra New York locations to meet demand.
Fox Searchlight's "Last King of Scotland," which pairs a fictional Scottish doctor with the all-too-real, Scotland-loving Ugandan dictator, opened on seven screens at four theaters in New York and L.A. and grossed $142,899 for a per-site average of $35,725. That was good for second on the iWBOT. Stephen Gilula, Fox Searchlight's chief operating officer, said it, too, was selling out screenings and could have sold more seats.
"Forest Whitaker's performance is getting tremendous acclaim, but it's not coming across as just a performance piece," he said. "It's an entertaining and well-executed thriller and is getting great word-of-mouth." It expands to 30 theaters and 12 additional cities on Friday.
Opening on eight screens in New York and L.A., "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" nevertheless grossed $94,784 and averaged $11,848 to take fifth place. The gritty, Scorsese-esque drama about street punks is the latest entry from this year's Sundance Film Festival to get off to a good start. It won awards there for its direction and ensemble cast.
"Our exit surveys show that the film is being received exceptionally well and is playing to a wide range of ages. We are perfectly positioned for further success when the film expands nationally," said Ruth Vitale, First Look Pictures president, via E-mail.
While "Jesus Camp's iWBOT ranking wasn't that head-turning - its $5,141 per-screen average from 19 theaters placed it seventh - it nevertheless is rebounding from its poor start two weeks ago. Magnolia originally tried to attract Evangelical Christians by positioning the film as a positive portrayal of a Pentecostal youth camp.
Opening in Los Angeles on the strength of a positive Los Angeles Times review that was concerned with the way the film's Evangelicals linked religion with conservative politics, it did $12,895 at Laemmle's Sunset Five in West Hollywood. It was down 27% at the Angelika in New York, where new films pushed it to a smaller screen, and down just 1% at AMC's Empire 25 in Times Square.
At Washington's Landmark E Street Cinema, it grossed $9,545 and at San Francisco's Landmark Embarcadero it took in $8,803. It did under $5,000 at theaters in Chicago and Evanston, Ill. And Magnolia's president, Eamonn Bowles, said it's holding okay in some of its more Heartland sites, such as Kansas City.
"There's no question an angle on the film is the political power conservatives have been getting through their organization," Bowles said. "That's one of the film's highlights. It's nothing illegal, but they're showing them out there and being motivated."
Last week's three strong debuts - Warner Independent Pictures' "The Science of Sleep," Sony Pictures Classics' "American Hardcore" and Kino International's "Old Joy" - maintained momentum, too. Holding at New York's Film Forum a second week, Kelly Reichardt's "Old Joy" dipped just 26% to $13,029 from $17,556 to slip to fourth on the iWBOT from third.
And Warner Independent's risky accelerated expansion of Michel Gondry's surrealistic romantic fable "Science of Sleep" went well, too. The company was hoping that Gondry, with his music-video background and direction of Charlie Kaufman-scripted "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," was ready to be accepted by a broad, hip audience as an auteur. Moving to 221 screens in major markets across the country, up from 14 theaters in 11 cities the previous weekend, it averaged $5,044 per site and grossed $1.114 million. It declined to eighth from first on the previous iWBOT, when it averaged $24,852 per location.
"Anything over $5,000 per screen is great when you're on so many," said Steve Friedlander, WIP's executive vice president for distribution. "It definitely was Michel Gondry that drew. "We'll be on the same (number of screens) next weekend."
Overall, the 78 titles at 3,979 theaters had a cumulative gross last weekend of $9.019 million and a per-theater average of $2,267. That average was an approximate 20% increase from the previous weekend, when 72 titles at 4,215 theaters averaged $1,897 per location and grossed $7.991 million in total. It reflects the strength of several new films playing on multiple screens in urban artplexes - "The Queen," "Last King of Scotland" and "The Science of Sleep" - as well as the continuing health of two summer titles, "Little Miss Sunshine" and "The Illusionist."
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