The cosmopolitan independent/specialty-film audience used the four-day Presidents Day weekend - a most American of holidays - to flock to foreign-language films from France, Germany, Africa, Spain, India, Bosnia, Turkey and Italy, among other countries of origin. All of the Top Ten films in this week's indieWire Box Office Tracking Report (iWBOT) are foreign. ThinkFilm's new French film "Avenue Montaigne," from Daniele Thompson, finished first by averaging $18,839 in two New York theaters. Sony Pictures Classics upped German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's thriller, "The Lives of Others," to 32 theaters from the 13 of its debut and averaged $13,713 to come in second. And New Yorker Films' politically charged "Bamako," set in Mali and from director Abderrahmane Sissako, finished third with a $12,842 debut at New York's Film Forum.
The iWBOT is based on per-theater averages reported by Rentrak Theatrical, the complete indieWIRE BOT weekly chart is available here at indieWIRE.com
Beyond those in descending order were Eros Entertainment's "Eklavya - the Royal Guard" (India), Weinstein Company's "Days of Glory" (Algerian/French), Magnolia Pictures' "Only Human" (Spanish), Regent Releasing's "Unconscious" (Spanish), Strand Releasing's "Grbavica" (Bosnia), Zeitgeist's "Climates" (Turkey), and Rialto Pictures' "Mafioso"(Italy). The Top Four films all averaged above $10,000.
The week also saw a huge collapse, as Weinstein Company more or less closed shop on George Hickenlooper's "Factory Girl" - about doomed Warhol "superstar" Edie Sedgwick - by trying to expand it to 336 theaters nationwide in its third week. The dramatic increase in screens - up from last week's 18 - saw a 93% decline in per-theater average, to $776 from $10,872. It fell from 2nd to 39th on the iWBOT.
And in the battle of the Oscar-nominated Best Picture candidates on the iWBOT, Paramount Vantage's "Babel" did best at 23rd by averaging $2,317 at 305 sites. (It came out on DVD this week.) Miramax's "The Queen" was at 24th by averaging $1,994 at 807 theaters. But it grossed $1.6 million over the holiday weekend, far exceeding "Babel's" $707,000. A third Oscar-nominated Best Picture candidate still on the iWBOT even after its DVD release, Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine," averaged $1,065 at each of its 23 theaters. It has grossed an iWBOT-leading $59.76 million to date.
Mark Urman, ThinkFilm's head of theatrical distribution, said "Avenue Montaigne's" launch was tricky because it's not inherently an "art film" but more of an upscale entertainment. It's about a young woman's exposure to Parisian arts and culture. It got good reviews in New York, especially from The New York Times, and opened at both Lincoln Plaza and the Angelika. "No matter how 'crowd pleasing' a foreign-language film is, it really has no access to those crowds if it isn't credible from the standpoint of quality," Urman said, via email. "Our reviews gave sophisticated filmgoers permission to go and have a good time. Clearly they did. We had sellouts both uptown and down and we trended well all weekend long.
"Since the film is the ideal export (from France to us and from New York to the rest of America), we feel good about the overall prospects," he continued. "Crowd-pleasers are easier to sell to a crowd than an art film that may never work west of the Hudson River. We open Los Angeles, Boston and Washington, D.C. on March 2 and also take on Long Island and Westchester. The L.A. break will include suburbs, as will Washington and Boston, because this is not a strictly metropolitan movie. On March 16th, we broaden again, expanding further in the markets we've already played and taking on several news ones."
"Bamako," meanwhile, represents more of a challenge. It's about a peoples' trial of the World Bank that occurs in a Mali courtyard even while everyday life continues. The director, a Mauritanian, lived in Mali as a child. Booked into Manhattan's Film Forum for a two-week stay, it pulled in $12,842 in its first four-day weekend.
"African films are very hard to distribute in the U.S. but I am confident now that these grosses will prove to skeptical exhibitors around the country that there is still a sizable audience for quality political films and will encourage them to book 'Bamako' in their theaters and make it widely available," said Rebeca Conget, New Yorker's vice president for theatrical distribution. Already, she said, Film Forum has agreed to an extension.
One of the more interesting iWBOT performances was "Only Human's" sixth-place finish by din of its $7,837 holiday-weekend gross at Washington's Independent, non-profit-operated Avalon Theatre.
The Spanish comedy from husband-and-wife directors Dominic Harari and Teresa Pelegri is about the complications ensuing from a Jewish girl's engagement to a Palestinian. Released last summer, it had already come out on DVD after seemingly ending its theatrical run with a modest $302,000.
"As the DVD release was back in December, it certainly indicates, at least for us (or for this film or type of film), that the DVD date had very little effect on the film's theatrical potential," said Andrew Mencher, Avalon's director of programming, via email. "It's interesting, I think, as the discussion regarding DVD windows (and) pay cable... becomes more heated.
"Our theater, and I'm sure many others around the country, does a good job promoting our upcoming schedule - we've nurtured an audience and communicate with them directly and frequently," he said. "We've had posters and trailers up for months, we've listed the film in our publications as coming soon, referenced reviews - done all the stuff we need to do to create an awareness that the film exists and that it will play, at some point, at the theater.
"'Only Human' was not a well-publicized video/DVD release (if at all) and likely there are only a handful of copies in the Washington area that can be rented," Mencher continued. "So to 99% of the moviegoing public, 'Only Human' is like every other movie, a new release. And like almost all films that play theatrically in D.C., if the Washington Post affirms your marketing and PR with positive reviews, you're got a shot to succeed. There just isn't a great knowledge of DVD or pay-per-view release dates so that it would make a great impact."
Overall, the number of titles on the iWBOT declined to 48 from the previous weekend's 55. Total gross declined 22% to $10.77 million for the four-day weekend from the previous three-day weekend's $13.76 million as the major-category Oscar nominees slowed down. The per-screen average of $2,496 at 4,317 screens climbed from the previous weekend's $2,081 at 6,612 engagements. The box office seems to have capitalized as much as possible on Oscar-nomination expansions. It will now take two weekends to see how the winners at Sunday's Academy Awards regain some life.
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 email@example.com