The last weekend in April was quiet for the independent/specialty business, as the top-ranked film on this week's indieWIRE Box Office Tracking report (iWBOT) - Tartan Films' latest installment of Johnny To's Hong Kong gangster epic, "Triad Election" - just barely passed the five-figure mark by earning $10,811 over the weekend at New York's Film Forum. In the "place" position (if one regards the iWBOT as like a horse race) was "Zoo," ThinkFilm's Robinson Devor-directed arty documentary about a man's tragic sexual encounter with a horse - finished second with $7,811 from its weekend at the IFC Center.
The iWBOT is based on per-theater averages reported by Rentrak Theatrical, the complete indieWIRE BOT weekly chart is available here at indieWIRE.com
Sony Pictures Classics placed four films in the Top Ten, the most potent being Francis Veber's surprisingly strong French farce, "The Valet". It jumped to 16 theaters from 10 in its second weekend and maintained a per-screen gross of $6,957. However, the company's new "Jindabyne," directed by "Lantana's" Ray Lawrence from a Raymond Carver story, suffered from a tepid New York Times review and debuted in seventh with a weak $4,716 average at six theaters. But a true art film - Alex Neel's documentary about his grandmother, painter "Alice Neel" - continued to show growth by increasing business 7.2% in its second weekend at Manhattan's Cinema Village. It did $6,654, good for fifth.
ThinkFilm's theatrical distribution chief Mark Urman took "Zoo's " opening-weekend performance (it actually opened on Wednesday) as a good sign that an audience interested in serious, progressive filmmaking is being attracted to it. "It's being sold like an avant-garde art film," he said. It will help, too, that the Sundance-premiering film will be showcased in the Director's Fortnight program at this year's Cannes Film Festival.
Such acclaim helps compensate for the difficult subject matter. "If one were to assume a built-in curiosity factor, it would be counterbalanced by the ick factor," Urman said. "So if it does any business, it's because it's acclaimed and written about by people who are not snickering. If the film is challenging, it's because it's aesthetically challenging and not because the subject matter fries the brain."
ThinkFilm is only booking "Zoo" into "serious" art houses - ones without any multiplex sensibilities whatsoever - in an attempt to signal the film's intentions to the prospective audience. Those include Los Angeles' Nuart, Boston's Coolidge Corner, Portland's Cinema 21 and Seattle's Varsity.
Meanwhile, ThinkFilm's "Avenue Montaigne" - a French multi-character romantic drama - continues to find an audience across the country as it expands to 52 screens and reaches $1.4 million in overall gross. Its $2,092 per-screen average landed it at 21st on the iWBOT. "I consider it a major victory," Urman said.
"Alice Neel" is being distributed in New York by its production company, SeeThink, which is looking for a distributor for the rest of the country. SeeThink general partner Ethan Palmer said the second-weekend upswing is a sign of the film's potential appeal, as is the fact it just won an Audience Award at the Newport Beach Film Festival. It will be playing Cinema Village for several more weeks, he said.
(Neel's reputation has been on the upswing for years, following a traveling retrospective of the late painter's portraits - including her famous one of a wounded Andy Warhol - and her inclusion the new "WACK!" retrospective of feminist art at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art.) The New York Times did a major Sunday feature about the film and a New York gallery show coincided with its opening. The artist died in 1984 at age 84.)
"Although she's not a household name, Alice Neel is well-respected within the arts community and she's an influence on those coming out of art schools these days," Palmer said. "There seems to be a resurgence of interest in the portrait in general in the art world, which is a larger trend, and Alice Neel is someone you go when you're interested in that." As of now, the film's next scheduled booking is in June at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck, N.Y.
Overall gross of 73 titles at 2,773 screens on this week's iWBOT was $4.07 million, up moderately from the previous weekend's $3.85 million from 73 titles at 2,755 screens.
Steven Rosen is a Cincinnati-based freelance 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 be included in the indieWIRE Box Office Chart, distributors must submit information about their films to Rentrak at email@example.com by the end of the day each Monday.