In a tricky environment for independent/specialty films trying to quickly "go wide" to broaden their appeal, Pedro Almodovar's "Volver" returned to first place on this week's indieWIRE Box Office Tracking Report (iWBOT) by benefiting from Sony Pictures Classics' cautious distribution plan. It had slipped to second last week, due to the limited-release opening of The Weinstein Company's "Bobby." The latter's quick expansion - to 1,667 theaters nationwide on Thanksgiving Day after debuting six days earlier on just two - appeared to jump well ahead of demand for it. That all-star drama, written and directed by Emilio Estevez about the goings-on at Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel the day Robert Kennedy was shot in 1968, had a three-day-weekend average of just $2,914 and fell from first to 17th. Fox Searchlight's "The History Boys," Nicholas Hytner's quickly made version of Alan Bennett's play about the nature of education with the British cast intact, debuted at third on the iWBOT with a $14,400 average from seven theaters in New York, L.A., Toronto and San Francisco.
The iWBOT is based on per-theater averages reported by Rentrak Theatrical, the complete indieWIRE BOT weekly chart is available here at indieWIRE.com
Even though last weekend was a five-day holiday, the iWBOT is based on three-day (Friday-to-Sunday) grosses to maintain consistency with past charts. It is based on per-theater average and uses statistics provided by Rentrak Theatrical.
In its fourth week of release, the Spanish-language "Volver" is only at 30 theaters in North America. But that entailed a big addition of 24 locations for Thanksgiving as it expanded wider in New York and L.A. and moved into San Diego, San Francisco, Miami, Chicago, Boston, Seattle and Canadian cities (which do not, by the way, celebrate Thanksgiving). Its iWBOT per-theater average was $17,071, down just 28% from its previous six-theater average of $23,825. Clearly, "Volver" is the strongest iWBOT-charting film since Miramax's "The Queen," which also has widened with careful deliberation.
Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Classics, said movies like the well-reviewed "Volver" - which has a strong "artistic variable" to draw viewers as opposed to more easily exploitable mainstream elements - have to grow slowly.
"The goal is to get independent films to become part of the culture," he said. "The way to do it is to build word-of-mouth so the audience is ready when it opens in smaller markets, rather than getting it out there before the word-of-mouth is in place.
"Also, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is difficult because people have other things and the family," Barker said. "It picks up after Christmas. So slow and steady seems to be the way for us to go with this film."
"Volver" will expand very cautiously, if at all, between now and Dec. 22, when it jumps to 75-100 theaters.
Although The Weinstein Company did not respond to an E-mail for comment about "Bobby's" difficulties, Harvey Weinstein told Los Angeles Times that it still has a promising future. He pointed out it got a late start on building holiday-weekend word-of-mouth because he didn't want it to open last Wednesday, Nov. 22, on the anniversary of President John Kennedy's assassination. (MGM is distributing the film for Weinstein.) Many other holiday films opened on Wednesday.
And, he said, "Bobby" experienced a small up tick in business from Friday-to-Saturday - a sign of strong word-of-mouth. According to Box Office Mojo, it actually fell a very impressive .1% on Saturday, although its Saturday-to-Sunday decline was normal.
"Bobby" now runs into the same problem faced by Paramount Vantage's release of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's omnibus drama "Babel," which ran into trouble when it quickly jumped to 1,251 screens two weeks ago. Despite good reviews and Brad Pitt's presence, the film has struggled.
Last weekend, it shed 249 locations but still only had a $2,183 average at 902 theaters - good for 19th on the iWBOT. That was down about 1/2% from the previous weekend. So it seems to have stabilized, but its average may not be high enough for antsy theater owners if it doesn't start getting award nominations soon.
Another film that quickly expanded last weekend, Christopher Guest's satiric "For Your Consideration," had a $3,088 average from 623 theaters and finished 14th on the iWBOT. On the previous weekend, its first in release, it had finished third on the iWBOT with a $16,174 average at 23 theaters. Steve Friedlander, Warner Independent Pictures' executive vice president of distribution, said it was meeting its target and should play through the holidays.
In a way, "The History Boys" recalls Ely Landau's American Film Theater series of the 1970s, in which the cast of a stage production was filmed for movie theaters. While the "The History Boys'" presentation is naturalistic, its quick turnaround from stage to screen is unusual. The play just closed on Broadway in October.
"While it was on stage in England, a decision was made to try to do a low-budget film quickly because of the age of the boys in the cast," said Stephen Gilula, Fox Searchlight's chief operating officer. "If you waited, you could never recapture that."
The film did especially well at three New York theaters - Union Square (on two screens), Lincoln Plaza and, to a lesser degree, the Chelsea. "That's why we opened it on three theaters in New York, because of the depth of interest in theater," Gilula said. "We have anecdotal evidence people were fascinated by the similarities and differences (between the stage production and the film)."
Fox Searchlight plans to expand the film in modest stages in December, reaching 150 by Dec. 22. Gilula said he believes it will reach beyond those who know about the play. "There's a tradition of upscale British movies and a fairly established audience for it," he said.
It's also pretty clear there's a well-established audience for Bollywood, whether or not it's the same one that likes "The History Boys" or "The Queen." (Considering India's history as the British Empire's "jewel in the crown," there probably is an overlap.) The latest feature from Yash Raj Films, Sanjay Gadhvi's action comedy "Dhoom 2," finished second on the iWBOT by debuting with a $15,540 average from 63 theaters.
Because of the rapid expansion of films like "Bobby," "For Your Consideration" and "Babel," as well as Stephen Frears' "The Queen" continuing to play broadly, the number of titles on this week's iWBOT was just 60. The previous weekend, there were 70. But the availability of new titles seemed to enliven the marketplace. The overall per-theater average was $2,809 at 5,131 locations, up a bit less than 30% from the previous week's average of $2,270 at 3,377.
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