Even though last weekend was one in which, in the words of one distributor, "Spider-Man 3" served as a veritable "vacuum cleaner" on the mainstream box office by sucking up $151 million, it nevertheless turned out to be a good time to launch independent/specialty films. Three new films - Fox Searchlight's " Waitress," First Look's "Paris Je T'Aime" and Lionsgate's "Away From Her" - finished in the top three positions on this week's indieWIRE Box Office Tracking Report (iWBOT) with strong numbers, with the late Adrienne Shelly's charming "Waitress" being first by averaging $23,009 over the weekend at each of its four theaters in New York and L.A. Its cumulative take already is $111,708 since it opened on Wednesday. Second-place "Paris," a multi-director/multi-star series of vignettes about the City of Lights, averaged $19,621 at both the Village and - fittingly - Paris cinemas in Manhattan. Sarah Polley's directorial debut "Away From Her," starring Julie Christie as a woman succumbing to Alzheimer's, finished third with an impressive $13,317 average at four theaters, although its New York grosses were much better than its L.A. ones.
The iWBOT is based on per-theater averages reported by Rentrak Theatrical, the complete indieWIRE BOT weekly chart is available here at indieWIRE.com
"Waitress'" numbers are fantastic - holding its own against "Spider-Man" in New York and L.A. multiplexes and in L.A. versus New York, usually the better market. On two screens each at AMC's Lincoln Square and Regal's Union Square, it drew $26,498 at the Lincoln Square and $25,981 at Regency Square. On a single screen at L.A.'s Arclight, it brought in $21,248; at Laemmle's Monica in Santa Monica it grossed $18,308.
"We're thrilled and it's a fitting tribute to Adrienne Shelly that so many people will see her movie and her work will live on," said Fox Searchlight's Stephen Gilula. "We're lucky to have found a significant audience for her work." (Shelly was murdered after completing the film last year.)
The film, drawing heavily among women, moves into 21 markets on Mother's Day and then goes wide on Memorial Day.
First Look's Andy Gruenberg, executive vice president of theatrical distribution, talked on the phone about "Paris'" strong opening while his CEO, Henry Winterstern, spoke in the background. As Gruenberg predicted "Paris" would ultimately reach $3-$5 million gross, Winterstern added that he thought it could top $5 million. Among its directors are Gus Van Sant, Tom Tykwer, Olivier Assayas and the Coen brothers; its stars Marianne Faithful, Juliette Binoche, Nick Nolte and Fanny Ardant.
Gruenberg said its fast start in New York was due to opening it as counter-programming to "Spider-Man." "It's brilliant," he said. "Not one person who went to our movie even saw 'Spider-Man.' Henry picked the date."
"Away From Her" grossed a hefty $22,036 at Lincoln Plaza in New York and a strong $14,830 at the younger-skewing Landmark Sunshine in the East Village. But in L.A., it earned $8,790 at the Arclight in Hollywood and $7,612 at Laemmle's Monica in Santa Monica.
Steve Rothenberg, Lionsgate's president of theatrical distribution, said, "it's a very strong start, especially when the Sunday grosses at all four theaters were better than Friday's."
"Away From Her" drew especially well among older audiences - which could explain its L.A. numbers since that demo is less likely to see an art film on opening weekend, where it often means driving long distances, than in New York with its public transit. A full 49% of the New York audience was 55+; 64% of the L.A. audience was in that age group. Both overwhelmingly recommended it in exit polls, Rothenberg said.
"Exit polling showed by far the biggest factor in seeing it was the reviews, plus another factor was the opportunity to see Julie Christie in what we think is an Academy Award-worthy performance," he said.
It moves into sixteen markets Friday and then expands weekends through Memorial Day.
Another new film, New Yorker's release of Oren Rudavsky's "The Treatment" featuring the always-underrated Chris Eigeman, debuted in fourth with a more modest average of $7,098 at two New York art-houses, Lincoln Plaza and Angelika.
The weekend was not so good, however, to older films. Johnny To's Hong Kong gangster epic "Triad Election" from Tartan Films declined to $6,576 from a top-ranked $10,811 in its second weekend at Film Forum. And the Kentucky Derby did nothing to increase interest in ThinkFilm's "Zoo," Robinson Devor's impressionist documentary about a man who died having sex with a horse.
Expanding to two New York theaters from one, it averaged just $3,957 - almost a 50% decline - and slipped to tenth from second on the iWBOT. Francis Veber's French farce "The Valet" from Sony Pictures Classics held up fairly well by increasing to 27 sites from 16 in its third weekend and keeping a decent per-screen average of $4,844, a decline from the previous $6,654. It slipped to seventh from fifth on the iWBOT. Andrew Neel's documentary about his grandmother, "Alice Neel," from SeeThink Productions, slipped to $4,221 from $6,654 in its third weekend at Manhattan's Cinema Village. It fell to eighth from fifth on the iWBOT.
While several limited-release films had strong per-screen averages, the number of indie/specialty films moving toward wider release is slow as the Oscar winners end their runs and the summer blockbusters command huge screen counts. At a theater like Cincinnati's Esquire, primarily an independent art-house, "Spider-Man" is playing on a screen. As a result, overall iWBOT gross for last weekend's 76 titles was just $2.9 million, down sharply from the previous weekend's $4.05 million generated by 73 titles. Most telling was the number of screens available - down to 1,929 last weekend from the previous 2,773.
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.