Films with major female characters - in some cases, written and directed by women - made a strong showing on this week's indieWIRE Box Office Tracking Report (iWBOT), thanks to first-place "Hard Candy," second-place "Friends With Money" and fourth-place "The Notorious Bettie Page." "That they all have strong female leads is, I suppose, coincidental, but that's what makes the films interesting," said Bob Berney, president of Picturehouse, "Bettie Page's" distributor. "And I suspect a female audience is responding." (The third-place film, Miramax's new Julian Jarrold-directed "Kinky Boots," a plucky comedy, features Chiwetel Ejiofor as a professional female impersonator named Lola.)
[View the indieWIRE:BOT Box Office Table for this week's films here.]
"Audiences are seeking out great female characters and subject matter - no question about it," said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Classics, "Friends With Money" distributor. "There's a pretty big audience for that."
Overall, the art/specialty audience showed a taste for some challenging subject matter over Easter-weekend sweets.
"Hard Candy," Lionsgate's David Slade-directed sexual thriller about a 14-year-old girl who meets a 32-year-old man via the Internet, finished in first place by earning a surprising $58,049 at two theaters in Manhattan and L.A. (The iWBOT is based on per-location average, often but not always the same as per-screen. Numbers are supplied by Rentrak.)
"Hard Candy's" debut-weekend average per location was $29,024; it was on two screens at the Angelika Film Center and just one at Pacific's Arclight in Hollywood. It actually did better in L.A. than New York, a rarity, earning $30,982.
While the film drew some negative newspaper reviews for its flirtation with exploitation, the performance of 19-year-old relative newcomer Ellen Page generally won accolades. Tom Ortenberg, Lionsgate's president, said the quick start will mean the company can now focus on marketing Page's acting as a chief lure. The movie goes to 128 theaters in some 40 markets on April 28.
"We'll turn the film from being a little bit arty to being a little more like 'Lolita' with bite, and focus on Ellen," he said. "Until the film established itself in the marketplace, it was tough to focus too much on her. But now we can focus on her breakout performance."
Meanwhile, Sony Classics did so well with Nicole Holofcener's "Friends With Money" on its second weekend that it is going even wider than planned this Friday. It earned almost $740,000 from 42 locations - up from debut weekend's 28 - for a $17,610 average. It's a drama with strong comedic and romantic elements, starring Jennifer Aniston, Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack and Frances McDormand.
The box-office reports also marked a coming-of-age, so to speak, for AMC's renovated Century City 15 as a potent upscale house in L.A. According to Nielsen EDI, last weekend's gross there for the film was better than at either the high-end-commercial Pacific Grove Stadium 14 or Laemmle's art-oriented Monica 4 in Santa Monica.
Barker said the film will widen to more than 900 screens this weekend. He had originally planned on just 800. "It's obvious the film has strong staying power in urban and suburban areas," he said.
While "Bettie Page" didn't firmly prove itself in suburban areas of L.A. and San Francisco/Bay Area, it found a strong reception at core urban houses in those cities. It opened on 20 screens and had a per-site average of $7,156.
One surprise, Berney said, is that the biopic drew well among women. Page was a pin-up queen and black-clad sexual-fetish model of the 1950s whose career ended badly. Directed and co-written by "I Shot Andy Warhol"'s Mary Harron, the film features Gretchen Mol in a highly praised turn as Page.
"It's interesting because guys are coming in due to the marketing, but the story of Mary's film plays out well with women," Berney said. "And Gretchen got such great reviews, it's like she's channeling Bettie Page."
The film increases to 49 locations this week, adding nine screens in New York and moving into Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Diego and Washington. Berney is especially expecting good business in Austin. At a screening during March's South by Southwest Film Festival there, roughly half the women came dressed as Page.
"Thank You for Smoking" slipped to 12th from 4th on iWBOT by expanding to 1,105 locations from the previous weekend's 299, causing its per-site average to fall fell 43% to $4,425 from $7,723. But it grossed a powerful $4.5 million, bringing its total revenue to $11.54 million after five weeks. Stephen Gilula, Fox Searchlight's chief operating officer, says the Jason Reitman-directed film should reach $20 million before Hollywood's May blockbusters crowd it out of its screens.
"We're having a great run with this film," he said. "Our holdover theaters dropped less than 5%, and we had great openings in new regional markets like Tulsa and Gainesville, where it did $12,000." At a 24-screen multiplex in Oklahoma City, it was the fourth best film with an $8,000 gross. "These are high grosses for these cities, even if they don't look so big by New York standards," he said.
The overall box-office gross for art/specialty films skyrocketed during Easter weekend from the previous one - up to $8.59 million from $4.91 million. New titles and expansions served an adult audience hungry not just for mature films but possibly for refuge from the mediocre studio project released in the weeks before summer-blockbuster season starts.
There were 89 titles reported to iWBOT; up from 79. And the overall per-screen (or per-site) average climbed 19% to $3,037 from $2,562.
(Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles 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