By Indiewire | Indiewire September 19, 2006 at 10:51AM
Two new films - ThinkFilm's "Keeping Mum" and Lionsgate's "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" - and one holdover, Films Philos' much-praised "Man Push Cart," all had low-five-figure per-screen averages to rank 1-2-3 on this week's indieWIRE Box Office Tracking Report (iWBOT) of independent/specialty films in release last weekend. And Balcony Releasing's "Al Franken: And God Spoke" finished sixth by averaging $5,267 over the weekend during its debut at two New York theaters. It had opened on a Wednesday. But the biggest story was about a new film that flopped and the reasons behind it. Magnolia Pictures chose to open "Jesus Camp," a documentary about children who attend a Midwest Pentecostal summer camp where they are encouraged to speak in tongues and learn a politically conservative agenda, to evangelical audiences in Red State cities. But the response was mediocre, with Magnolia's president, Eamonn Bowles, believing there was an active Evangelical Christian campaign to boycott the film. Bowles had been trying to protect the movie by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady from being labeled a liberal-issue one, unsuccessfully fighting last month to remove it from Michael Moore's Traverse City Film Festival.
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Opening at 13 locations in Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas, "Jesus Camp" averaged just $1,358 per screen, finishing 34th on the iWBOT, which is based on per-theater gross and uses numbers provided by Rentrak Theatrical. Even given the fact "Jesus Camp" opened in some cities - Colorado Springs and Springfield, Mo., for instance - where even a good gross would be low by New York/L.A. standards, the results were disappointing.
"I was very disappointed in the Christian markets," Bowles said. "But these are smaller-scale markets, so it's not like we've burned a lot of territories."
Bowles said he believes this film, like Magnolia's earlier documentary about Aljazeera, "Control Room," basically shows people engaged in perhaps-controversial activities without editorializing about it.
And he said he believes Christians could relate to it if they were not first forced onto the defensive by big-city reviewers who, whether or not they like the film, see the activities it portrays as tantamount to political and religious indoctrination of children. In one scene, for instance, children lay hands on a cardboard cut-out of President Bush.
So he tried to bring it to them before opening in major-media markets. "We wanted to bring the film out in the heartland without it being seen as having the agenda of a liberal film coming out with New York reviews," Bowles said. "A lot of people in the heartland would say, 'I went to a children's camp or a church like that.' To a lot of people in the Northeast, it's behavior they haven't seen before."
Bowles said he thus hoped the film could prompt a healthy debate between "Jesus Camp" camps, so to speak, about the subject matter.
But several weeks ago he learned that a powerful religious leader - Colorado Springs-based Rev. Ted Haggard of the National Association of Evangelicals - had seen a tape of the film and disliked it. He is featured briefly in it, looking directly into the camera and making a comment during a church service.
Haggard put the word out to avoid the film, Bowles said. "He thinks maybe he doesn't come off so well. He looks a little flip and maybe that's some of that." Bowles said that when the manager of a Colorado Springs theater showing the film called Haggard's organization for a recommendation, he received five separate return calls to avoid it.
Last week, Denver Post reporter Eric Gorski wrote about a special screening of the film in Colorado Springs, which the in-attendance filmmakers hoped would prompt a discussion. But it lured just 40 people. In that story, quoted below, Haggard explained his opposition:
In an e-mail, he called the film yellow journalism with "a strong agenda like any Michael Moore film with the cinematography of 'The Blair Witch Project.' It does represent a small portion of the charismatic movement, but I think it demonizes it," said Haggard, a charismatic Christian who does not usually speak in tongues from the pulpit. "Secularists are hoping that evangelical Christians and radicalized Muslims are essentially the same, which is why they will love this film.'"
Bowles said Haggard's complaints are unfair to the film as well as to its subjects, the children and Becky Fischer, the engagingly straightforward Pentecostal pastor who runs the camp featured in the film. "He's almost ridiculing the people in the film. These kids are earnest - they believe. I don't detect cynicism."
"Jesus Camp" will hold in these existing markets this weekend, while opening Friday at Angelika Film Center and AMC Empire 25 in New York. On Sept. 29, it moves into Los Angeles, Pasadena and Orange County. And on Oct. 6, it goes into the Top 25 markets.
This week's top film, Niall Johnson's "Keeping Mum," also has religious subject matter. A black comedy about an English vicar, his problematic family and mysterious housekeeper, it has a first-rate British cast that includes Rowan Atkinson, Kristin Scott Thomas and Maggie Smith. It averaged $13,556 at two Manhattan theaters, Clearview's Beekman 1&2 and Chelsea.
"We always thought that 'Keeping Mum' was the perfect change-of-season film - a highly attractive amalgam of the craziness we like in the summer and the classiness we expect in the fall," said Mark Urman, Thinkfilm's head of U.S. theatrical, in an e-mail. "Having Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas and Rowan Atkinson all in one film would be desirable enough for fans of British comedy, but the fact that the film got positive reviews across the board seems to have done the trick!"
On Sept. 29, the film will move into the Top 10 markets plus expand in New York, bringing total prints in circulation to 40. If it works, it will expand to 60-70 prints by Oct. 6. "We are very encouraged because, generally, when films like this work, they really work," Urman said.
"The U.S. vs. John Lennon," a documentary by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld that equate the late Beatle's immigration battles with the Nixon Administration to current Bush Administration immigration policies, finished second on the iWBOT by averaging $11,524 at six New York and L.A. theaters. But the gross wasn't evenly distributed, according to Nielsen EDI. Hollywood's Pacific Arclight 15 did $21,492 and the East Village's Landmark Sunshine Theatre did $15,039 while AMC's Century City in L.A. did just $5,522 and Clearview's Chelsea $5,565.
Exit-polling showed 2/3 of the audience members were Lennon/Beatles fans, said Steve Rothenberg. Lionsgate's president of theatrical distribution. "Clearly it's preaching to the converted," he said. "That's to be expected initially. Now the challenge is to get younger people interested in the film's other message: What the government did in the 1970s is still happening today." The film holds this week before moving into the Top 15 markets.
Ramin Bahrani's "Man Push Cart" - a drama about a Pakistani street vendor in New York - is showing strong legs at it earned $11,002 in its second week at New York's Angelika Film Center, down just 10% from the previous weekend's $13,694.
Overall, the 76 films tracked during last weekend at 4,325 theaters averaged $2,105 per location, down about 10% from the $2,368 averaged the previous weekend by 73 titles at 4,441 theaters. But the $9.105 million total gross of all films represented the first tumble below $10 million since Aug. 15, when the gross was $7.06 million. So the indie/specialty film business hasn't picked up for Fall just yet.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles film write and former Denver Post movie critic.
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