Not only were subtitles not a hindrance to the record-setting debut of the Russian fantasy-horror film "Night Watch," they actually may have helped its box-office performance. The Fox Searchlight release, which features innovative digitalized subtitles that move around the screen, finished first on the indieWIRE Box Office Tracker (iWBOT) of per-screen averages over the four-day Presidents' Day weekend. It also had the highest three-day per-screen average - $28,995 on three screens in New York and L.A. - of any film so far this year. Its four-day average was $35,475.
[View the indieWIRE:BOT Box Office Table for this week's films here.]
"This far exceeds what our hopes were for the film," said Stephen Gilula, chief operating officer for Fox Searchlight. Our expectations would have been in the $15,000-$20,000 average for the three days. So we had a tremendous opening."
But on a robust holiday weekend for specialty films, especially in New York, "Night Watch" was far from the only iWBOT success story. IFC Films' release of the American-history mockumentary "CSA: Confederate States of America" did $22,853 over four days at New York's IFC Center. It expands into several other cities Friday.
And the Zeitgeist Films release of the German "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days," a German film about an anti-Nazi activist and one of the nominees for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar, started off with a strong four-day average of $21,795 at one New York screen. Zeitgeist has good luck with German-language films. Its "Nowhere in Africa" won the 2002 Oscar in this category.
Meanwhile Jim Tushinski's slowly self-distributed "That Man: Peter Berlin," his digital-video-projected documentary about the reclusive gay sex symbol of the 1970s, did so well at San Francisco's palatial Castro Theater - $16,870 over four days - that it came in fourth on iWBOT.
Berlin, who lives in San Francisco, turned up on opening night to greet the crowd at a benefit for the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Historical Society, which wants to build a museum. "He did it as a favor," Tushinski said. "And at the end he waved, said a few words and that was it."
The Castro has agreed to hold the film this weekend if Berlin - rapidly becoming iconic - meets the crowd again on Saturday night. "Him being there helps sell tickets," Tushinski said.
Rialto Pictures' re-release of the 1948 Carol Reed/Graham Greene collaboration "The Fallen Idol" had a better second weekend at New York's Film Forum than its blizzard-marred first -- $12,520 over three days compared to the previous weekend's $9,030. Plus it did another $4,205 on Monday. That was a three-day per-screen increase of 39%.
The biggest story, however, was "Night Watch." Released in 2004 in Russia, Timur Bekmambetov's film is about tension between rival forces of light and dark "others" who govern modern-day Moscow. It became the biggest Russian hit since the Soviet Union's collapse. Fox Searchlight purchased international rights for an undisclosed amount and already has grossed $16 million on it in other markets.
The original English-language subtitles provided by the filmmakers were of poor quality and at one time Fox Searchlight considered releasing a dubbed English-language version. "But there's no real track record for dubbed genre films," Gilula said. "'Hero' wasn't dubbed. So we thought we'd do subtitles that enhance the visual experience."
The company worked with Bekmambetov on a new international edit with new subtitles. "The subtitles are dynamic and interact with the film," Gilula said. "They change shape and form and fit in with the story. Some are at different places on the screen and some move. And you can always read them. We think they enhanced the experience."
"Night Watch" with digitalized subtitles received notice at last year's Tribeca and Los Angeles International film festivals, and had done well in its British and Australian theatrical releases. It was held up for North American release to capitalize on this year's sequel, "Day Watch," which has debuted to record-setting business in Russia.
"Night Watch" was eagerly awaited among sci-fi/fantasy buffs and Russian emigres, so Fox Searchlight was prepared for good business here. But the amount of business showed that art-film aficionados also came out, perhaps lured by reviews comparing Bekmambetov's work to that of Andrei Tarkovsky's visually hallucinatory work on the 1972 classic "Solaris."
"That was a surprise," Gilula said. "We never assumed that would be a significant component and that was one reason it did so much better than expected."
"Night Watch" moves up to about 35 screens this Friday, expanding in New York and L.A. and also opening in Washington, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Philadelphia, San Diego and Toronto. Fox Searchlight tentatively is planning a North American "Day Watch" release for later this year.
Amid the strong business for new releases, two of iWBOT's strongest performers last week suffered a drop in per-screen average. But both the Paramount specialty division's Jonathan Demme-helmed "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" and Michael Winterbottom's "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" from Picturehouse did stay in the Top Ten while undertaking sizable holiday-weekend expansions.
The Neil Young concert film leaped from four to 30 screens and came in ninth on iWBOT with a $4,554 three-day per-screen average. That was down almost two-thirds from the previous weekend's $13,477 average, which had been good for first on iWBOT. The film added another $33,024 on Monday, giving it a four-day average of $6,756.
"Tristram Shandy" dropped to tenth from third on iWBOT by seeing its three-day per-screen gross retract to $4,843 from $8,018 while expanding to 32 screens from six. It took in another $32,340 on Monday, good for a four-day average of $5,854.
At 11th just outside the Top 10, Tommy Lee Jones' contemporary Western "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" continues to hang as tough as Jones' personal does, itself. Sony Classics actually dropped a screen - to 41 from 42 - and saw the three-day per-screen average climb about 8% to $4,666 from $4,325. Its Monday business raised the overall holiday-weekend average to $5,635.
Overall, the 65 films on the current iWBOT generated $13.54 million from 5,317 screens over the four-day weekend, good for a $2,547 per-screen average. That represented a healthy 40% jump in per-screen gross from the previous three-day weekend, when 69 films on 6,812 screens earned $12.28 million, or $1,803 per screen.
(Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles-based film writer and former movie critic at the Denver Post.)