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Out Like a Lion: March Specialty Box Office Finds Shiny Numbers

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire April 1, 2009 at 4:24AM

With the first quarter of 2009 now only a memory, the overall domestic box office is heading into the rest of the year with some pretty impressive numbers. On the heels of few surprising success stories ("Paul Blart: Mall Cop," "Taken"), and despite a considerable disappointment ("Watchmen"), box office numbers are up 10% over last year. This is despite ticket prices not rising for the first time since 1993, and last year finding near-record breaking numbers itself. And while the first month or two of the year seemed relatively slow for 2009 specialty releases (though there were Oscar-friendly 2008 leftovers aplenty), offering a few breakout foreign language winners ("The Class," "Gomorrah," both technically 2008 releases themselves), and one giant animated hit (Focus Features' $73 million grossing "Coraline," which, mind you, had an immediate wide release), things seem to have significantly heated up as the Spring season approaches.
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With the first quarter of 2009 now only a memory, the overall domestic box office is heading into the rest of the year with some pretty impressive numbers. On the heels of few surprising success stories ("Paul Blart: Mall Cop," "Taken"), and despite a considerable disappointment ("Watchmen"), box office numbers are up 10% over last year. This is despite ticket prices not rising for the first time since 1993, and last year finding near-record breaking numbers itself. And while the first month or two of the year seemed relatively slow for 2009 specialty releases (though there were Oscar-friendly 2008 leftovers aplenty), offering a few breakout foreign language winners ("The Class," "Gomorrah," both technically 2008 releases themselves), and one giant animated hit (Focus Features' $73 million grossing "Coraline," which, mind you, had an immediate wide release), things seem to have significantly heated up as the Spring season approaches.

"For the fifth month in a row our box office is ahead of the prior year," Ted Mundorff, CEO of the country's largest art cinema chain, Landmark Theatres, told indieWIRE. This is in large part due to Overture Films' "Sunshine Cleaning," which has already doubled the highest final gross of a March 2008 release ("Married Life") in its three weeks at the box office. Its $54,798 opening PTA would have ranked fourth among all 2008 releases (behind only December releases "Frost/Nixon." "Revolutionary Road" and "Defiance). "'Sunshine Cleaning' very successfully launched the post-Oscar season," said Mundorff. "The film posted very strong numbers throughout the country for us and quickly became the number one film in the circuit."

Last March, the highest per-theater-average of any opener was IFC Film's "Paranoid Park," which averaged $14,914 from two screens. This year, four films reached that mark ("Cleaning," "Tokyo!," "Hope & Redemption: The Lena Baker Story," and "Valentino: The Last Emperor"), with a slew of others bubbling just under ("Sin Nombre," "Hunger," "Tokyo Sonata," "Goodbye Solo," etc). Most of last year's iW BOT toppers were one week wonders, grossing decent first weekend and then faltering in expansion beyond their initial market. This was most notable "Chapter 27," which debuted to a $13,910 PTA and ended up grossing just $56,215, and even "Park" ended up grossing just $486,767. But many of this year's releases seem to be holding up quite nicely. For example, Focus Features' "Sin Nombre" fell just 13% in its second weekend despite a static screen count.

"'Sin Nombre is having terrific word of mouth and its numbers are very encouraging," Mundorff said. The same could be said of independently released (through Truly Indie) "Valentino: The Last Emperor," which managed an impressive $15,553 average in its second weekend. Its two-week total at New York's Film Forum was $93,934. The second week total ($48,692) bested the first by over $3k.

"March has been a tremendous month for us," said Karen Cooper, Director of New York's Film Forum, where "Valentino" had its exclusive premiere. "I don't think it's a question of trends. For independent premieres it's always the movie, the movie, the movie. In this case, Matt Tyrnauer's 'Valentino: The Last Emperor,' which opened March 18, has come close to breaking our box office record. Many shows are complete sell-outs... Interestingly, it is in may ways a cross-over film: audiences range from early 20s to post-baby boomers; they're both black and white, men and women, straight and gay."

Other promising numbers come care of Ramin Bahrani's intensely acclaimed "Goodbye Solo," which debuted to a $12,681 average last weekend, a 32% increase from Bahrani's "Chop Shop," which came out last March; Regent Releasing's "Tokyo Sonata," which averaged $3,874 in its third weekend, taking its rising cume to $103,045; and Koch Lorber's "Katyn," released the last weekend of February and still finding $3,000+ PTAs.

But obviously "Sunshine Cleaning" is the specialty success story of the month. On 167 screens last weekend, the Amy Adams-Emily Blunt starrer grossed $1,274,007, averaging $7,629 and bringing its total to $2,477,704. The film is tracking ahead of Overture's 2008 hit "The Visitor," and quite similarly to Fox Searchlight's "The Namesake," a lone bright spot from March, 2006's box office. That film ended up grossing $13,569,248.

“We're thrilled that audiences are discovering 'Sunshine Cleaning,' Kyle Davies, EVP of Theatrical Distribution at Overture told indieWIRE. "Box Office has been on a roll in 2009 and we are encouraged by the momentum we have seen with 'Sunshine Cleaning.' Many of the theater grosses for the film have gone up week to week—we can attribute that simply to great word-of-mouth. The spring season was great for 'The Visitor' last year, and we hope lightning can strike twice for us with 'Sunshine Cleaning.' Ultimately, the audience makes that decision, but so far it looks very promising."

"Cleaning" expands to 500 screens this Friday, and has some heavy new competition ("Sugar," "Gigantic," "Adventureland," "Paris 36" and "The Escapist" are among the many new entries this weekend). Last April saw a bunch of specialty hits in "The Visitor," "Roman De Gare," "Priceless," "Young@Heart," "Up The Yangtze." If 2009's numbers keeping shining above and beyond last year's, who knows what's in store for April 2009.