Three stylistically different films that all at least partially attracted pop-music lovers had strong finishes in this week's indieWire Box Office Tracking Report (iWBOT) of independent/specialty films. Warner Independent Picture's launch of music-video auteur Michel Gondry's fanciful "The Science of Sleep" finished first with a $24,852 per-theater average last weekend at 14 locations; Sony Pictures Classics' debut of Paul Rachman's "American Hardcore" documentary about American punk in the 1980s earned $18,102 at New York's Angelika Film Center for second place; and Kino Releasing's New York opening of Kelly Reichardt's "Old Joy" featuring singer-songwriter Will Oldham in a dramatic role brought in $17,556 at Film Forum to be third. And in fifth place with a $7,235 average at six theaters - down about 37% from the previous weekend, its first - was Lionsgate's "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" documentary by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld.
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The iWBOT is based on per-theater averages reported by Rentrak Theatrical. They are often, but not always, the same as per-screen.
Meanwhile, Manhattan proved again its indie-film clout by resurrecting the prospects for two films - "Old Joy," which had been languishing on the iWBOT for several weeks after a lukewarm debut in Oregon, where its story is set; and Magnolia Pictures' controversial documentary "Jesus Camp" by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, which had a sluggish opening the previous weekend in so-called "heartland" locations where it was shunned by the Evangelical Christian audience it initially was seeking.
While "Science of Sleep" isn't a music-oriented film despite starring Serge Gainsbourg's and Jane Birkin's daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg, Gondry has been attracting a following for his fantastical, absurdist eye since doing videos for Bjork, Chemical Brothers and Massive Attack. His 2004 "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," written by Charlie Kaufman, created a following for his surreal, romantic filmmaking. But that following didn't transfer over to his straightforward filming of "Dave Chappelle's Block Party," a major disappointment.
But Warner Independent chose to view the latter as an aberration and to believe "Science of Sleep" was a return to strength. "This was speaking to the type of filmmaking that made him famous," said Steve Friedlander, Warner Independent's executive vice president of distribution. "When he's back to making the kind of film that he has a fan base for, they really want to see it."
After alerting blogs, websites and alternative-music publications about the film, which premiered at Sundance, Warner Independent opened it at 14 theaters - on two screens at most of the locales - in 11 cities to capitalize on the buzz. It did $66,748 at the Angelika and $51,021 at the Lincoln Plaza in Manhattan; $44,902 at Laemmle's Sunset 5 in West Hollywood and $21,837 on a single screen at Landmark's NuWilshire in Santa Monica. It also did well in other cities, including Austin, Portland, Boston and San Francisco. It expands quickly to 200 or more theaters in many more markets this Friday. "Because the reaction is so strong, there's no reason to wait," Friedlander said.
"American Hardcore" straight-out drew lovers of the hardcore scene, and found that the audience for such music extended well into middle age, said Tom Prassis, Sony Classics' vice president of sales. "It spans all age groups. I'm 56 and I'm a fan," he said. Sony Classics will take the film into every major city, knowing each has at least a loyal pocket of hardcore fans.
Reichardt's "Old Joy" is a very different kind of movie from the other two - an American-indie version of a European art film in its quietly delicate exploration of the dynamics of male bonding. As such, it got rave New York reviews when it opened last Wednesday. (It's been hailed by critics ever since playing at Sundance this year.)
Kino, a distributor most comfortable with foreign-language art films, felt confident "Old Joy" would resonate with its traditional audience. But because it stars Oldham, whose music has been called Americana Gothic, and has a score by Yo La Tengo, the company sought out a rock audience, too. It even advertised on alternative-music site Pitchforkmedia.com and held an early screening (with free T-shirts) in Brooklyn's hipster outpost, Williamsburg.
"We thought there were two audiences - art-film lovers and music lovers," said Mike Schmidt, of Kino's marketing/sales department. "We tried to get both of them."
It seemed to work, especially when both Oldham and Yo La Tengo attended different opening-weekend screenings at Film Forum. "My wife went down to at Friday show and someone asked her where the bathroom was," Schmidt said. "People going to the Film Forum usually know that," he said, meaning "Old Joy" drew many newcomers to the perennial art cinema.
This week, "Old Joy" returns to Oregon after a week's absence. On Oct. 13, it opens at three locations in Los Angeles plus Landmark's Kendall Square in Cambridge. On Oct. 20, it goes into San Francisco, San Jose, Philadelphia and Washington. Schmidt said he's been fielding booking requests this week based on the Film Forum results. "So many theaters have been telling us, 'Show us the money,' and now we can do it," he said.
Two weekends ago, Evangelical Christians avoided "Jesus Camp," responding to harsh criticism from Rev. Ted Haggard of the National Association of Evangelicals. It opened at 13 theaters in such cities as Colorado Springs, Dallas, Tulsa and Oklahoma City and finished 34th on the previous iWBOT, grossing just $1,358 per location.
Little changed in those markets last weekend, said Eamonn Bowles, Magnolia's president, although Dallas held well. But New Yorkers sought the film out in its opening weekend there, especially after news media started reporting about the controversy. At the Angelika, it grossed $16,781 - not far behind "American Hardcore." At the AMC Empire 25, which has become a viable Manhattan venue for specialty films, it did $8,235. As a result, this week "Jesus Camp" finished 14th on the iWBOT with a $2,668 per-site average, a 96% increase.
Primarily about a summer camp run by a Pentecostal children's minister, "Jesus Camp" shows practices that can look like political and religious indoctrination to outsiders and, apparently, other Evangelicals as well. But the minister, Becky Fischer, is an engaging presence and she has supported the film and its filmmakers as fair.
Bowles said he thinks other big cities will be similarly interested as the film moves into new markets Friday. "I do think the grosses are going to grow. I feel confident about that," he said. He's also hoping more Evangelicals will seek it out, prompting a spirited debate about whether or not its portrayal of Fischer is negative. He points out that the Christianitytoday.com website already is hosting such exchanges.
Despite a number of new titles generating interest, last weekend's overall box office was down again - possibly because no Fall title as yet has had the impact of a "Little Miss Sunshine," "The Illusionist" or "An Inconvenient Truth." Overall, the 72 titles at 4,215 theaters averaged $1,897 per location, down about 10% from the $2,105 per location that 76 films averaged at 4,325 locations the previous weekend. Overall cumulative gross of all the films on the iWBOT also declined last weekend, to $7.991 million from $9.105 million.
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 email@example.com