A postmodernist rumination on the challenge of adapting a literary classic to the screen proved the perfect cinematic counterprogramming for Super Bowl weekend, as Michael Winterbottom's "Tristram Shandy" overwhelmingly topped the indieWIRE Box Office Tracker (iWBOT) for the second straight week. iWBOT is ranked by per-screen average.
[View the indieWIRE:BOT Box Office Table for this week's films here.]
Essentially holding still on three New York screens before expanding to Los Angeles this upcoming weekend, Picturehouse's "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" averaged $13,568 while bringing its total gross to $122,400. The per-screen drop was 33% from the previous weekend's $20,295.
Meanwhile, a movie that some thought might be a casualty of Oscar-season scheduling, Tommy Lee Jones' quasi-surrealist political Western "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," debuted strongly. The Sony Classics' release had played one week in December in Los Angeles and New York as an Oscar-qualifying showcase. It failed to get any major nominations, but Sony Classics released it last weekend anyway on 33 screens and earned a $6,242 per-screen gross - almost $206,000 for the weekend. That was good for fourth on iWBOT.
It performed strongly in Los Angeles as well as New York, not always the case for art/specialty films and a testament to Jones' status in Hollywood. And coming after Sony Classics' success with "Cache," it's also a testament to the influence of the Cannes Film Festival on American audiences, especially with political films.
"Three Burials," which in its offbeat way is about immigration policies on the U.S./Texas border, received awards at last year's Cannes for Jones' acting and Guillermo Arriaga's screenplay. "Cache," which increased its run to 64 screens last weekend from the previous one's 52 and finished eighth on iWBOT with a $4,448 per-screen average, won for Michael Haneke's direction.
("Cache" slid from fourth on the previous weekend's iWBOT - because of a 38% decline from its $7,274 per-screen average. But it is now over $1.55 million in total revenue and going strong.)
"To be honest, that was a great weekend to open a movie," said Michael Barker, Sony Classics co-president, of "Three Burials." "There were not any major movies opening. If we had gotten Oscar nominations, we would have been primed as well. That would have been yet another variable."
Barker said the December showcase helped "Three Burials" prepare for last weekend's formal debut. "If you have a good movie, that's always good for word-of-mouth. It allows us to have quotes from critics who really love it. And if we had (fully) released it at Christmastime, there was so much competition."
In second with a $7,520 weekend gross was the exclusive (New York) Film Forum engagement of "Who Gets to Call It Art?" the Palm Pictures documentary about contemporary art and the late Met curator Henry Geldzahler.
And in third place was director Rakesh Omprakash's remarkable Indian film "Rang De Basanti," released by UTV Motion Pictures, which has grossed $1.21 million in North America in just two weekends playing mostly to audiences of Indian ethnicity. It increased its screens by five last weekend to 66, but saw its per-screen gross fall 44% from $11,503 to $6,447.
The three indie distributors with Best Picture Oscar-nominated films in release expanded widely last weekend - Focus Features with Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain," Sony Classics with Bennett Miller's "Capote," and Warner Independent Pictures with George Clooney's "Good Night, And Good Luck."
For all three, last weekend was what they'd been hoping for ever since mapping out distribution plans. And for all three, the presence of the Super Bowl on Sunday to some extent obscured true reads of their films' performance. Still, they were happy about the new revenue.
"Brokeback Mountain" saw its overall gross drop from the previous weekend, despite adding 435 screens in its ninth week to capitalize on its eight nominations. It ranked 15th on iWBOT by averaging $2,874 per screen, down 27% from the previous weekend's $3,955 average.
Jack Foley, Focus' head of distribution, said "Brokeback" will now start to drop screens in smaller markets like Brattleboro, Vt., and Ottumwa, La., where it is played out. However, he expects to see continued strong grosses to the nation's 500 busiest theaters as Oscar nominations lure new customers. "The top 500 houses, where the film had been grossing $20,000 or in the teens on weekends, were reinvigorated," he said.
He pointed out that, breaking down "Brokeback's" gross last weekend, its business on Super Bowl Sunday was 33% less than the previous weekend's Sunday. Last Friday's, however, was up 3% and Saturday's held steady. And midweek grosses immediately following the Oscar-nomination announcements were particularly strong. "And the weekend after Super Bowl bounces back for movies. It obviously bounces back on Sunday. No one watches the Pro Bowl," he said.
"Capote," spurred by five nominations, added 914 screens in its 19th week. It did especially well, grossing $2.29 million to bring its total to $18 million. It was 25th on iWBOT as its per-screen average declined a moderate 14% despite the huge increase in screens - from $2,140 to $1,849. Sony Classics' Barker said he believes the film could wind up with $25-$30 million in its theatrical release.
And "Good Night" celebrated its six nominations by adding 824 screens in its 18th week. In the process, its $1.52 million weekend gross was better than the previous five weekends combined, said Steven Friedlander, WIP's executive vice president for distribution. It stands at $26.75 million in total revenue.
The results mirrored what happened in its earlier bid at wide release - it did well in urban markets but met resistance in smaller ones. "It was hard for those (smaller) markets to get over the black-and-white issue and the historical nature of the story," Friedlander said. "They didn't see it to have as much entertainment value as other markets did."
Overall, the 68 films on this week's iWBOT grossed $19.21 million on 7,877 screens, compared with the Jan. 27th weekend's $19.48 million gross from 62 films on 5,480 screens. The average per-screen gross dipped to $2,439 from $3,554. Overall, there were 113 films in the marketplace last weekend, grossing $105.64 million total.
(Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles film writer and former movie critic at The Denver Post.)