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by Indiewire
March 22, 2006 2:31 AM
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"Smoking" Atop BOT With Big Opening Weekend

Aaron Eckhart (right) in a scene from Jason Reitman's "Thank You For Smoking". Photo credit Dale Robinette/Room 9 Entertainment.

"Thank You For Smoking" lit up this week's indieWIRE Box Office Tracking report (iWBOT) with the highest opening-weekend per-theater gross this year - $52,585. But there was a chasm-wide difference in business between that release and every other film on iWBOT - a testament to how quiet last weekend was for specialty films outside of the five theaters playing Jason Reitman's Fox Searchlight-distributed political satire.

[View the indieWIRE:BOT Box Office Table for this week's films here.]

The iWBOT is based on a film's per-theater gross. Usually for limited-release specialty films, that's the same as per-screen gross. However, occasionally a film like "Thank You" opens on more than one screen within multiplexes. Numbers are provided by Rentrak Theatrical.

In an unusual move, Fox Searchlight opened "Thank You" in Washington, D.C., as well as New York and Los Angeles. It was counting on a good response in a political town to help propel national interest in this acrid comedy about lobbyists. Aaron Eckhart plays a proud cigarette lobbyist whose battles with Congress and investigative journalists titillate his fellow "merchants of deaths" in the alcohol and gun lobbies. It's based on a Christopher Buckley novel.

The strategy worked. At the Georgetown Theater, it grossed $37,561. At Landmark's Bethesda Row, where it was on two screens, it did $29,709 after an advertising error caused opening-night problems. Grosses were higher in the much bigger markets of New York and Los Angeles - $74,002 at New York's UA Union Square Stadium 14 and $66,348 at Pacific Theater's Arclight in Hollywood.

"The initial decision was because the Washington, D.C., market has been getting stronger and stronger in recent years," said Stephen Gilula, chief operating officer for Fox Searchlight. "And when (films) are politically themed, they do fantastically well, like 'Fahrenheit 9/11.'

"The timing (of 'Thank You') is quite extraordinary because of the Abramoff scandal and the things going on in Washington," he said. "I think it's very topical and very timely."

Gilula said the film's initial business pattern showed it might already be breaking out from the specialty market to become a broader upscale-audience hit along the lines of 2004's "Sideways." On its Friday performance, for instance, it didn't sell out its screenings and Gilula - assuming that would be a typical of weekend business - was ready to predict a weekend per-theater average in the high-$30,000 figure.

But there was a 90% Friday-Saturday increase in business, and it held well on Sunday, too. "This film may be crossing over sooner, as opposed to others that have to wait three or four weeks," Gilula said. "We haven't had a film like this in a long time. There were some great films last fall, but they were all pretty serious and earnest."

Fox Searchlight will take the film to 50 theaters this weekend, adding multiple runs in existing markets and moving into Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Phoenix and Toronto.

Interest in the movie may also be benefiting from the Katie Holmes factor. At its U.S. premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival, it was hit by rumors that Tom Cruise ordered a racy sex scene between Eckhart and Holmes cut. (Its world premiere was at last year's Toronto Film Festival.) Actually, Gilula said, the scene was missing from at least one screening at Sundance. It occurs at the end of a reel just before the black leader at the tail, and a projectionist inadvertently switched over to another reel before it played. "That was an honest mistake," he said.

At number two on iWBOT was the surprising debut of Wingate Distribution's "Boynton Beach Club," a romantic comedy by Susan Seidelman about retirees who meet at a Florida social bereavement club where they go to mourn their loved ones. It had a $6,342 average at 10 screens in the Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale area. Co-written by Seidelman ("Desperately Seeking Susan") with her mother Florence and three others, it stars Joseph Bologna, Renee Taylor, Dyan Cannon and Sally Kellerman.

The theatrical opening followed a special screening on March 13 at Boynton Beach, where it was filmed, hosted by the Palm Beach Film Commission and Palm Beach Film Festival. On April 7, Windgate will take it to Florida's Gulf Coast communities. "Remember, our audiences are seniors and the ticket sales are much greater in number than in gross dollars," said Windgate's Jamin O'Brien<.b>, in an E-mail.

Miramax Films' "Tsotsi" continued to do reasonably well in its expansion - climbing to 57 from 30 screens in its fourth weekend and seeing its per-screen average drop by 39%, to $5,271 from $8,668. The South African production directed by Gavin Hood, a winner of this year's Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar, finished fourth on iWBOT.

Last week's number one film on iWBOT, Robert Towne's "Ask the Dust," proved far less successful than "Tsotsi" in its ambitious expansion to 77 locations from last week's seven. The Paramount Classics release plummeted to a $2,676 per-screen average from the previous weekend's $9,826 - a 73% fall. It may be that the film, based on a classic John Fante novel about Los Angeles, just doesn't have much interest outside of L.A.

Magnolia Films has been pleased with its experiment distributing "2005 Academy Award-Nominated Short Films" around the country. (There are two separate programs for live-action and animated shorts.) Slowly playing around the country, sometimes just for two-day runs in cities like Austin and Portland, Ore., it has grossed $119,000 in four weeks and has another 10-15 bookings coming up. It's 30th on this week's iWBOT. (Magnolia is owned by entrepreneurs Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, who also own HDTV and the Landmark Theatres chain.)

"Our acquisitions people had the idea that now that we have all these options - HDTV, DVD, theaters - why don't we do something with shorts," said Jeff Reichert, Magnolia's vice president of publicity. "The first idea was the Academy-nominated shorts since they're the most high-profile."

The 78 art/specialty titles in the marketplace marked an increase from the previous weekend's 70, but the 4,325 screens were sharply lower than the previous 4,885. The per-theater average of $1,442 also dropped from the previous week's $1,700, despite "Thank You For Smoking's" strong numbers. Overall, business dropped from to $6.24 million from $8.34 million.

(Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles-based film writer and former Denver Post movie critic.)

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