In a tough competitive environment for specialty films, with more than 70 in the theatrical marketplace, Fox Searchlight's political, satirical "Thank You For Smoking" continues to be the runaway success story in its second week of release. It finished first on this week's indieWIRE Box Office Tracking Report (iWBOT) with an $18,591 per-theater average. Numbers are provided by Rentrak.
[View the indieWIRE:BOT Box Office Table for this week's films here.]
The film expanded decisively to 54 theaters last weekend after its first weekend at five New York, L.A. and Washington, D.C., theaters earned a sky-high iWBOT-first-place-ranking $52,585 per-site average. The Jason Reitman-directed film actually grossed in excess of $1 million. It placed 15th overall on the chart of all titles in release, sensational given its still-limited release. Its per-screen decline amid the fast expansion was 64%. (The film, starring Aaron Eckhart, is based on a Christopher Buckley novel.)
Beyond "Thank You," several other films that did well were smaller and more niche-oriented. However, in the views of their distributors, they are capable of breaking out to larger audiences. Shadow Distribution's Ken Eisen has that hope for Liz Mermin's documentary "The Beauty Academy of Kabul," which earned $9,704 in its first weekend at New York's Angelika Film Center.
The film documents the efforts of some American volunteers in post-Taliban Afghanistan to encourage the long-repressed women to earn a living by becoming beauticians. But it isn't as simple as it sounds - the film subtly challenges whether wearing makeup really means liberation for Afghan women.
"I think the film is a bit of a sleeper, like 'Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill' was last year for us," Eisen said. "It has a strange, intangible something you can't put your finger on. And it's not about the Afghan War or the Iraq War. It's about the meeting of two cultures. It doesn't have an ax to grind."
This weekend, Shadow expands it to Lincoln Plaza in Manhattan and to Rhinebeck, N.Y.'s, Upstate Film Theater. And on April 7, it opens in Washington, D.C.
While Rentrak did not include the figures for compilation on the iWBOT chart, Wingate Distribution's "Boynton Beach Club" had another good weekend, according to the company's Jamin O'Brien. Expanding to 12 from 10 theaters in its second weekend, it had a per-screen average of $4,531. That would have been good enough for fourth on this week's iWBOT.
Last week, when it was reported by/to Rentrak, it finished second with a $6,342 average. The latest per-screen average represented a modest drop of 25% from its initial weekend. The film, a comedy by Susan Seidelman about South Florida retirees who commiserate at a bereavement club, also took its first tentative steps outside of its Florida home base. It played in Palm Springs, Calif., in addition to 11 theaters in or near Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale
O'Brien said "Boynton" is playing "all the snowbird areas before people return to their summer homes" and will then expand to other cities. (It opens in Miami this weekend.) "Exhibitors are contacting us. There are multiplexes in New York, Philadelphia, New Haven, Dallas and Phoenix begging for the film. We think we have a mainstream film. It especially appeals to seniors and Baby Boomers."
And, O'Brien said, the film is holding especially well on weekdays because of its older support base. "You don't have as big a drop-off at the beginning of the work week because there isn't as big a segment of the audience going to work or school."
IFC Films' Steve Buscemi-directed "Lonesome Jim" finished third in its debuting week on iWBOT, but with a split in business between its two Manhattan locations. At the IFC Center, the character study grossed $11,461 according to Nielsen EDI, but just $2,339 at the Upper East Side's First and 62nd Street 7. Buscemi appeared at IFC Center with the film.
The third-place finisher on iWBOT was "L'Enfant," the Belgian Dardenne brothers' naturalistic drama - best picture at last year's Cannes Film Festival - about a young father's conflicted feelings toward his infant. Opening at seven theaters, it averaged a respectable $6,362 per screen.
According to Nielsen, it grossed $16,769 last weekend at the Lincoln Plaza 6 and $12,769 at the Quad in New York, but at five greater L.A. locations its best gross was just $3,540 at Landmark's Westside Pavilion.
However, Sony Pictures Classics' co-president Michael Barker said "L'Enfant" did well for L.A. -- a tough city for foreign-language films. "I did better than any real art film opening in L.A. that weekend -- that's indicative of the difficulty in opening in L.A.," he said. "That's just the way it is."
He said he is committed to giving the Dardenne brothers the kind of breakthrough Sony Classics gave Michael Haneke's "Cache" earlier this year. "This film is going to play everywhere," he said.
The 71 art/specialty titles reported by/to Rentrak this week represented a drop from the previous 78, and the 3,436 theaters were way down from the previous weekend's 4,325 as the Oscar nominees (and winners) like "Brokeback Mountain," "Capote," "Good Night, and Good Luck" and "The Squid and the Whale" continued their slow retreat from theaters to video.
The per-theater average did seem to find terra firma, however, slipping just 9% to $1,318 from the previous weekend's $1,442. But overall business dropped to $4.52 million from the previous weekend's $6.24 million.
Still, there are titles finding a loyal audience, however small or alternative. One example this week is David Redmon's self-distributed, digitally-projected documentary about globalization's disorienting effects, "Mardi Gras: Made in China." It did $2,670 last weekend with limited screenings at New York's Cinema Village, good enough to get held over and to get an upcoming booking in Boston. (The numbers weren't reported to/by Rentrak.)
While that gross didn't cover the $4,700 in publicity and advertising costs associated with the New York opening, it probably helped increase the film's exposure. And it made Redmon feel a part of a community of people interested in the increasing number of documentaries about the global economy's ironies and disparities.
"I have people come up to me and say did you see 'Darwin's Nightmare' or 'The Devil's Miner,'" Redmon said. "Or the Indian film 'John and Jane.' This builds a community of interest."
(Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles-based film writer and former Denver Post movie critic.)