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Legends (and Failures) of the Fall: Indie Box Office Winners and Losers

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire October 29, 2012 at 1:10PM

In the movie world, the "holiday season" begins in November, when Hollywood tentpoles hoping to cash in on Thanksgiving-related trips to the movies start popping up. So it seems a good time to take a quick look back at the hits and misses of Indiewood's fall before the heavy hitters drown them out.
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Phoenix The Master (beach)
'The Master'

Winter might not officially come until just before Christmas, but in the movie world "fall" becomes "holiday" season as of November. This is when the Hollywood tentpoles hoping to cash in on Thanksgiving and Christmas-related trips to the movies start popping up (see "Skyfall" and "Breaking Dawn, Part II" in the next few weeks), but it is also time for Indiewood to release their biggest of big Oscar hopefuls (see "Hitchcock," "Silver Linings Playbook," "Rust and Bone" and "Anna Karenina," all due out in November).

So it seemed a good time to take a quick look back at the hits and misses of the movies' version of the fall before the "holiday" heavy hitters drowned them out. And there's definitely much to discuss. Some major specialty breakouts happened over the past few months, as did a few major indie disappointments...

Winner: The opening weekend of "The Master"
When Paul Thomas Anderson's veiled take on Scientology opened in five theaters in New York and Los Angeles back on September 14th, it stunned just about everyone by shattering the per-theater-average record for a live action film, grossing $736,311 for a whopping $147,262 per-theater.

The previous per-theater-average record for a live -action film actually came from earlier this year when another Anderson, Wes, saw his "Moonrise Kingdom" average $130,749 from 4 screens, which topped "Dreamgirls," "Brokeback Mountain" and "Precious," the only other live-action films to find averages north of $100,000 (a dozen or so animated Disney films have much higher averages thanks to massive special screenings they'd hold before wide release -- "The Lion King" is still #1 with a whopping $793,377).

Loser: The final gross of "The Master"
While the P-T-A for P.T.A.'s latest (get it?) was extraordinarily impressive, the buck pretty much stopped there. The Weinstein Company took a risky approach to its expansion, pushing it to  783 theaters in its second frame. It managed a very respectable $4,391,092 gross, but that would end up its very best weekend. By its third, the film dropped 29% despite adding another 68 screens, and now it's struggling to hit the $20 million mark (it grossed $269,000 from 201 screens last weekend, taking its total to $15,219,000).

It's worth noting that for most specialty releases, a gross north of $15 million is great news (right now "The Master" is indeed the highest grossing specialty platform release of the fall). But for a film with a $35 million budget that opened with that average, it's very disappointing. It won't even end up grossing half of the $40.2 million "There Will Be Blood" made, and is Anderson's lowest grossing film since 1997's "Hard Eight," which is hardly comparable since its highest screen count was on just 29 screens.

"Samsara"
"Samsara"

Winner: "Samsara"
Who knew that one of the true breakouts among indie films this fall would be a non-verbal, non-narrative documentary? That was indeed the case with Ron Fricke’s and Mark Magidson’s "Samsara," which a few weeks ago became the highest grossing film in the nearly three-year history of Oscilloscope Laboratories. Filmed over a period of five years in 25 countries on five continents, and shot on 70mm, the film opened in late August to the highest per-theater-average of any documentary released in 2012 and fifth highest of any film for the year at that time -- $38,111. But unlike "The Master" (which also was released in 70mm), "Samsara" made good on its initial promise. After eight straight weeks of averages above $2,000 per theater, the film has grosed $2,178,700 and could top out around $3 million, potenially making it one of the 50 highest grossing documentaries of all time.

Losers: "Hello I Must Be Going" and "Wuthering Heights"
It wasn't all good news over at Oscilloscope. Two generally acclaimed films --  Todd Louiso's "Hello I Must Be Going" and Andrea Arnold's "Wuthering Heights" -- have found very disappointing numbers so far in their releases. The former has managed just $96,118 since opening on September 9th, while the latter has made $62,100 since October 5th. "Heights" is still somewhat early in its release, but its $833 average from 12 screens this past weekend doesn't bode well.

"Arbitrage."
"Arbitrage."

Winner: "Arbitrage"
Last year, Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate's joint Sundance pickup "Margin Call" came out of nowhere to become a big specialty hit theatrically, grossing over $5 million despite having a day-and-date release on VOD.  A year later, Roadside and Lionsgate have done it again with another Wall Street-themed Sundance pickup, Nicholas Jarecki's "Arbitrage."  The film -- about a corrupt 60-year-old billionaire hedge fund manager played by Richard Gere -- found the biggest opening ever for a film opening in both movie theaters and On Demand (just over $2 million from 197 screens), opening as #2 on iTunes movies overall at the same time. It also managed to hold on strong, taking in $7,349,000 as of this weekend (with the $8 million mark likely).

Loser: "V/H/S" 
Another Sundance pickup that made its way to both VOD and theaters was the much buzzed about horror anthology "V/H/S," which features a series of found-footage shorts written and directed by Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg and the directing quartet known as Radio Silence. Its VOD numbers are unavailable, but distributor Magnolia Pictures is surely unhappy with its theatrical numbers. As of October 25th, the film has grossed just $78,397, averaging just $332 per-theater in its third weekend of release.

Winner: "The Perks of Being a Wallflower"
Aside from "The Master," the only platform specialty release to cross the $10 million mark this fall was Stephen Chbosky's adaptation of his own 1999 book, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower." The high school-set drama averaged a huge $57,090 per-theater in its first weekend of release, and has continued to find strong numbers in its expansion, managing an estimated $1,400,000 from 736 theaters this past weekend (its sixth). The Summit-released film has grossed $11,208,000 so far, and could end up rivalling "The Master" as the highest grossing indie of the fall.

Loser: "Atlas Shrugged: Part II"
Another literary adaptation did not fare so well. John Putch's "Atlas Shrugged, Part II" -- the second part of an adaptation of Ayn Rand's novel -- was given a $20 million budget despite its disappointing predecessor, and fared even worse. Taking in just $1,708,000 in its aggressive wide 1,012 screen opening weekend (for a $1,688 average), it plummeted 65% in its second weekend, and 86% in its third. Its grossed $3,200,000 so far, and should maybe manage another $200,000 (if that). Last April, "Part I" grossed a similar $1,686,347 in its first weekend, but from only 299 screens. It ended up with a $4,627,375 final gross.

"Searching for Sugar Man."
"Searching for Sugar Man."

Winner: "Searching For Sugar Man"
Aside from "Samsara," one of the few documentaries to gross over $2 million so far this year was Malik Bendjelloul's "Searching For Sugar Man." Sony Pictures Classics released the film back on July 27th, but it wasn't until September when the distributor's slow-and-steady release strategy began to pay off considerably. It actually didn't have its best weekend until October 19-21, when it took in $197,188 from 137 screens (impressively up from the weekend prior, despite a screen loss), and has totalled $2,214,000 as of this past weekend, its whopping fourteenth.

Losers: A lot of really excellent documentaries.
Many documentaries really struggled this fall, including several that truly deserved audiences' movie-going dollars. Acclaimed docs out of Sundance like "The House I Live In," "How To Survive a Plague," and "Escape Fire" have underwhelmed (of the three, only "Plague" has crossed over $100,000 -- and barely), but here's hoping they end up having unexpected legs and find the audiences they deserve.

Winner: "Sleepwalk With Me"
"Sleepwalk With Me --  starring, directed and co-written by comedian Mike Birbiglia -- turned into quite little hit this fall.  Helped by personal appearances by Birbiglia (and co-writer Ira Glass) at screening, the film saw a huge $68,801 gross from a single screen in its first weekend in late August, en route to a $2,200,262 gross as of October 21st. That made it IFC Films' highest grossing film so far in 2012.

Loser: "The Paperboy"
One would think the combined star wattage of Nicole Kidman, Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey and John Cusack would be enough to top Mike Birbiglia and Ira Glass, but no: Lee Daniels' "The Paperboy" -- in which they all star -- pretty much crashed and burned. The Millennium Entertainment release has grossed just $551,000 as of last weekend, averaging just $1,342 from 76 screens in its most recent frame. Its likely to struggle to even cross the $1 million mark, less than Daniels' "Precious" grossed in its first two days (on just 18 screens).

This article is related to: Box Office