With a cornucopia of highly praised new independent/specialty films in theaters last weekend, moviegoers responded with overwhelming support for Miramax Film's small expansion of Stephen Frears' "The Queen," which ruled supreme on this week's indieWIRE Box Office Tracking Report (iWBOT) with a powerful per-location average of $36,543 and anecdotal reports of sold-out screenings. Two new films - New Line Cinema's "Little Children" from director Todd Field and ThinkFilm's controversial release of John Cameron Mitchell's sexually graphic "Shortbus" - got off to good starts by finishing second and third respectively with $19,591 and $17,985 per-site averages. Fox Searchlight's expansion of "The Last King of Scotland," Kevin Macdonald's tough, Graham Greene-influenced thriller set in Idi Amin's Uganda, slowed somewhat as it expanded to 30 locations from three, however, and its per-theater average declined to $9,758 from $35,725. But that was still good for fourth. Beyond those films, however, only two others averaged above $5,000 on the iWBOT - Balcony Releasing's documentary "Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner" which was just at one location and grossed $5,944 and First Look's "Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" from Dito Montiel, which added two screens in its second weekend and saw its average drop to $5,622 from $12,012.
The iWBOT is based on per-theater averages reported by Rentrak Theatrical, the complete indieWIRE BOT weekly chart is available here at indieWIRE.com
The elephant in the room, however, was a film not on indieWIRE's chart - Warner Bros.' wide release of Martin Scorsese's critically praised "The Departed" with Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. It did $26.89 million at 3,017 locations - a fair number of them "upscale" sites that attracted adults looking for quality fare. "Clearly the upscale audience was seeing 'The Departed," and if they wanted an art film it was 'The Queen,"' said Greg Laemmle, of Los Angeles' Laemmle Theatres art-house chain.
As a result, the 72 films on the iWBOT didn't help improve the overall box office for indie/specialty films last weekend. Their cumulative gross was $6.75 million, the lowest figure since the dog days of August. And with upcoming wide studio releases like Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" threatening to repeat "The Departed's" results, the pressure is on for platform independent/specialty releases to expand the "upscale" market. "The old saw is the art audience isn't a first-weekend audience, so these films do have an opportunity," Laemmle said.
Still "The Queen," featuring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II wrestling with her response to Princess Diana's death in 1997, is quickly becoming a phenomenon. Moving into 11 theaters in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, New York and Washington after opening at two Manhattan sites, it barely saw its per-location average drop - to $36,543 from $40,671. Some of the numbers were fabulous - $76,000 from two screens at Hollywood's hip Arclight; $33,000 from the older-skewing, traditionally art-oriented Laemmle Royal in West L.A.
Elliot Slutzky, Miramax's executive vice president for general sales, said "The Queen" has unexpectedly touched a public nerve - and long-unanswered question - surrounding that death: Why was the queen so publicly unmoved by it?
"There are a lot of pictures about queens," Slutzky said. "The hook with this is it's a contemporary story and touches on Princess Diana and what happened after her death. That's a huge hook."
Miramax plans to expand to 50 theaters this weekend and then slowly try to turn the film into a mainstream hit. Slutzky realizes this is a tough season for that with multiplexes already booked with seasonal fare and lots of other indie releases trying the same. "But this is the one doing all the business," he said. "Obviously they'll want to make room for it."
New York responded to "Shortbus" the way Mark Urman, ThinkFilm's theatrical division head, was hoping and may establish the demand as it moves into other cities. It opened there on Wednesday, to avoid losing cover-page newspaper reviews to "The Departed." And it received major coverage in The Times, Time Out and Time. It did $27,787 over the weekend on two screens at Landmark's Sunshine Cinema and $26,870 on two screens at Clearview's Chelsea.
"New York had really good indie grosses," Urman said. "We wanted it to be taken seriously by mainstream media so it could come out of the margins and be part of a national dialogue. If we don't get written about a lot, the movie doesn't exist."
However, "Shortbus" wasn't comparatively as strong in all the other cities where it opened - Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver and Toronto. And asking Urman to analyze "Shortbus'" L.A. opening is a good way to get him going on that city's shortcomings as an art-film center. Not helped by a buried and diffident review in Los Angeles Times, "Shortbus" grossed but $13,822 on two screens at Laemmle's Sunset Five in West Hollywood.
"Los Angeles as a specialty film market is sometimes laggardly and scandalously underrepresented," he said. "Some people say it's not even in the Top Ten."
To be fair to L.A., the San Francisco opening on two screens at Landmark's Embarcadero also was soft with $12,118 from two screens, as was Vancouver's $10,236 from two screens at the Fifth Avenue. But overall, Urman said this of "Shortbus'" opening at six theaters in New York, L.A., San Francisco, Toronto and Vancouver: "We're declaring victory. Now the challenge is how far we can take it."
"Shortbus" adds 21 theaters Friday in Boston, Denver, Philadelphia, Washington, Ottawa, Austin, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta and various California cities.
The 72 films on this week's IWBOT averaged $1,952 at 3,458 theaters, compared to the previous weekend's $2,267 average from 78 titles at 3,979 sites. The $6.75 million cumulative gross was down about 25% from the previous weekend's $9.02 million. As Yari Group's "The Illusionist" (25th on the iWBOT), "Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine" (26th) and Paramount Vantage's "An Inconvenient Truth" (62nd) start to slow down, the question still is open as to whether any Fall releases will do as well on the IWBOT as those summer hits.
(Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles film writer and former Denver Post movie critic.)
[EDITORS NOTE: Michael Apted's "49 Up," whose grosses were not reported in time to be including in the indieWIRE: BOT for the three day weekend, opened on 21 screens with a total cume of $53,227, earning it a per screen average of $2537.00. The film is being being released by First Run Features.]
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