"Tsotsi's" initial success -- it ranks first on this week's indieWIRE Box Office Tracker (iWBOT) with a $12,721 per-screen average -- has gotten the "new" Miramax Films off to a strong start. (The iWBOT is based on per-screen averages.) Overall, foreign-language dramas and English-language documentaries made a strong showing on the indie/specialty circuit last weekend. But it was a slower weekend than the previous holiday one, however. Only one film ("Tsotsi") finished with a per-screen average greater than $10,000 as such recent past high-performers as "Night Watch," "CSA: Confederate States of America" and "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days" saw an inevitable per-screen drop while they expanded.
[View the indieWIRE:BOT Box Office Table for this week's films here.]
The South African "Tsotsi" is not only Miramax's first release of 2006 but also the Disney arthouse division's first film since the Weinstein brothers departed last year to set up their own company. Miramax's last release was September's "Proof."
"Tsotsi" is directed by Gavin Hood from an Athol Fugard novel about a gang member and a baby, and is nominated for a foreign language film Oscar because of its Zulu/Xhosa/Afrikaans dialogue.
Elliot Slutzky, Miramax's executive vice president for general sales, said the company didn't intentionally wait until just before Oscars to release the film...but that didn't hurt. It has been playing film festivals and winning audience awards since Toronto. Other festivals include Denver, St. Louis and the AFI in Los Angeles.
"There were so many limited specialized releases in December that we wanted to steer clear," Slutzky said. "And by waiting for this date, we'd be clear of the expansions of 'Capote' and 'Brokeback Mountain.' It worked out that, because it had won at a lot of film festivals and we had a trailer out 60 days ahead of time, a lot of people knew it was coming."
Meanwhile, Zeitgeist Films expanded its foreign language film Oscar nominee, Germany's "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days," by adding eight screens in Long Island and metropolitan Los Angeles to its initially exclusive run at Film Forum. Its per-screen gross of $5,887 was a dip from the previous (four-day) gross of $21,795.
"I think we're doing quite solid numbers when you look at how the weekend was for everyone else," said Emily Russo, Zeitgeist's co-president. "Now we need to stay in those theaters. If we win on Sunday, that will be great for us. And if not, we're still hoping to be in a position of going forward." "Sophie Scholl" adds one screen in Santa Monica and three in the Bay Area on Friday.
There were more art/specialty titles in the marketplace last weekend than the previous one - 74 compared to 65 -- but they occupied 5,169 screens compared to 5,317. Deprived of a four-day holiday and with business for Oscar-nominated indies quieting down, the overall art/specialty gross dropped to $10.68 million from $13.54 million.
Besides "Tsotsi" and "Sophie Scholl," the other foreign-language film on the iWBOT's Top Five was Fox Searchlight's Russian sci-fi/fantasy film "Night Watch," which finished third with a $6,092 average from 34 screens. On the previous three-day weekend, the debuting "Night Watch" scored a best-of-year $28,995 average on three screens in New York and L.A. Last weekend's expansion brought in a gross of $207,114 while the per-screen declined by almost 80%.
Meanwhile, Wellspring's documentary "Unknown White Male" -- Rupert Murray's controversial film about a young man who mysteriously loses his memory -- finished second in its debut week with a $6,148 average from four screens. For Wellspring, which will cease theatrical distribution to concentrate on DVD/video and has already begun dismissing theatrical-division employees, that's a victory to be savored.
"We're leaving our signature on our last release," said Wellspring's Marisa Keselica. "If you have to go out, I'm glad it's with a great film that's doing so well. Some of us are staying here until May to make sure it gets out there."
Actually, "Unknown White Male" might well have led iWBOT if Wellspring had followed its initial plans to open exclusively in New York and then let word-of-mouth build for its L.A. debut. It grossed $13,392 at Loews Village VII but had to hold that date back a week. So the film then opened there simultaneously with lower-grossing Los Angeles dates: Laemmle Sunset 5 in West Hollywood ($6,306); Edwards University Town Center in Irvine ($2,687), and Laemmle One Colorado in Pasadena ($2,205).
"We're not here that much longer so we need to get it out as quickly as possible," Keselica said.
Jonathan Demme's filmed rock concert "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" continued strong as it expanded into such new markets as Denver, adding 10 screens for a total of 40 and climbing to sixth from ninth on iWBOT. The Paramount Classics release's per-screen average of $4,912 actually jumped about 8%, a testament to Young's drawing power in the heartland.
The last three spots in the Top Ten were occupied by a "mockumentary" and two docs. Kevin Willmott's satiric "CSA," which imagines how this country would be different had the Confederacy won the Civil War, added eight screens to the previous weekend's exclusive Manhattan run and saw per-screen drop to $4,752 from $22,853 (over four days). Meanwhile, Jim Tushinski's self-distributed "That Man: Peter Berlin's" second weekend at San Francisco's Castro Theater was much quieter than the first - $4,443 versus $16,870 (over four days). And ThinkFilm's "The Boys of Baraka" added two screens to reach seven and averaged a healthy $4,554.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles-based film writer and former movie critic at the Denver Post.