Self-distributed “Guiana 1838” Shatters BOT Record; “Motorcycle Diaries” also B.O. Tour de Force
by Brian Brooks
Releases ranging from well-known specialty titles from the mini-majors to self-distributed films playing at one location dominated the indie box office over the weekend, with debut films filling the top 10 places on the iW: BOT, as ranked on a per screen basis, for the first time in recent memory. Director Rohit Jagessar‘s self-distributed “Guiana 1838” invaded the list in the number one position with the highest per screen average recorded since this column began nearly a year-and-a-half ago, after opening in one Queens, NY cinema, while Focus Features‘ “The Motorcycle Diaries” raced into second place also with a stratospheric per screen average. “Diaries” also outperformed previous debut record holders for 2004, including “The Dreamers,” “The Passion of the Christ” and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” but other weekend openers fared more modestly.
Historic docu-drama “Guiana 1838,” which gives an account of Indians who emigrated to British Guiana as indentured servants, sold out virtually every screening at the 660-seat UA Crossbay Theater I in Queens over the weekend, easily handing the film the top position for the week, and an iW: BOT per screen record-breaking $70,910. To give perspective, “The Dreamers” on five screens averaged $28,526 in its debut weekend last February, while “Control Room” opened on one screen in late May with $27,125, both among the highest openers on a per screen basis of the year. Box office monoliths “The Passion of the Christ” ($27,554) and “Fahrenheit 9/11” ($27,558) were also in similar ranges on a per site basis, although their debuts were much broader in scale.
“I’m overwhelmed, [the audience] laughed at all the [right] places, and cried at the [right] places they were supposed to, it’s a great surprise,” writer/producer/director Rohit Jagessar told indieWIRE. “I thought, ‘let’s go for gusto.’ I expected it would do well, but I didn’t expect a $70,000 gross. We took a chance in booking a large theater.” Jagessar told indieWIRE yesterday that he wanted to experience opening the film himself. “I wanted to promote it and talk about it to people on the streets.” The film, according to Jagessar, cost about $1 million to make, which was backed by a radio station that he owns as well as, “a lot of credit cards.”
The film did not play at any festivals, but Jagessar told iW that two well-known specialty distributors have made inquiries about the film, since its debut. He also said that he hopes the film will serve as an inspiration to independent filmmakers who don’t have distribution to find their niche. Going forward, the Guyanese-born director said he’d like to “shift the film around to other [New York] boroughs, and then take it to other ‘territories’ wider — 20 to 30 theaters at a time.”
Walter Salles‘ “The Motorcycle Diaries” also mounted a full-scale box office assault, with a revolutionary $53,273 per screen average on three screens ($159,819 gross). The Focus Features release is the highest of any foreign-language film to open in under ten theaters.
“[We’re] completely blown away by this massive, record-breaking opening,” commented Focus Features’ distribution chief Jack Foley, talking with indieWIRE yesterday. “We expected success with this film, which we’re so proud of and we’ve had incredible reviews on, but its weekend box office was unimaginable, even by the most optimistic outlook.” Foley also commented that “Motorcycle Diares”‘s weekend average ranks 11th among all films (excluding animated features) opened in limited release, and out-performed opening weekend averages for major English-language hits including “About Schmidt,” “Traffic,” and “The Joy Luck Club.”
Foley credited the publicity campaign for creating high awareness of the film. “Key factors appealed to the first-in-line core patron [including] Walter Salles, the world-acclaimed director and his fan base, which began with ‘Central Station,’ [as well as] Gael Garcia Bernal and his fan base from ‘Y Tu Mama Tambien,’ and ‘Amores Perros.’” He also credited the story itself, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara and his book of the same title. “The word-of-mouth that Focus’ publicity department has been cultivating since the standing ovation that the film got at Sundance in January has generated important awareness about the film,” Foley said. He also cited critics who have “lauded” the film from The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone and others.
Males and females bought tickets to the film in roughly equal numbers, according to Focus, with 29% of the audience being Hispanic. The company created a specific marketing campaign targeting that community, and ages ranged from teens to seniors with a majority over 35. Focus will expand “Motorcycle Diaries” into 17 new markets next weekend, while adding a minimal number of screens in New York and Los Angeles. “The goal by the end of October is to have the film in about 100 markets and be in about 250 to 300 theaters. Hopefully, after a month of successful business, we will look for further expansion opportunities in November and beyond as award season begins,” Foley added.
Focus also debuted Edgar Wright‘s “Shaun of the Dead,” on 607 screens, taking the sixth ranking on the iW: BOT with a $5,478 average on weekend grosses of over $3.33 million. In other debuts, United Artists‘ “The Yes Men” played three sites, taking in $24,373 for an $8,124 average, ranking third on the chart, while Northern Arts Entertainment‘s “Incantato” grossed $5,701 on one screen. Self-distributed “Mind the Gap” also played one venue with $5,503 in sales, and Strand Releasing‘s “Raspberry Reich” screened in one New York venue with $5,183. Miramax debuted “Infernal Affairs” at five sites, taking in $25,680 ($5,136 average), while Northern Arts Entertainment’s controversial “Hollywood Buddha” ranked ninth on four screens with a $16,774 gross ($4,194 average).
Last week, New Line did not report grosses for John Waters‘ “A Dirty Shame,” which would’ve given the film the top ranking at $29,384 on one screen on last week’s chart. It opened in one theater in Baltimore. For its second weekend, the film expanded to 133 screens, grossing $448,914 ($3,375 average).
In addition to the debut of “Shaun of the Dead,” three films including “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Hero,” and “Garden State” again managed seven-figure grosses. Together, the four titles represented nearly $5.5 million or 45% of the entire weekend specialty gross of $12.2 million ($11.26 million previously). That figure, however, compares to last week’s four absolute top grossers representing 73% of the entire weekend take. Overall the “indie” box office average was off slightly at $1,700 ($1,714 last week) with 86 titles, up by 11. Cinemas devoted 7,182 screens to specialty titles, a 613 site increase from the previous week.
Minus the top four earners, the chart’s remaining 82 films took in $6.74 million on 3,170 screens for a $2,126 per site average, an increase of 25% from last week’s $1,596 using similar calculations. Industry-wide, 141 titles screened on 38,371 screens, taking in $71.26 million for an overall $1,857 per screen average. The iW BOT recording period one year ago calculated an indie gross of $6.66 million ($2,682 average) with “Yossi & Jagger” ranking first with a $19,395 average on one screen for the period ending September 28, 2003.
This coming weekend’s openers include “DiG!” from Palm Pictures, THINKFilm‘s “Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry,” “I Heart Huckabees” from Fox Searchlight, Roadside Attractions‘ “Tying the Knot,” “Woman Thou Art Loosed” from Magnolia Pictures, and Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson‘s “Deadline” at the Quad Cinemas in New York.