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Arthouse Audit: ‘Stories We Tell’ Shows Initial Strength, Sole Successful Opening

Arthouse Audit: 'Stories We Tell' Shows Initial Strength, Sole Successful Opening

So far the 2013 indie box office is running far behind last year–nothing comes close to 2012’s booming “Best Exotic Marigold” or “Bernie,” which were both standout performers far above this weekend’s group of small-grossing releases, typical for this time of year. Few recent releases — even those that had a glimmer of hope initially — look to do as well as the best of a year ago. Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” opened to a promising response, and should appeal to main limited situations as opposed to being rushed out wide as most recent successes have.

By end of May last year, both Focus’ successful “Moonrise Kingdom” and Weinstein’s “Intouchables” had opened. Sony Pictures Classics’ “Before Midnight” from Richard Linklater looms as a potential breakout film, and Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha,” which IFC opens next week, is backed by initial strong reviews and a possible strong appeal to younger urban audiences similar to “(500) Days of Summer.” But even more than in the overall world of theatrical grosses, 2013 is looking much weaker so far than 2012 among specialized films.

Two other significant openings — Magnolia’s tennis documentary “Venus and Serena” and Weinstein/Radius’ Chilean-Eli Roth written “Aftershock” (which premiered at Toronto, both on Video on Demand as well) did not report grosses.


“Stories We Tell” (Roadside Attractions) – Criticwire grade: A; Metacritic score: 92; Festivals include: Venice 2012, Telluride 2012, Toronto 2012, Sundance 2013, New Directors/New Films 2013

$31,000 in 2 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $15,500

The gross alone might not look all that strong for a two-prime theater opening with just about the best reviews of the year. But a look at the details suggests real evidence of long-term success for this documentary, not coincidentally timed to be initially shown over Mother’s Day weekend.

When the Friday grosses came in, this looked like a disappointing film, perhaps struggling to hit even $9,000 for the weekend. But then Saturday’s numbers came close to doubling Friday’s, much more than the usual jump, caused most likely by initial strong word of mouth (which often takes longer to develop – when it happens this quickly, it’s a major indication of a very positive response).

Made by Canadian actress Sarah Polley (who also directed Julie Christie in “Away from Her” and “Take This Waltz” with Michelle Williams – both dramas centered on wives at a crisis point in their lives and their sympathetic husbands), this deeply personal documentary takes the form of an investigative search of self-discovery with uncertain findings at the start of the quest. This makes it somewhat similar to last year’s successful Oscar-winner “Searching for Sugar Man.” In this case, though, the focus is on Polley’s own mother, who struggled to balance her roles as mother and sometime actress before her untimely death from cancer when the actress was ten. Key mysteries which threaten to upset the director’s own history form the core of the film, along with larger questions about how families deal in their own unique fashion to remembering the past. The film’s intriguing suggestions about how recording these stories can have an impact yield a compelling, moving film.

As successful as “Sugar Man” was, it started slowly (only a $9,000 PSA) before it started resonating with audiences. It took weeks for that film to really get firmly established, with grosses steady rather than declining as it played for months. That “Stories We Tell” not only opened bigger, but also had the initial jump, suggests that it has a real chance to duplicate the success “Sugar” had, even if is somewhat less conventional.

What comes next: Los Angeles and six other cities open next Friday (with 20 total additional theaters), suggesting that Roadside has major confidence that this will quickly take root with specialized audiences, who haven’t had a lot to see recently. This is also the kind of film that, if it makes the cut as one of the five Oscar nominees (never guaranteed) could have a shot at winning now that all members have exposure to the documentary nominees.

“Sightseers” (IFC) – Cinemawire grade: B; Metacritic score: 66; Festivals include Cannes 2012, Toronto 2012; available on Video on Demand starting Monday

$8,400 in 2 theaters; PSA: $4,200

Playing on two prime Landmark theaters in New York and Los Angeles in advance of its imminent VOD premiere, this British murder and mayhem comedy comes off some significant festival play (it premiered at last year’s Directors’ Fortnight) and some success in the UK (it won several awards for independent film and grossed over $1 million) to launch with a less than mediocre result.

What comes next: As usually happens with IFC VOD films, this will have some theatrical exposure in big cities, in this case starting Friday.

“No One Lives” (Anchor Bay) – Metacritic score: 21; Festivals include Toronto 2012

$45,900 in 53 theaters; PSA: $866

One of two films that premiered in the Midnight section of last year’s Toronto (along with Weinstein’s VOD “Aftershock”), this kidnap drama starring Luke Evans ended up backed by multi-facted WWE (the wrestling people) for a shot a theatrical release. The first English-language film from Japanese genre director Ryuhei Kitamura (“Versus”) made little impact via this route (many other distributors might have made this VOD or launched a quick DVD release).

What comes next: This should have a short theatrical life at best.

“One Track Heart: The Story of Krishna Das” (Zeitgeist) – Metacritic score: 50; Festivals include: Maui 2012, Woodstock 2012

$5,100 in 1 theater; PSA: $5,100

This documentary about a 1960s Long Island rocker who metamorphosed into an mystical Sanskrit singer in his new life in India with some world renown (and a Grammy nomination) opened on Wednesday at New York’s IFC Center, and actually grossed almost as much in two weekdays as it did over the weekend. That number in turn led to a better PSA than the more touted “Sightseers” this weekend, showing once again that there is a loyal core audience for New Age/spiritual documentaries even when not receiving critical acclaim

What comes next: Zeitgeist already has this booked at locations across the country, and this is the kind of film that should have a solid library shelf life ahead on other venues.


Two Millennium films which had stronger than expected openings last week expanded in different fashions this week, with neither rising quite to the heights earlier. “The Iceman” expanded to 17 theaters from its initial four, with the Michael Shannon-starring serial killer drama grossing an OK $109,000 for a PSA of $6,412. With Julianne Moore in the lead, “What Maisie Knew,” a contemporary adaptation of the Henry James story expanded to three New York theaters from its initial exclusive to gross $25,000, just a bit more than its first exclusive weekend.

Sony Pictures Classics “Love Is All You Need” added several cities to gross $40,000 in 10 theaters, a result that is not encouraging. SPC has a strong upcoming line-up — “Before Midnight,” Almodovar’s “I’m So Excited” and Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” — so their recent drought looks like a temporary detour.

EOne’s upscale merchandisng doc “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s” jumped to 23 theaters, grossing $42,000 for an even lower PSA, and doesn’t look like it is headed for the success of other niche market rich folks studies.

The best of the other recent releases expanding, Weinstein’s “Kon-Tiki,” is at best ordinary, with $84,000 in 22 theaters, with a PSA of $3,800 which, though better than other most of the third and fourth week releases is still not enough to suggest substanital major potential (not that it will keep the distributor from trying).  The PSA is below what their earlier “The Sapphires” — now over $1.8 million — did on nearly three times as many theaters, which is not a good sign. (“The Sapphires” is becoming a minor success in a weak market, although it comes with higher than usual marketing costs which make the results less impressive.)

Cohen Media’s French “In the House,” SPC’s “At Any Price,” Paladin/108’s “Midnight Children” and LD’s “Disconnect” all had PSAs with increased theater counts no higher than $2,100, with none looking to have much further room to grow.

Though its total grosses remain below some of these, Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” has passed $400,000 with a very low-budget self-distribution plan as it adds on VOD, where it is likely to add considerably more revenue. Two much higher profile films, Weinstein’s “Quartet,” in release since January, is nearing the end of it run at over $18 million, while SPC’s “The Company You Keep,” which at its widest played in more theaters than “Quartet” did, is just over $4 million, which is likely close to its ultimate take.

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