By Steven Rosen
"Wordplay" Tops List in NYC Debut; "Truth" & "Prairie" Remain Solid Summer Alternatives
Opening to a hometown crowd in New York last weekend, "Wordplay" -- the documentary about Will Shortz, New York Times crosswords editor -- left audiences spellbound. The IFC Films release, directed by Patrick Creadon, debuted in first place on this week's indieWIRE BOT which tracks independent/specialty films and is based on per-theater average using numbers provided by Rentrak Theatrical.
Opening at just two prestigious Manhattan locations -- Upper West Side's Lincoln Plaza 5 and Greenwich Village's IFC Center 3 -- it did strong business at both. According to Nielsen EDI, it grossed $17,541 at Lincoln Plaza and $15,306 at the IFC Center. Its iWBOT per-theater average was $16,423.
In the wake of good initial performances by "An Inconvenient Truth," "A Prairie Home Companion" and now "Wordplay," it seems the indie/specialty audience is after brainy alternatives to Hollywood films. That may have been especially true last weekend, when the new studio films included "Nacho Libre" and "The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift."
After debuting at this year's Sundance Film Festival, "Wordplay" has been building a word-of-mouth following. It was at the Tribeca Film Festival in May (among other fests) and like "Inconvenient Truth," it is a documentary. Like "Prairie Home Companion," it is filled with star-studded cameos -- Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, Bob Dole and the Indigo Girls, among others.
"'Wordplay' had a fantastic opening weekend as our exit polls had over 90% of the audience checking the top two boxes," said Mark Boxer, IFC Films vice president of distribution, in an e-mail message. "We opened the film exclusively in New York City because the film centers on the core audience of the New York Times crossword puzzlers and Will Shortz, the editor of the NYT puzzle. The film has received rave reviews and should have a very strong word of mouth. (It) will open in the top 15 markets this coming weekend and expand in NYC and the suburbs of New York."
The 500-pound gorillas of the indie/specialty market remained Paramount Classics' Davis Guggenheim-directed "An Inconvenient Truth" and Picturehouse's Robert Altman-helmed "A Prairie Home Companion." They continued to perform reasonably well, although may not be mainstream crossovers of blockbuster (or "Brokeback Mountain") proportions.
Because of their relatively wide distribution, they slipped in their per-theater average (and thus iWBOT standing) last weekend. But by Hollywood standards, where a smash like "Cars" loses 44% of its audience in its second weekend and still finishes first in gross, both are doing well.
"An Inconvenient Truth," featuring Al Gore on global warming, fell on the iWBOT from first to seventh as it added 282 locations in its fourth weekend to reach 404. Its per-theater average was $4,732, down 62% from the previous weekend's $12,334.
Yet, according to Box Office Mojo, it was the only film in release on 100 or more screens to experience an increase in week-to-week business, a telling comment on the top-heavy (and frequently flash-in-the-pan) nature of mainstream film distribution. "Inconvenient Truth" increased its weekend gross by 27.1%, bringing in $1.912 million. It now stands at $6.757 million in total revenue.
Basically holding steady in its second weekend before it starts expanding for the July 4th holiday, "Prairie Home Companion" declined to 11th from fifth on the iWBOT, as its per-theater average receded some 40% to $3,712 from $6,008. That's just fair, yet it raked in $2.847 million in revenue to bring its two-week total to just over $9 million.
The second-place film on this week's iWBOT did $9,950 at New York's Film Forum -- which frequently is a launch pad for movies that rank well on this chart. But that figure is especially good for Kino Releasing's "Pandora's Box," since it's a 77-year-old silent film. This re-release, a newly struck print from a negative at the George Eastman House, is part of the centennial celebration of the birth of "Pandora" star Louise Brooks, whose role as the Jazz Age free-spirit and prostitute Lulu in G.W. Pabst's film has come to be regarded as one of the most important in cinema. Her bobbed hairstyle has been equally influential.
"It was a chance to see Brooks at her most dazzling that turned out the crowd," said Gary Palmucci, Kino's general manager for theatrical sales. "It's really about her," he said. "She's just jumping off the screen with her effervescence and sexuality. She's so bubbly and so voracious at the same time."
Palmucci traces the revival of interest in Brooks to a New Yorker article by the late critic Kenneth Tynan from 1979, "The Girl With the Black Helmet." In 1983, Kino first re-released "Pandora" on a double bill with Brooks' "Diary of a Lost Girl" at Manhattan's old Regency Theatre. Now this new print of "Pandora" -- on its own -- will play at Cambridge's Brattle Theatre, Hartford's Cinestudio, San Francisco's Castro Theatre and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A DVD release also is slated for later this year.
An under-the-radar Manhattan success story has turned out to be Cinema Guild's Emmanuel Carrere-directed "La Moustache," about the weird repercussions that develop when a man shaves his mustache. In its fourth weekend at the IFC Center, the film grossed $5,320 and finished fifth on the iWBOT -- it was down but a modest 27% from its third weekend and just 45% from its first (it has made nearly $50,000 so far).
"So many bigger films have opened during that time yet we've been able to carve out our own niche," said Ryan Krivoshey, Cinema Guild's director of distribution. "The most interesting thing about the film is that its premise is unique. Some people say it's Kafkaesque, others compare it to Charlie Kaufman as a slightly surreal existential thriller. And Stephen Holden in the New York Times mentioned Hitchcock twice -- that didn't hurt." The film opens at three Los Angeles theaters on July 7.
Also of continuing interest is 2929 Entertainment's Truly Indie experiment -- filmmakers pay an upfront distribution fee and keep the revenue and rights. One Truly Indie release, Ian Gamazon and Neill Dela Llana's "Cavite" is finding a niche in its fourth week, ranking 14th on the iWBOT with a $3,461 average at three theaters (it has earned more than $41,000 so far). And the new "Beowulf & Grendel," directed by Sturla Gunnarsson with a cast featuring Stellan Skarsgard and Sarah Polley, finished ninth with $4,360 by dint of its booking at Landmark's Varsity Theatre in Seattle.
"The goal of Truly Indie is to provide an alternative distribution channel for films that are capable of finding a theatrical audience but have not fit the traditional distribution model," said Bill Banowsky, CEO of 2929's Landmark Theatres and Magnolia Pictures, via E-mail. "Through our advertising and marketing efforts we were able to help 'Beowulf' and 'Cavite' reach people who appreciate quality independent films. That's what Truly Indie is all about."
The iWBOT Top Ten indie/specialty films in the marketplace last weekend grossed $2.058 million at 427 locations - 404 of them occupied by "Inconvenient Truth" - for a per-theater gross of $4,820. For the previous weekend, when "Prairie Home Companion" and "Fanaa" were in the Top Ten, the overall gross at 955 locations was $6.39 million. The average was $6,693.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles-based film writer and former movie critic at the Denver Post.