After a January of weak specialized openings (led by First Run's "56 Up"), February is showing some life with four new documentary releases and a shorts program. The standouts are Sony Pictures Classics' Oscar-nominated "The Gatekeepers" in two cities and Zeitgeist's "Koch" in New York. Arthouses in 2013-- like much of 2012-- will be sustained in part by a steady flow of decent if not spectacularly grossing non-fiction films. Still, multiple films scoring strong initial response in the same weekend is an anomaly.
As the three best new limited openings in recent weeks -- "Quartet," "Amour" and the much broader "The Impossible" -- all play beyond core theaters, any fresh blood is appreciated when there is plenty of room for films with any sign of audience interest.
"The Gatekeepers" (Sony Pictures Classics) - Metacritic score: 88; Festivals include: Jerusalem 12, Telluride 12, Toronto 12, New York 12
$66,700 in 3 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $22,233
After a below-the-radar qualifying run in November, this Oscar Best Documentary Feature contender opened for real in three New York/Los Angeles theaters for prominent exposure to Academy members). The result was impressive, backed with outstanding reviews and significant wins (from both the LA and National Society of Film Critics).
The gatekeepers in question are former heads of Israel's secretive Shin Bet security agency, all speaking out about that country's current situation in a candidly revealing manner to express their concern about the lack of progress towards resolution of the Palestinian Occupation. Though it is primarily a talking heads-doc, the bluntness of their comments stands in contrast to the usual view of Israeli politics, and this clearly has initially resonated with first weekend audiences.
SPC has another doc in competition, the likely frontrunner "Searching for Sugar Man" (although that category requires amembers to have seen all five films, which makes the voting group a small percentage of the body, meaning nothing is guaranteed). This opening has been aimed at getting this film maximum attention just as the voting begins (the other four already have moved on to DVD and/or streaming).
What comes next: The interest in this won't be limited to these initial runs, with this looking like it could be a solid performer for weeks to come irrespective of its Oscar chances.
"Sound City" (Variance) - Metacritic score: 76; Festivals include: Sundance 13; also available on Video on Demand
$70,000 in 16 theaters; PSA: $4,375
The first release of this year's Sundance films (this showed in the Documentary Premiere section), and the first to go out in the new normal multi-platform pattern, this weekend gross is only a small part of its playoff. Initially playing in 50 theaters last Thursday, then holding in 16 for the weekend, its theatrical take has already come to just under $200,000. Meantime, it is also available on Video on Demand and elsewhere, backed mainly by a social media campaign targeting its core audience.
The film, directed by Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters (who previously shot multiple videos) tells the story of a legendary San Fernando Valley (Los Angeles) recording studio that has been the birthplace of numerous great albums (among other artists Fleetwood Mac, Nirvana, Tom Petty, Paul McCartney). Grohl used his connections with them to get significant participation in interviews, making the potential fan base quite wide.
What comes next: The one-night only shows and this weekend will likely drive future viewers more to non-theatrical venues, but this did well enough to maintain a presence ahead in the more traditional manner.
"Koch" (Zeitgeist) - Metacritic score: 69; Festivals include: Hamptons 12