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Arthouse Audit: Four Docs and Oscar Shorts Program Buoy Specialized Weekend Box Office

Photo of Tom Brueggemann By Tom Brueggemann | Thompson on Hollywood February 3, 2013 at 4:46PM

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.
Ed Koch at the Hamptons International Film Festival
Ed Koch at the Hamptons International Film Festival

$40,000 in 2 theaters; PSA: $20,000

Playing to a hometown crowd in two prime theaters, Zeitgeist already had things positioned well for this documentary about New York's outspoken ex-Mayor, who made himself available to enliven the film with an up-to-date feel to go along with extensive historical footage. Then with a timing that paralleled his attention-getting methods throughout his life, Koch died just hours before this opened.

Koch was the quintessential New Yorker in many ways, and how this plays outside of his base remains to be seen. But he was something of a national figure, regularly in the news years after his political career was over, so it is premature to assume these numbers are totally a one-off event.

What comes next: Los Angeles was already set, but these numbers should guarantee this more extensive theatrical playoff than what might have been initially imagined.

"Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary" (First Run Features) - Metacritic score: 40; Festivals include: Mill Valley 12

$10,500 in 1 theater; PSA: $10,500

Relatively unheralded and not receiving positive reviews, this documentary about Abu-Jamal Mumia, imprisoned for 30 years in Pennsylvania for killing a policeman and later becoming a prolific writer as he fought to have his death sentence overturned, had a solid performance, particularly for its theater (the Cinema Village). Mumia has received much attention over the years, and this gross shows a core interest in him that goes beyond the normal path toward (at least initial) documentary success. This is First Run's second decent opening of the year so far after the solid start to "56 Up."

What comes next: Although this likely sees a lot of non-theatrical playoff at festivals, colleges and elsewhere ahead, this gross should be enough to raise its art-house profile.

"2013 Oscar Nominated Shorts" (Magnolia)

$390,000 in 105 theaters; PSA: $3,714

This collection of nominees has been a staple for the last few years, with this year's result ahead of past ones (this is eighth year for the program) as audiences try to not only discover off-beat films but gain an advantage in their Oscar pools for what often are the tie-breaking categories,

What comes next: Plenty of time yet for this to add to these totals before the Oscars.


"Quartet" (Weinstein) - Week 4

$1,184,000 in 202 theaters (+39); PSA: $5,861; Cumulative: $3,474,000

Impressively, the quite decent PSA fell off only about 15% despite adding more theaters and with Super Bowl competition hurting today, showing once again that this Maggie Smith-led cast of older actors continues to appeal to its core audience with good word of mouth and a further expansion justified.

This continues to show more strength than "Amour," the other expanding limited film in the market. With over twice the theater count, it continues to have a higher PSA. Although the latter film has Oscar heft behind it (and much better reviews), "Quartet" remains the easier sell and a film more able to crossover beyond art houses.

What comes next: As the Oscar films mostly run out of steam, and little else significant yet opening in the specialized world, this has a clear path to keep playing and going wider for weeks to come.

"Amour" (Sony Pictures Classics) - Week 7

$497,000 in 94 theaters (+30); PSA: $5,287; Cumulative: $2,488,000

"Amour" keeps adding runs and maintaining its performance as a strong subtitled film. Once again, playing at slightly more theaters, it continues to outgross what last year's "A Separation" made in a similar number of theaters. It has achieved a total gross in its seventh weekend about as much as the Iranian film did in its ninth (which had the boost of being Oscar weekend). It is also performing better than "Intouchables" did last year (that film never had a PSA above $5,000 after its first three weeks, even though it played in under 100 theaters for six more). With those films ending up with respectively over $7 and $13 million totals, and with three more weekends before the Oscars, further expansion plus one or more wins could still propel this film into a final gross somewhere between those two at a minimum.

What comes next: More expansion, with the ultimate course likely remaining to be seen after we see what it wins.

"The Impossible" (Lionsgate) - Week 7

$1,280,000 in 765 theaters (-17); PSA: $1,673; Cumulative: $15,189,000

Falling about a third with minor theater count losses, this Naomi Watts-starrer is still adding to gross totals even if the PSA is minor. The theater count is helping boost this results, but Lionsgate seems to be able to both hold its dates and move into additional theaters to keep this in the public eye as interest in Watts' Best Actress nomination continues to draw audiences.

What comes next: Lionsgate should be able to push this over the $20 million mark even without a win for Watts.

Other grosses ( + total)

"Hyde Park on Hudson" (Focus - Week 9)                      $176,000/$5,575,000

"A Royal Affair" (Magnolia - Week 13)                            $103,000/$1,007,000

"Rust and Bone" (Sony Pictures Classics - Week 11)    $78,800/$1,842,000

"Anna Karenina" (Focus - Week 12)                               $64,800/$12,539,000

This article is related to: Box Office, Box Office, Box Office

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.