By Tom Brueggemann | Thompson on Hollywood February 24, 2013 at 3:47PM
Sony Pictures Classics is looking forward to a big Oscar night with foreign contenders "Amour" and "No" as well as two leading documentary entries, "Searching for Sugar Man" and "The Gatekeepers." The question is where the specialty box office goes after the awards. "No" and "The Gatekeepers" are both rolling out well in their initial stages, giving hope for success in further markets in upcoming weeks, whatever wins tonight. "Amour" is amassing less than spectacular numbers given its high profile.
An atypical independent release -- in more mainstream than specialized theaters --and the sole standout among new films, Latino-targeted "Bless Me Ultima" had passable success in regional release.
Three Video on Demand releases also reported grosses for their limited openings: Tribeca Film's "Red Flag" and "Rubberneck" -- both directed by Alex Karpovsky, both premiered at big city 2012 festivals (Tribeca and Los Angeles respectively) and both grossed just over $2,000 at a single New York Theater. IFC's "Inescapable," from director Rubba Nadda, also starring her "Cairo Time" lead Patricia Clarkson, followed its Toronto 2012 premiere with a lowly sub-$1,000 gross, also in New York.
"Bless Me Ultima" (Arenas) - Metacritic score: 66
$503,000 in 263 theaters; PSA: $1,913
A true independent film aimed primarily at Latino audiences, "Bless Me Ultima" was produced by TV and movie producer Mark Johnson ("Rain Man," Breaking Bad") and directed by TV veteran Carl Franklin (who broke out with "One False Move" 20 years ago). It opened (after early test runs in El Paso and other cities grossed over $500,000) in multiple cities (LA but not New York), and earned raves from Roger Ebert and the LA Times' Kenneth Turan.
Its art-house exposure is limited (it's at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills) with the playoff mainly aimed at a more commercial core audience. Based on a widely read acclaimed novel about a Mexican-American boy and his grandmother in New Mexico in the 1940s, it is an example of a movie trying to break away from the usual film festival/ big-city upscale theater release model. As independent films aimed at more targeted audiences (Indie Spirit "Middle of Nowhere" for example) have shown, it is difficult to get the interest from regular specialized patrons for films outside their comfort zone with rare exceptions ("Beasts of the Southern Wild" did well but hit its ceiling fairly early).
Arenas, a distributor with many years of expertise in the Latino market (both for English and Spanish-language films) and the producers maximized the marketing on relevant media, but the gross shows the difficulty in getting an audience of normal regular moviegoers of whatever background interested in a niche, no-star movie. But with a lower budget, possible good word of mouth and lots of anciallary potential, this film should find a decent level yet before it is through.
What comes next: Because of its theater profile (a lot of regular large screen multiplexes in smaller markets), this should get enough holdovers that if it drive strong word-of-mouth it could stay around for a while. Whether it warrants much wider release (including an expensive New York opening) remains to be seen.