Michael Pena in 'Cesar Chavez'
Michael Pena in 'Cesar Chavez'
The Raid 2

Four new specialized/independent releases from diverse backgrounds showed initial strength this weekend. Two of these -- "Cesar Chavez" (Pantelion/Lionsgate) and "The Raid 2" (Sony Pictures Classics) -- are intended for wider release (the former opened at 664 theaters mainly targeted to Mexican-American audiences). Two others -- "Finding Vivian Maier" (IFC) and "Mistaken for Strangers" (Abramorama) -- are documentaries focusing, as have so many hits in the medium, on aspects of the creative process, and seem headed to decent or better art-house success, though theatrically limited by both being available now on Video on Demand.

Three films of note -- the initial weekend of Drake Doremus' "Breathe In" (Cohen Media) and the second stanzas of Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac Vol. 1" (Magnolia, also on Video on Demand, as is Vol. 2 already, which heads to theaters next Friday) and "Anita" (Samuel Goldwyn) -- opted not to reveal their grosses. Among sub-Top 10 expansions (with "The Grand Budapest Hotel" becoming the new standard for early year specialized success as it continues to thrive), "Bad Words" (Focus) continued its just OK performance so far.


"Cesar Chavez" (Pantelion/Lionsgate) - Criticwire: B-; Metacritic: 52; Festivals include: Berlin 2014, South by Southwest 2014

$3,000,000 in 664 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $4,518

This latest effort from Pantelion (a partnership formed by Lionsgate and Mexico-based Grupo Television to nurture Latino-oriented films in the U.S.), "Cesar Chavez" marks their first to try to straddle both core and wider audiences and cater to critics as well as the public. The results so far fall short of their 2013 breakout "Instructions Not Included." That sleeper success grossed nearly $8 million in only 348 theaters its opening weekend, building on the popularity of Mexican comic Eugenio Derbez to reach $44 million in the U.S, and was followed by "Pulling Strings" with Jaime Camil, which opened on 387 screens to just under $2.5 million. 

Both were in Spanish, while this Participant Media-backed biopic of the late United Farmer Workers organizer/Civil Rights activist Cesar Chavez (who was himself American-born) is primarily in English. Directed by Canana's producer-star Diego Luna ("Abel") and starring a number of leading Latino actors (Michael Pena, America Ferrara and Rosario Dawson), this initial gross came in somewhat below expectations but still managed in limited release to place #12 for the week. The U.S. Latino population has been harder to attract to more "serious" subjects (compared to the African-American population, who along with crossover audiences have made films like "Precious," "The Butler" and "12 Years a Slave" successful), in part because of the diversity of the population and its multi-cultural roots. The film's mixed reviews didn't help.

What comes next: It won't expand much further, making its future dependent on possible good word of mouth -- its Cinemascore was "A". Still, as a low-budget film with targeted (thus less expensive) marketing and some international potential and long-term library value, this should turn out as a decent investment for the partnership.

"The Raid 2" (Sony Pictures Classics) - Criticwire: A-; Metacritic: 70; Festivals include: Sundance 2014, South by Southwest 2014

$177,000 in 7 theaters; PSA: $25,286

Welsh-born director Gareth Evans' higher-budgeted (and at 148 minutes longer) followup to his Indonesian-made "The Raid: Redemption" (which grossed $4.1 million in the U.S., over $15 million worldwide) somewhat surprisingly for a sequel opened in fewer theaters than its predecessor. Whatever the reason, the result is impressive -- the per screen average is $10,000 above the take for 14 theaters last time (all in New York and Los Angeles, high-end ones with strong wider audience appeal). Though the film is primarily subtitled, action and martial-arts scenes dominate, with its fans younger and less art-house oriented than most SPC releases (the company of course had its biggest success with "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon"). The first film, despite the language barrier, found further success on DVD and cable, which should increase the sequel's potential in the weeks ahead.

What comes next: This opens a handful of new cities this Friday, with a 1,200 theater break planned for April 11.