International films are scoring at the specialty box office. The two best new films have roots in countries not normally seen at arthouses: "Mother of George" (from Nigerian-born director Andrew Dosunmu) and "Wadjda" (a milestone Saudi Arabian film from a female director) both show initial appeal. Also in the top 10 are French and Mexican comedies.
These two strong openers were joined by IFC's D.C. sniper-docudrama "Blue Caprice" and the food modification documentary "GMO-OMG" in exclusive New York openings with standout initial grosses. None of these films was expected to be among the top fall specialized films (all had their premieres at festivals early this year or in 2012), and this weekend is not considered a prime date to launch films. But their strength shows a real hunger for new specialized product, even if each was reaching targeted audiences that might not sustain their runs elsewhere.
"Wadjda" (Sony Pictures Classics) - Criticwire: A-; Metacritic: 78; Festivals include: Venice 2013, Telluride 2012, Tribeca 2013, Los Angeles 2013
$40,491 in 3 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $13,497
Outside of the occasional Lebanese or Palestinian-based film, Arabic films are rarely seen in U.S. art houses. And films from Saudi Arabia are non-existent (the country has no theaters for one thing, though viewing via cable and DVD is high for international offerings, even as many films are officially banned). This was directed by a woman, stealthily, with the help of modern easily hidden cameras. With decent reviews and significant media coverage, the film opened to an above-average total for a subtitled film in three New York/Los Angeles theaters. That both cities have significant Arab populations (including Saudis) likely helped the total, but the film's story about a 10 year old girl's attempt to buy a bicycle fits into mainstream specialized storylines for films from offbeat countries. (The earliest successes from Iran often featured stories about children to make them more universal in appeal.)
Sony Pictures Classics has often managed to find a niche audience to add to mainstream specialized moviegoers. They have had consistent performances with Israeli films, and they have pushed Iranian films to significant totals. Their marketing likely will maximize this to appeal to both their usual customers and find an interested Arab-speaking ethnic and ex-pat interest as it expands nationally.
What comes next: As the first-ever Saudi Arabian Foreign Language Oscar submission, this will be one of the few on the list to have already opened this year. Its early release as well as its subject likely enhances its chances of advancing.
"Mother of George" (Oscilloscope) - Criticwire: A-; Metacritic: 74; Festivals include: Sundance 2013
$22,456 in one theater; PSA: $22,456
Showing at New York's Angelika Theater, aided by a strong front page Arts section Times' review, this terrific gross came as a result of regular patrons being joined by customers who come from a similar background as the Nigerian-ethnic Brooklyn couple that is the center of this story. Director Andrew Dosunmu, who came to New York and found success as a fashion creative director before becoming a prominent photographer and video director, made his third feature (like his previous, "Restless City," a Sundance premiere) set in the Nigerian diaspora as a young newlywed couple struggles to fulfill intense family demands to produce a son. The two leads are better known than might be expected - Isaach De Bankole from his work with Jim Jarmusch, Danai Gurura from "Walking Dead."
Oscilloscope has been struggling recently, after proving their viability with 2012 successes "Samsara" and "We Need to Talk About Kevin." None of their 2013 releases have grossed more than $100,000 total. This initial gross shows that with the right film they are still in the game.