By Tom Brueggemann | Thompson on Hollywood May 12, 2013 at 4:14PM
So far the 2013 indie box office is running far behind last year--nothing comes close to 2012's booming "Best Exotic Marigold" or "Bernie," which were both standout performers far above this weekend's group of small-grossing releases, typical for this time of year. Few recent releases -- even those that had a glimmer of hope initially -- look to do as well as the best of a year ago. Sarah Polley's "Stories We Tell" opened to a promising response, and should appeal to main limited situations as opposed to being rushed out wide as most recent successes have.
By end of May last year, both Focus' successful "Moonrise Kingdom" and Weinstein's "Intouchables" had opened. Sony Pictures Classics' "Before Midnight" from Richard Linklater looms as a potential breakout film, and Noah Baumbach's "Frances Ha," which IFC opens next week, is backed by initial strong reviews and a possible strong appeal to younger urban audiences similar to "(500) Days of Summer." But even more than in the overall world of theatrical grosses, 2013 is looking much weaker so far than 2012 among specialized films.
Two other significant openings -- Magnolia's tennis documentary "Venus and Serena" and Weinstein/Radius' Chilean-Eli Roth written "Aftershock" (which premiered at Toronto, both on Video on Demand as well) did not report grosses.
"Stories We Tell" (Roadside Attractions) - Criticwire grade: A; Metacritic score: 92; Festivals include: Venice 2012, Telluride 2012, Toronto 2012, Sundance 2013, New Directors/New Films 2013
$31,000 in 2 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $15,500
The gross alone might not look all that strong for a two-prime theater opening with just about the best reviews of the year. But a look at the details suggests real evidence of long-term success for this documentary, not coincidentally timed to be initially shown over Mother's Day weekend.
When the Friday grosses came in, this looked like a disappointing film, perhaps struggling to hit even $9,000 for the weekend. But then Saturday's numbers came close to doubling Friday's, much more than the usual jump, caused most likely by initial strong word of mouth (which often takes longer to develop - when it happens this quickly, it's a major indication of a very positive response).
Made by Canadian actress Sarah Polley (who also directed Julie Christie in "Away from Her" and "Take This Waltz" with Michelle Williams - both dramas centered on wives at a crisis point in their lives and their sympathetic husbands), this deeply personal documentary takes the form of an investigative search of self-discovery with uncertain findings at the start of the quest. This makes it somewhat similar to last year's successful Oscar-winner "Searching for Sugar Man." In this case, though, the focus is on Polley's own mother, who struggled to balance her roles as mother and sometime actress before her untimely death from cancer when the actress was ten. Key mysteries which threaten to upset the director's own history form the core of the film, along with larger questions about how families deal in their own unique fashion to remembering the past. The film's intriguing suggestions about how recording these stories can have an impact yield a compelling, moving film.
As successful as "Sugar Man" was, it started slowly (only a $9,000 PSA) before it started resonating with audiences. It took weeks for that film to really get firmly established, with grosses steady rather than declining as it played for months. That "Stories We Tell" not only opened bigger, but also had the initial jump, suggests that it has a real chance to duplicate the success "Sugar" had, even if is somewhat less conventional.
What comes next: Los Angeles and six other cities open next Friday (with 20 total additional theaters), suggesting that Roadside has major confidence that this will quickly take root with specialized audiences, who haven't had a lot to see recently. This is also the kind of film that, if it makes the cut as one of the five Oscar nominees (never guaranteed) could have a shot at winning now that all members have exposure to the documentary nominees.
"Sightseers" (IFC) - Cinemawire grade: B; Metacritic score: 66; Festivals include Cannes 2012, Toronto 2012; available on Video on Demand starting Monday
$8,400 in 2 theaters; PSA: $4,200
Playing on two prime Landmark theaters in New York and Los Angeles in advance of its imminent VOD premiere, this British murder and mayhem comedy comes off some significant festival play (it premiered at last year's Directors' Fortnight) and some success in the UK (it won several awards for independent film and grossed over $1 million) to launch with a less than mediocre result.
What comes next: As usually happens with IFC VOD films, this will have some theatrical exposure in big cities, in this case starting Friday.