Indie box office: "No Country" and "Blood" booming

Oscar nods push the Coens and Anderson to new financial heights. "Band's Visit" opens strong, but are genuine indies hurting?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 18, 2008 4:54PM (EST)

Here's a little follow-up to my President's Day Salon cover story on the recent divorce -- or maybe it's a trial separation -- between the Academy Awards and the Hollywood blockbuster factory. Over at indieWIRE, preliminary estimates on the weekend box office indicate that the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men" (probably the best-picture frontrunner) has now passed $60 million, with Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" (also nominated) at $30 million. Each picture is now the highest-grossing work of its respective director(s)' career. If one or both of those take home several statuettes next Sunday evening, you can expect an additional box-office bonus in the range of 25 to 50 percent.

You can slice and dice financial data any way you want, especially in Hollywood. Those are strong numbers for serious-minded, quasi-independent movies, as even the most soulless studio exec would agree -- but they also remain near the lower end of the spectrum for best-picture nominees. Coupled with the amazing story of "Juno," which is certain to end the weekend somewhere north of $120 million, this makes it seem like the Indiewood section of the market -- films released by the major studios' specialty divisions -- is continuing to grow, both in absolute and relative terms.

Are the Indiewood movies gradually sucking money and life out of the genuine independents, meaning smaller distributors without a big studio's marketing muscle behind them? That conclusion is difficult to avoid, though the evidence is mixed. Israeli director Eran Kolirin's wistful "The Band's Visit" is doing terrific business in a modest release -- but it's a Sony Pictures Classics film. Martin McDonagh's Christian-themed gangster comedy "In Bruges" has grossed almost $1 million on just 112 screens -- but that's released by Focus Features (owned by NBC Universal). Among genuine indies, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's much-feted "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" has now grossed $530,000, which is decent for a serious foreign film but not spectacular for such a critical fave-rave. Brazilian director Cao Hamburger's "The Year My Parents Went on Vacation" opened OK, on just 18 screens, but isn't likely to expand far beyond that.

As I've often speculated in this space, home-video delivery, perhaps in some form not yet devised or perfected, is likely to become the No. 1 distribution method for niche-oriented art-house films, especially those in foreign languages. Of course, it's already happening; IFC is releasing "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" -- and all its other upcoming films -- through its video-on-demand cable-TV service. In the next few weeks, Jacques Rivette's "The Duchess of Langeais," Hou Hsiao-hsien's "The Flight of the Red Balloon" and several other new films from global-cinema heavyweights will be released in similar fashion. Everyone involved in what's left of the art-house business will be watching the results with intense interest, and sharply mixed feelings.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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