Art films bow big as Oscar season nears

While the holiday season for commercial fare got off to a running start with “The Waterboy,” a number of specialized films also made impressive debuts over the weekend — albeit with considerably less fanfare — as arthouse distribs began the run-up to awards season.

Among exclusive newcomers, Gramercy’s “Elizabeth” reigned supreme, grossing $279,000 in just nine palaces in New York and Los Angeles. That gave director Shekhar Kapur’s revisionist biography of the young British monarch a queen-sized $31,000 per screen average.

“This is better than we’d hoped for,” said Gramercy president Russell Schwartz. “We have a populist period movie here.” Schwartz was particularly encouraged by the film’s performance at the Edwards Lido in Newport Beach, a suburban Orange County theater where it grossed an impressive $20,000.

Historical thriller

Gramercy, which has mounted a costly campaign for “Elizabeth,” including TV spots and two-page ads, is betting it will surpass the typically limited grosses that period pieces usually achieve. “We’re selling it as a historical thriller,” said Schwartz, “with the emphasis on thriller.”

The picture will remain in just nine theaters until Nov. 20, when it will go into exclusives in almost every market, followed by a 600- to 800-screen wide release on Nov. 25.

Also opening in New York/L.A. exclusives was Lions Gate’s “Gods and Monsters.” The Brendan Fraser-Ian McKellen starrer grossed $76,000 in six theaters, or $12,667 per site. While the film did strong business at Gotham arthouses the Quad and the Lincoln Plaza as well as at L.A.’s Sunset 5, the per-screen average was dragged down somewhat by softer turnouts on L.A.’s Westside and in Orange County.

Miramax’s “The Velvet Goldmine” bowed to $300,000 in 85 clubs in the top 40 markets for an unglamorous $3,529 average.

‘Life’ expands

But the minimajor’s “Life Is Beautiful” continued to expand well, picking up $820,000 after roughly tripling its run from 38 to 110 theaters. Some big city holdover locations actually saw increases from the previous weekend, when grosses may have been hurt by Halloween festivities. The Holocaust comedy has cumed $1.7 million to date.

New Line’s “American History X” racked up a solid $151,000, down just 3% after inching its screen count up from 17 to 19. That gave the skinhead drama a $7,947 per-screen average and a second weekend cume of $431,000. Pic goes wider on Nov. 20.

Good Machine’s “Happiness” widened its run from 61 to 83 theaters, increasing its gross about 11% to $298,000. The controversial Todd Solondz pic has cumed $1.4 million to date.

Nostalgic baby boomers apparently didn’t warm to Sony’s 15th anniversary reissue of “The Big Chill,” however. Pic grossed $65,000 in 50 houses, or a chilly $1,308 per reunion.

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