Indie films see box office boost

'Once' tops 'Shrek' in per-screen average

While Goliaths in the “Spider-Man,” “Shrek” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchises battle it out at the top, a host of indie pics are playing well at more modest levels, taking advantage of a month nearly devoid of new releases aside from the tentpoles.

Result has been a boon for pics at the very top and bottom of the budget scales.

Last weekend, Rogue Pictures’ “Hot Fuzz” and Fox Searchlight’s “Waitress” both cracked the top 10 on a fraction of the screens from which the tentpoles are swinging. And Searchlight’s Sundance acquisition “Once” actually pumped its per-screen average higher than the mighty “Shrek.”

Searchlight is so chuffed about the results that it has conjured up a combo print ad for “Waitress” and “Once” — as well as its pics “The Namesake” and “Daywatch” — advertising the four titles as “cures for the common blockbuster.”

“There are eight movies coming out in the entire month of May,” explained Jack Foley, distribution head of Universal’s Rogue and Focus labels. “We wanted to exploit a paradoxically empty marketplace where there are limited choices, as opposed to the bombardment of five or six movies opening every weekend.”

“Fuzz” fell less than 25% last weekend with “Shrek” entering the fray, standing at No. 9 on the charts after five weeks.

And while “Shrek” ruled the B.O. over the weekend, even his bulging $29,507 per-theater average could not match that of “Once,” which had the weekend’s highest per-location mark of more than $30,950.

Of course, “Once” opened in two locations as opposed to the ogre’s more than 4,000. But the pic is just one of a handful of little films with a studio subsid behind it that’s capitalizing by counterprogramming.

“Once,” the musical romance following an Irish busker and an immigrant, is the best-reviewed film in release, wide or limited, according to the critics compiling Web site RottenTomatoes.com, with 97% of notices coming up positively. It’s still early, but the pic, riding a raft of raves and solid word of mouth, seemingly has the potential to become this year’s hipster hit a la “Half Nelson.”

Searchlight sent the pic’s players out on a 16-city summer bus tour to promote the film and perform tunes from its soundtrack.

Before Spidey spun into theaters, some B.O. pundits said that a summer of heavy-hitting, four-quadrant sequels would be too scary for any other pics to shine in traditional counterprogramming ploys.

But Searchlight, Rogue and others have been banking on playing against summer successes. Fox Atomic had the No. 3 pic on the charts last weekend, with another well-reviewed pic, “28 Weeks Later.”

Speaking of “Hot Fuzz,” U’s Foley said, “We opened in 900 theaters on April 20 to specifically target (the pic’s) core, then to play into a wider number of theaters and then to play against ‘Spider-Man.’ We hoped we would stimulate expansion on April 27 and then build momentum. There’s a trend where you can go up against a tentpole and drop 50% and not get wiped out.”

For the rollout of “Fuzz,” Foley told production unit Working Title to look at their own success last summer with “United 93,” which played into “Mission: Impossible 3” successfully for Universal.

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