Weekend one of the best ever for indies

Rumors of the death of independent film are greatly exaggerated — judging by the weekend box office, anyway.

The combined performance of a number of films delivered one of the best weekends ever for the specialty box office, led by the successful debuts of Warner Bros.’ “Gran Torino,” directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, and Miramax’s Meryl Streep-Philip Seymour Hoffman starrer “Doubt.”

Kate Winslet-Ralph Fiennes topliner “The Reader,” from the Weinstein Co., also enjoyed a strong debut.

None of this, however, took away from holdovers Gus Van Sant’s”Milk,” Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” or Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon,” all of which continued to do strong biz.

It’s an unexpected reversal of fortune for a business that has taken plenty of knocks this year. The B.O. bounce came just as the first wave of award nominations and critic wins were announced last week, including Golden Globe noms, heightening awareness.

At $47,340, “Gran Torino” scored the best per-location average of the weekend as it grossed an estimated $284,000 from six runs in Los Angeles and Gotham, according to Rentrak.

“Torino” was absent from top Golden Globe categories, while “Milk” earned only one, for Sean Penn’s performance. However, both films won key endorsements from critics groups announcing their 2008 winning picks.

Focus Features’ “Milk” stayed on the top 10 box office chart as it made its biggest push yet, growing its theater count from 89 to 328. Pic grossed an estimated $2.6 million for a cume of $7.6 million in its third week. Per- location average of $8,035 was second best on the top 10 chart films after 20th Century Fox’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” which won the weekend.

“Doubt,” U’s “Frost/Nixon” and the yet-to-be released “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” received the most Globe noms, at five each.

Adapted from his stage play, helmer John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” grossed an estimated $525,030 from 15 theaters for a per-screen average of $35,002, the best after “Torino.”

In touting “Torino,” Warner exec VP of distribution Jeff Goldstein said the film opened even stronger than Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,” which went on to win the Oscar.

“Like all his films, this one resonates with people,” Goldstein said.

Miramax topper Daniel Battsek was as enthusiastic about the results for “Doubt,” considering that film opened on nearly double the screens that “Torino” did.

“We were quite a bit wider, and yet we have a great per-screen average. It’s great news,” Battsek said. “It also shows a buoyancy in the market.”

“Reader,” directed by Stephen Daldry, posted a per-screen average of $21,250 as it debuted in eight runs, grossing $170,000.

Weinstein Co. exec VP of marketing Gary Faber said the opening performance of “Reader” was especially heartening, considering the property doesn’t have the same brand recognition as an Eastwood pic, or “Frost/Nixon” and “Doubt,” both of which were adapted from successful stage plays.

Many times when there is such a glut of product, films struggle to find a foothold. That was not the case this weekend, although booking additional screens could be difficult as specialty titles expand over the Christmas holiday.

Steven Soderbergh’s two part “Che” did well as it commenced its one week awards run, grossing $60,100 for IFC Films from two theaters in Gotham and L.A., posting a hefty per screen average of $30,050.

“Frost/Nixon” had the distinction of showing the biggest Saturday uptick of any of the top specialty titles, with a 70% spike. The Frank Langella-Michael Sheen starrer grossed an estimated $630,000 from 39 runs for a per-screen average of $16,160 and a cume of $878,000 in its second weekend.

“Frost/Nixon” grew its theater count by 36 runs.

“Slumdog Millionaire,” which received multiple Globe noms, also expanded aggressively with success. The Fox Searchlight film grossed an estimated $2.2 million from 169 locations for a per-screen average of $13,018 and a cume of $8.1 million in its fifth sesh. Film grew its run by 91 screens.

Among other specialty openers, Michelle Williams topliner “Wendy and Lucy” translated its award buzz into a per-screen average of $10,717 as it opened in two theaters to an estimated gross of $21,434. Pic, released by Oscilloscope, has cumed $28,643 since its launch Wednesday.

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