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Arty pix get no traction action

Fall titles can't match 'Translation's' legs

Less than 48 hours before the beginning of the long, lucrative Thanksgiving weekend, Miramax decided “Finding Neverland” wasn’t ready for its national break.

After two weeks of strong play in the major cities — averaging $14,679 on 57 screens in its second week — Miramax had planned to widen its Oscar contender starring Johnny Depp to more than 800 screens. But Nov. 22, the distrib settled on 514 runs and began calling exhibs repping nearly half of those playdates and told them not to expect the film Nov. 24.

If Miramax was nervous about rolling out its picture too quickly, it is hardly alone among specialty distribs this fall. While a parade of niche fare has done great business in Gotham and L.A., the pics have had more trouble crossing over to broader commercial success when released into the heartland.

‘Kinsey,’ for example, has gathered plenty of publicity — but will it be able to translate the buzz into crossover box office?

Distribs have seen huge profits from its arthouse fare in past years — think “Lost in Translation,” which cumed $45 million for Focus, or Miramax’s “Frida,” which took in $26 million — but execs in the specialty business say it’s become a victim of its own success.

Hoping to have this year’s indie hit, distribs are crowding so many titles into the holiday corridor that it’s become more difficult for any individual title to get traction and break out of the pack.

“It’s really tough out there,” says Focus distrib chief Jack Foley. “The marketplace is eating up everything due to the fact that you have so many pictures competing for the same audience.”

“The theory that the market will expand doesn’t hold for arthouse film,” says Warner Independent’s distrib prexy Steven Friedlander. “You can’t make more rich yuppies or more young hip people. They already go to see movies at record levels, but they can only see so many films.”

Looking over the theater results for its second weekend, rival distribs said “Neverland” was showing the familiar weakness specialty fare has been having in suburban and smaller markets.

While Gotham and L.A. engagements posted per-screen averages over $25,000, expansion markets such as Houston, Denver and Cleveland were lower than average for the opening of well-reviewed films led by stars like Depp.

Miramax says it’s pulling back on screens because word of mouth is so strong, the distrib doesn’t want to burn out “Neverland” too quickly.

Last year, Focus Features saw huge results from “Lost in Translation,” which after opening on 23 screens on Sept. 12 had amassed $29 million through Thanksgiving, and later, benefiting from awards buzz, went on to cume $45 million by the end of its run in March.

Opening a few weeks earlier than most of this year’s prestige pics, it had plenty of time to get attention, and appealed to hip urbanites as well as Bill Murray’s fan base.

The year before, Miramax’s “Frida” started on five screens on Oct. 25 and had grossed $15 million by Thanksgiving; it ultimately took in $26 million.

In both instances, the pics became big earners because they successfully played on around 800 screens. But this year’s crop of indie titles has been having trouble playing much wider than 200 screens or so.

Fox Searchlight managed two crossover hits over the summer with “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Garden State,” both of which played to younger auds than most specialty fare. Its “I Heart Huckabees” got off to a screaming start this October, averaging $73,044 on opening weekend on eight screens.

But when it expanded to 785 and then 901 venues, per-screen average dipped, giving it a cume of $11.7 going into the Thanksgiving frame — not too shabby for the indie world — but far short of “Translation.”

Likewise Focus’ “The Motorcycle Diaries,” which has attracted critical praise, seems stalled in the ninth week of its run at $12.7 million. That’s strong for a foreign-lingo film, but somewhat lower than what its perf in initial weeks would have suggested.

Searchlight’s “Sideways” may still prove a huge commercial hit. Through its fifth week, it moved up to 279 screens and grossed $1.8 million, an average of $6,554 per screen. Its cume is more than $6 million. Distrib has also had good results so far for “Kinsey,” which averaged $16,047 in its second week on 36 screens.

But like many specialty films this season, Searchlight has been more conservative about expansion. By comparison, by its fifth week, “Lost in Translation” was already playing on 882 screens with an $18.1 million gross.

Other films, like Fine Line’s “Vera Drake,” were showered with critical kudos, but have yet to attract much business.

Fine Line exec VP Marian Koltai-Levine holds out hope the pic will find a wider audience when (or if) it starts getting awards recognition in December — the kind of reprieve all arthouse distribs hope for.

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