Last week I talked a little about "per-screen averages," and how they reveal the films that people really want to see, rather than the artificially inflated numbers created by films showing on 4000 screens. Most of the responses I received were from people who claimed that, even if films like Brick or Friends with Money showed on an equal number of screens, they would not perform as well as "dumbed-down" fare like Ice Age: The Meltdown or Silent Hill.

Though we're only talking about guesses, and there is no proof, I would argue that, if Brick and Friends with Money were playing on 4000 screens, with all the accompanying advertising and hype, they would do just as well -- if not better -- than the corresponding stupid films. Why? For the same reason: if Brick came in at number one on the box office list due to playing on a high quantity of screens, with plenty of promotion, then it would trigger the same response in people: "I heard Brick was really good." Only in this case, Brick actually is really good, and it might actually stick around for a while. My evidence? A little movie called ... 

... Inside Man, my pick for the best American film I've seen so far in 2006, and one of the year's biggest hits. Despite what the studios and the box office charts would have us believe, people are still fairly smart.; there are movie buffs living in the boonies that would like to see a good movie from time to time. Look at the IMDB's list of the Top 250 films; judging by the comments posted on that site, these voters are average, everyday moviegoers, and yet they appreciate films like City of God (2002), Fight Club (1999), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Hotel Rwanda (2004), Downfall (2004), Donnie Darko (2001), Magnolia (1999), The Straight Story (1999), Spirited Away (2001), Talk to Her (2002) and many more (not to mention all those classic titles and foreign films). Few of these titles burned up the box office charts or rated a mention on "Entertainment Tonight," but those average moviegoers still hold them in high regard.

No, it's easier for studios to "think dumb," because it's easier to control. In a business that relies on guesswork and artistry and human imagination, it's comforting for a statistician or an accountant to look at some charts and see that Ice Age made some money, so Ice Age 2 will be a good investment. For movies like Brick, there are no recent precedents, no trends to gauge by; that leaves studio functionaries nothing to do. They want to protect their jobs. They want to be experts at something.

How about further proof of intelligence? Our "per-screen" champ this week is the seven year-old IMAX film Galapagos, with a whopping $27,000-plus gross on one screen. (I haven't seen it, but I would imagine that it probably tries to teach you something.) Think of it; there were four times as many butts in the seats for that than there were for our #1 top grosser, Silent Hill, with its $6,887 per screen.

Another astonishing number comes from Sir! No Sir! -- a new documentary about Vietnam protesters, and specifically Jane Fonda's role in the whole shebang. It raked in $11,900 on one screen. Even more shocking is Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint 9, starring Bjork, which pulled in $7,017 per screen (on three screens). This is a highly unappealing, long (140-minute) museum installation that has already drawn cries of "pretentious" from even highbrow publications like the Village Voice and the Chicago Reader.

Like I said before, most box office charts don't calculate these figures, so I've had to comb through the 125 current releases and do it myself. According to my best guess, these comprise our top three, followed by Silent Hill at #4.

In the lower depths, The Notorious Bettie Pagedid well on 52 screens with about $3,576 per screen. Amos Gitai's new film, Free Zone (with Natalie Portman!), came away with $3270 from one screen. A new movie from Susan Seidelman, Boynton Beach Club (with Sally Kellerman and Dyan Cannon) came up with $1,772 per screen, on 14 screens. And the excellent adventure film Mountain Patrol: Kekexili did amazingly well on 8 screens with about $2,568 per screen.

Meanwhile, it does my heart good to see that Rodrigo Garcia's Nine Lives is still hanging on in four theaters. It's not exactly making a fortune, but it's had a nice, long life. I very recently caught up with it, and though it may come across like a horrible, drippy chick flick, it's actually a truly amazing film. Filmed in nine continuous shots, it's like a mini-Short Cuts, examining the tiny, painful moments in nine women's lives with searing clarity. Without cutting to ruin the flow, Garcia allows refreshing moments to pause and breathe within each segment. Of course, in those same moments, your heart has time to catch in your throat...

categories Columns, Cinematical