box office birdman st vincentMichael Keaton and Bill Murray haven't been box office heavyweights for ages, but at the art-house, both men are setting ticket sales on fire, with "Birdman" and "St. Vincent," respectively. During what proved to be a ho-hum weekend for mainstream, wide-release movies, led by Brad Pitt's underperforming "Fury," Keaton and Murray were among the stars packing them in at the indie theaters.

Overall, the North American box office was down 13 percent from last weekend, despite three eagerly awaited new wide releases. PItt's World War II action drama was in the lead, but while pundits had expected it to open as high as $33 million, it finished at an estimated $23.5 million. Despite good reviews, strong word-of-mouth (it earned an A- grade at CinemaScore) and the presence of Pitt, "Fury" did not pull as many older men away from baseball playoffs as expected.

Opening in third place, a hair behind three-week old "Gone Girl," "The Book of Life" had a few strikes against it out of the gate: too similar to the recent cartoon "The Boxtrolls," too close to week-old family-film champ "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day," and maybe too esoteric for a mainstream kiddie audience (both in its visuals and its Latin-folklore story). That said, the movie's estimated $17.0 million was about as much as anyone expected it to earn.

The final new wide-release movie, the Nicholas Sparks adaptation "The Best of Me," opened on the low end of expectations with an estimated $10.2 million, settling for fifth place. Given that most of Sparks' tearjerking romances succeed in part because they open near Valentine's Day, it's a wonder that "Best" did as well as it did opening during a season more associated with horror fare.

Down the chart, however, there was Murray's "St. Vincent," expanding into 68 theaters in its second week and leading the art-house movies with an estimated $685,000. That's a per-venue average of $10,074, a much better number than any current wide-release movie. By contrast, "Fury" earned just $7,406 per screen.

The real winner on a per-theater basis, however, was Keaton's "Birdman." Opening in just four venues, it scored an estimated $415,000, or $103,750 per theater. That's one of the 20 best openings of all time on a per-screen basis and the second best this year, behind only "Grand Budapest Hotel." (Wes Anderson's March release also opened in just four theaters, but it earned $202,792 per venue.)

Other indie releases earned similarly stratospheric per-screen averages this weekend. Racial satire "Dear White People" earned an estimated $31,273 on each of 11 screens. "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya," the latest animated feature from Japan's celebrated Studio Ghibli, took in an estimated $17,233 at each of its three locations. Documentary "God the Father" grossed an estimated $15,000 on one screen. Drama "Listen Up Philip" opened with an estimated $12,150 on each of its two screens. And in its second week, "Whiplash" expanded to 21 theaters and averaged an estimated $10,048 (a smidge behind "St. Vincent")

What's behind these huge art-house openings? In three words: awards season buzz. Most of that buzz has gone to Keaton, who delivers what many critics are calling a career-summing performance in "Birdman," though the movie is also earning awards chatter for its visionary director, Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Babel"). Murray, too, is getting buzz for his lived-in performance in "St. Vincent," and "Whiplash" has been the talk of the festival circuit for months.

Listen for such buzz to get louder and louder as these movies expand into theaters nationwide, and as the Oscars (still four months away) approach. It's true, probably none of these art house films will sell as many tickets overall as even "The Best of Me." Still, right now, Michael Keaton running through TImes Square in his briefs is selling out auditoriums, while Brad Pitt leading a tank squadron against the Nazis is not.

categories Movies, Box Office