Hollywood, take note: the real victor at the box office this weekend was not Resident Evil: Retribution. True victory was shared by a pair of much-buzzed about indie flicks – Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage starring Richard Gere, and P.T. Anderson’s The Master with Joaquin Phoenix – which had truly impressive debuts, garnering weekend-high per-theater counts in limited release (Anderson’s film even broke a record or two).

The two films are, in many ways, very similar, as they each represent the original work of a writer-director who was partially inspired by a real person (Bernie Madoff with Arbitrage, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard with The Master) – not to mention, two leading man performances that many regard as respective tour-de-forces worthy of awards consideration.

Anderson’s The Master has been generating lots of buzz in recent months, between encouraging responses from pre-release screenings (look for our review later this week) and continued controversy over the surface connections to Scientology; of course, the film is also the first Anderson project since his Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood, so anticipation has been building among members of the arthouse crowd for five years now. The end result: The Master grossed $730K in just 5 theaters this weekend (an average of $146,000 per theater).

However, The Master deserves credit beyond landing the second-highest total for a limited-release live-action film (behind Kevin Smith’s Red State); it demonstrates that a filmmaker’s prolonged devotion of time and effort to their craft can not only produce an artistically-satisfying final product, but also a lucrative one.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in ‘The Master’

Longtime readers will recall that The Master hit the wall two years ago, lacking proper funding and support; that is, before Anderson found the necessary financing in order to continue moving forward once again, via up-and-coming Hollywood power-player Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures (True Grit, Lawless). Moreover, Anderson’s commitment to seeing the venture through went beyond making the movie, as he was responsible for cutting the alluring series of Master teasers that got people talking months before anyone had even seen the film.

Costars Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams have likewise contributed to The Master‘s preliminary success – not only through their promotion of the film, but their stirring performances therein. In fact, that is another trait that Master shares with Arbitrage, as the latter’s ensemble cast have also been making critics sit up and take notice. That includes performances by such decorated stars as Susan Sarandon and Tim Roth, in addition to up-and-comers Britt Marling (Sound of My Voice) and Nate Parker – one of Variety‘s 10 Actors to Watch in 2012.

Arbitrage is not being heralded as a grand statement about America (unlike The Master). Nonetheless, the consensus seems to be that it is, in fact, an intelligent and engaging drama-thriller that manages to touch on timely issues in a manner that encourages discussion – as opposed to providing cookie-cutter moral lessons and answers. Gere’s leading turn therein is likewise widely regarded as the quiet, but excellent, antithesis to Phoenix’s daringly unhinged turn in The Master.

As a result of all that, Arbitrage opened to an estimated $2 million in 200 theaters over the weekend, netting it a per-theater average of over $10,500, which was higher than any other film in the Top 50 (save for The Master, obviously). Neither Arbitrage nor The Master will manage to maintain their strong averages as they expand to more theaters over the forthcoming weeks; however, both are already proven critical successes that should reach a profit at the end of the day.

When you consider how recent franchise installments (The Bourne Legacy) and big-budget remakes (Total Recall) have struggled to accomplish those tasks – or failed at both, in Total Recall‘s case – the studio-professed logic that smart, non-recycled, entertainment is too risky sounds even sillier than it did before. As we said: Hollywood, take the hint.

Keep you eyes peeled for both Arbitrage and The Master to reach a theater near you in the forthcoming weeks.

Source: Box Office Mojo