The high quality of some recent wide-release films is taking its toll on specialty films. With "Argo" nabbing raves, "Looper," "Seven Psychopaths" and "The Perks of Being a Wildflower" also in the top ten and "The Master" and "Arbitrage" still drawing audiences, it's tough to compete with smaller films.
The surprise breakout is "Middle of Nowhere," which with precise and careful handling scored a strong opening in mainly non-specialized theaters in several cities. It is yet another recent example of distributors and filmmakers exploring a way to success outside the conventional model at a time when innovation and outside-the-box thinking has never been more important.
"Middle of Nowhere" (AFFRM) – Metacritic score: 78; Festivals include: Sundance 12, Los Angeles 12, Toronto 12, Urbanworld 12
$78,000 in 6 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $13,000
Despite its Sundance acclaim (including the U.S. best director narrative award) this contemporary drama was unable to secure distribution from the top established companies, and opened this weekend mostly away from the usual indie theaters. And yet it was the best-reviewed new film with the best PSA of any of the openings. That speaks volumes about the narrow range of films considered mainstream specialized these days.
Just before this year's Sundance, Focus Features released "Pariah," which they had acquired at the previous festival. Giving it their best shot, including key theaters in the heart of the holidays, the film underperformed and likely discouraged some possible buyers. Fortunately, African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement was there to make sure this got the attention it deserved, playing at a mix of theaters reaching a core audience initially. In a weekend where films with considerably more advance attention opened to less business, this ended up on top.
Opening in five cities (New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington), exclusively except LA (where it played at the reopened Sundance Sunset as well as the Rave 18) at theaters located mainly to maximize African-American audience, this benefited from first-class marketing and active support from partner Participant Media. It turns out that the best thing that happened to the film is that it was handled more directly by people close to the film rather than the normal channels.
What it means: This expands to 19 more theaters next week. If success continues, this could turn out to be a model for future similar films.
"Smashed" (Sony Pictures Classics) – Metacritic score: 74; Festivals include: Sundance 12, Toronto 12
$30,025 in 4 theaters; PSA: $7,506
A modest opening for this Sundance film on a tough subject (alcoholism and its impact on a relationship). Highlighted by strong performances from Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul, with some thoughts that they might receive awards consideration, this looks like it will have a tough time going beyond top specialized theaters. It played initially in NY/LA with by far the strongest lineup of theaters of any new films, which makes the PSA more discouraging.
What it means: Sometimes films with tough subjects need a week or more of strong reaction to find their audiences, so this still could rebound.
"The Big Picture" (MPI) – Metacritic score: 70; Festivals include: Toronto 10, City of Lights City of Angels 11, Provincetown 12
$14,500 in 2 theaters; PSA: $7,250
MPI got two strong NY theaters and decent reviews to get to an OK but not great gross for this French thriller a la "The Talented Mr. Ripley."
What it means: This got the initial attention needed to ensure further playoff.
"Simon and the Oaks" (Film Arcade) – Metacritic score: 57; Festivals include: Stockholm 11, Palm Springs 12, Seattle 12
$10,377 in 1 theater; PSA: $10,377
Playing at NY's prime Paris Theater, this gross holds some promise considering the overall mediocre reviews (this received much more acclaim in Europe). Film Arcade reports very positive audience response. The story – antisemitism in neutral Sweden during WWII – is a variation on a theme that often finds interest beyond the initial limited runs This is the new distributor's second release (after "The Other Dream Team"), suggesting they are planning an eclectic and diverse slate as the go forward.
What it means: This expands Friday to LA, Chicago and San Francisco with wider playoff shortly after. This could find deeper interest in suburban theaters than a first weekend's gross at this level usually suggests.
"War of the Buttons" (Weinstein) – Metacritic score:35; Festivals include: Palm Springs 12, City of Lights City of Angeles 12, Seatttle 12
$4,570 in 5 theaters; PSA: $914
This French film comes with a solid pedigree – the producer of "The Artist," the director of "Les Choristes" which Weinstein also pushed hard a couple years ago. Back in Europe, it was released at about the same time as another adaptation of the same novel. The same dilemma didn't occur here, but with the poor reviews this received, it made little difference.
What it means: Very limited upcoming playoff is most likely.
"Gayby" (The Film Collaborative) – Metacritic score: 58; Festivals include: Seattle 12, Los Angeles 12
$4,450 in 1 theater; PSA: $4,450
Minor opening gross in NY for this popular festival comedy about a woman asking a gay friend to impregnate her in the conventional way.
What it means: This opens in LA in two weeks, but so far it doesn't look like more than a niche film.
"The Paperboy" (Millennium) – Week 2
$103,995 in 49 theaters (+38); PSA: $2,122; Cumulative: $245,000
Grossing about the same in 49 theaters as it did last week in 11 is not an encouraging sign for the expansion of Lee Daniels' hothouse murder mystery.
What it means: Could this have been a film, with its big-name cast and sexually provocative content, that might have benefitted from a parallel Video on Demand release? With the success of "Arbitrage" and others, that might have been the best plan for this. Still, it likely gets a lot more viewing on future venues than do most films at this gross level.
"The House I Live In" (Abramorama) – Week 2
$22,470 in 8 theaters (+6); PSA: $2,813; Cumulative: $47,000
A multi-theater wider run in LA was the central feature of this week's expansion (which could get extra attention from the Academy Doc branch members racing to see as many of the contenders as possible), to mixed at best results. Brad Pitt has come on executive producer, which could elevate its profile.
What it means: This is still performing as well or better than some other acclaimed recent docs.
"Wuthering Heights" (Oscilloscope) – Week 2
$10,000 in 4 theaters (+3); PSA: $2,500; Cumulative: $23,117
Not so good grosses as this expanded slightly this week. Although reviews continue to be strong, it looks like this no-star but distinctive version of the Bronte novel doesn't interest audiences.
What it means: Oscilloscope will get this open in more cities, but its future is limited.
"The Other Dream Team" (Film Arcade) – Week 3
$30,900 in 12 theaters (+5); PSA: $2,576; cumulative: $73,000
Another modest but steady gross for this sports doc, as it expands to new cities.
What it means: With so many docs competing for attention, it's tough to gain the traction needed for many of them. Still, this is getting normal playoff from new distrib Film Arcade.
"How to Survive a Plague" (IFC) – Week 4; also available on Video on Demand
$12,400 in 9 theaters (+2); PSA: $1,400; Cumulative: $2,120,000
Minor grosses at best for this Sundance-premiered doc.
What it means: Not much action left for this.
"The Master" (Weinstein) – Week 5
$823,000 in 682 theaters (-182); PSA: $1,207; Cumulative: $13,920,000
Fading quickly at this point and falling out of the top 10, this will outgross the similarly acclaimed "The Tree of Life" last year, but is facing the same problem of wider audience disinterest beyond the enthusiasm of critics and sophisticated cinephiles.
What it means: This still could get a second wind with the nominations later.
"Arbitrage" (Roadside Attractions) – Week 5; also available on Video on Demand
$363,350 in 195 theaters (-49); PSA: $1,863; cumulative: $6,673,000
A normal drop at this point of the run under ordinary circumstances, more impressive with the home viewing option.
What it means: This will encourage even more day-and-date theatrical/VOD releases.
"Liberal Arts" (IFC) – Week 5; also available on Video on Demand
$18,760 in 25 theaters (-4); PSA: $750; Cumulative: $245,000
Another film with little traction at this point.
What it means: Long live VOD.
"Detropia" (LoKi) – Week 6
$16,215 in 11 theaters (unchanged); PSA: $1,474; Cumulative: $253,000
Looking like it is nearing the end of its run with a big PSA fall, this filmmaker-distributed documentary still has made an impact.
What it means: Though never a large grosser, the careful nurturing of this film has taken it further than might have been expected.
"Samsara" (Oscilloscope) – Week 8
$112,944 in 48 theaters (-4); PSA: $2,353; Cumulative: $1,801,000
With a decent and more importantly steady PSA, this visually spectacular doc now has become Oscilloscope's largest-grossing film, topping "We Need to Talk About Kevin."
What it means: This still has several weeks gross left in it, so it will add a good deal more.
"Sleepwalk With Me" (IFC) – Week 8; also available on Video on Demand
$70,000 in 70 theaters (-34); PSA: $1,000; Cumulative: $2,120,000
Ending its run after two months theatrically (though still going strong on VOD), this has been with combined results one of the most successful films to come from Sundance this year.
What it means: Along with "Arbitrage," a model of how to succeed with both platforms ("Sleepwalk" though had a first week very limited before VOD started).
"Searching for Sugar Man" (Sony Pictures Classics) – Week 11
$202,767 in 157 theaters (+118); PSA: $1,379; Cumulative: $1,698,000
Going by far the widest yet nearly three months into the run (following a "60 Minutes" Rodriguez profile last Sunday), SPC built on its steady performance so far to put this in a position to get over $2 million and take its place among the top-grossing documentaries of the year.
What it means: Slow and steady wins the race.
"Intouchables" (Weinstein) – Week 21
$50,000 in 59 theaters (-25); PSA: $847; cumulative: $12,745,000
Finally nearing the end of its run, at least for now.
What it means: This was the first screener sent to Academy members. Since only Foreign Language committee members select the nominees in that category–and have to see the films at a theater–this is a clear sign that Weinstein is looking for inclusion in other major categories.