Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" opened with the most impressive limited gross of the year, solidifying its status as a rigorous Oscar contender. Though not the top per screen average of the year, it opened wider – 11 theaters in seven cities, not just NY/LA – than those with higher average numbers.
The bigger surprise of the week was the standout performance among specialized films from Submarine Deluxe's "Chasing Ice," a film that went to a second distributor after its initial buyer backed off. The rest of the field is loaded with disappointments, led by Magnolia's highly anticipated "A Royal Affair."
The next few weeks will see a steady flow of upscale, awards-oriented films including "Anna Karenina," "The Silver Linings Playbook," "Hitchcock," "The Life of Pi" and "Rust and Bone" by Thanksgiving, which will keep the top specialized as well as crossover theaters well booked. This makes things rough for indie distributors who have traditionally depended on the holiday season to make much of their annual revenues. And studio wide releases like adult-oriented "Skyfall," "Argo" and "Flight" make the competition even tougher.
"Lincoln" (Buena Vista) – Metacritic score: 88; Festivals include: New York 12, AFI 12
$900,000 in 11 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $81,818
A strong opening for this presidential biopic, even if superb reviews and the pedigree of its creators boosted its profile. History and politics don't guarantee the appeal that other films that recently have opened at this level hold ("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," "Moonrise Kingdom" and "The Master" among them). But the PSA is even more impressive because it comes from 11 theaters in seven cities, rather than the standard four in NY/LA that usually leads to a much higher average.
This is only the second film in Steven Spielberg's career to open in a platform pattern. The first was his most acclaimed film, "Schindler's List." With ticket prices then only around half as they are now, it premiered to $657,000 in 25 theaters, with a PSA of $26,265. Even taking into account the fewer theaters and the inflation factor, this is a bigger opening. The gross is actually more than 20% of what "Munich" opened to in 532 theaters ($4,152,000). These are awesome numbers to start with.
"Lincoln" expands to 1,500 runs next Friday, in a market full of significant competition for its older audience. It most likely will have decent but more modest numbers at many of these. But the game plan makes sense – open in early November, get ahead of some of the other awards competitors, pick up significant holiday business, then sit back and wait for the accolades and nominations to come along to sustain it in most theaters through Christmas. It is a strategy that could make this the most unlikely $100 million film of the year.
This is only Spielberg's second November release. In the past, he has gone in December with either his expected blockbusters or most of his awards' contenders. This early release as well as some of the others indicate that distributors are reacting to the earlier Oscar deadlines by getting into theaters earlier.
What comes next: Next weekend's wider response will be significant in determining whether this is more than a niche, big city film. But this initial performance shows a depth of interest that exceeds expectations and suggests there is an audience hungry for historical drama – the conventional wisdom sends these stories to cable.
"Chasing Ice" (Submarine Deluxe) – Metacritic score: 78; Festivals include: Sundance 12, South by Southwest 12, San Francisco 12
$21,000 in 1 theater; PSA: $21,000
Acquired by Oscilloscope at Sundance, but now handled by up-and-coming Submarine Deluxe, this documentary about a National Geographic photographer's work did an exceptionally strong gross in its exclusive run at NY's Cinema Village, which hasn't had an opening this good in a very long time. Focusing on capturing the beauty of polar glaciers as climate change transforms them over a period of years, this combines a strong environment message with visual beauty not unlike the recent hit "Samsara."
What comes next: "The Cove" captured the Feature Documentary Oscar a few years ago, and particularly with these numbers, this might have a chance to compete effectively in what looks like one of the strongest lineups in years. Meantime, this starts expanding this week to more cities for what looks like a potentially strong appeal over the next few weeks and beyond.
"A Royal Affair" (Magnolia) – Metacritic score: 70; Festivals include: Berlin 12, Telluride, Toronto 12, AFI 12
$40,000 in 7 theaters; PSA: $5,714
With strong theater placement (including the ideal Paris in NY), decent reviews, a Danish Oscar Foreign Language film submission, good festival placement and what seemed like a reasonable opening date, this Danish royal romance period drama was hurt badly by all the competition for adult, review-oriented films. By all indications a crowd-pleaser wherever it has been shown, Magnolia, unlike most of their releases, went theater-only for this initially, which seemed like the logical choice. This has been thought of as being one of the frontrunners for a nomination, and an early opening could elevate its profile. But this is far below the expected level.
What comes next: Other important foreign language films open soon, including Sony Pictures Classics' "Rust and Bone" and "Amour," which will tell much more about the ability of subtitled fare to reach their deserved audiences. In the meantime, it is possible that decent word of mouth could help sustain these initial runs, as well as find better results as it expands. But it is very tough out there at the moment.
"Starlet" (Music Box) – Metacritic score: 74; Festivals include: South by Southwest 11, Hamptons 11, AFI 12
$16,018 in 6 theaters; PSA: $2,670
Another case of strong reviews not paying off. Led by an all-out rave from Manohla Dargis in the NYTimes, this American-indie film about a quirky friendship between a young woman in LA and an elderly lady includes a breakout performance by Dree Hemingway. But in this era of several US indies opening weekly, and many of which are soon available on Video on Demand, the degree of difficulty of getting deserved attention is getting higher all the time. This seems to be another casualty.
What comes next: Set to open in other markets, this still will get a chance at more attention. But for now, it appears to be a real challenge to get to what should have been its audience.
"In Another Country" (Kino Lorber) – Metacritic score: 68; Festivals include: Cannes 12, AFI 12
$3,500 in 1 theater; PSA: $3,500
Another victim of too much competition, this latest film from acclaimed South Korean director Hong Sang-soo played at the perfect NY theater (the Lincoln Plaza) to very little response.
What comes next: Only niche bookings seem likely beyond this.
"The Comedy" (Tribeca) – Metacritic score: 73; Festivals include: Sundance 12; also available on Video on Demand
$6,000 in 1 theater; PSA: $6,000
This Sundance competition film starring Tim Heidecker did a solid gross at LA's Cinefamily, aided by in-person appearance from the star.
What comes next: Along with the VOD, Tribeca has this set to open in NY and elsewhere over the next few weeks.
"This Must Be the Place" (Weinstein) – Week 2
$30,167 in 11 theaters (+9); PSA: $2,742; Cumulative: $43,524
Minor grosses for this Italian-made Sean Penn/Frances Macdormand drama, carried over from last year's Cannes and just now getting released.
What comes next: Not looking like this will have a long shelf life.
"A Late Quartet" (EOne) – Week 2
$174,000 in 62 theaters (+53); PSA: $2,806; Cumulative: $284,000
In a tough market, these are adequate or better grosses for the quick expansion of this Christopher Walken/Philip Seymour Hall starring drama.
What comes next: Good enough for EOne to push this further, even if faced with major competition.
"The Other Son" (Cohen) – Week 3
$125,000 in 53 theaters (+1); PSA: $2,358; $511,000
Holding fairly well, any subtitled film that can get to this gross this early has to be considered a positive sign.
What comes next: This should be able to expand further a likely more than double its gross.
"The Loneliest Planet" (IFC) – Week 3; also available on Video on Demand
$16,900 in 13 theaters (+2); PSA: $1,300; Cumulative: $72,900
Weak numbers for further limited expansion of this Gael Garcia Bernal mountain trek story.
What comes next: VOD mainly.
"The Sessions" (Fox Searchlight) – Week 4
$545,000 in 128 theaters (+59); PSA: $4,258; Cumulative: $1,655,000
Playing at one less theater than Searchlight's "Beasts of the Southern Wild" did its fourth week, the gross is about 70% of what the earlier film did at that point. So it's good, more so since "Beasts" had much less competing for the adult audience.
What comes next: This expands to 400 theaters this week – far above the high mark for "Beasts" – and with upcoming awards attention likely goes beyond that film's excellent performance.
"Holy Motors" (Indomina) – Week 4
S32,153 in 14 theaters (+9); PSA: $2,297; Cumulative: $124,060
Getting some attention at new theaters, but this unconventional French drama still is showing only limited appeal.
What comes next: That it is getting playoff alone these days is to Indomina's credit.
"The Flat" (IFC) – Week 4; also available on Video on Demand
$57,600 in 24 theaters (no change); PSA: $2,304; Cumulative: $238,650
This Israeli doc continues to have modest success, but more importantly, had about an identical PSA with the same theater count, showing a real steadiness.
What comes next: This should keep going despite its VOD presence within its intended audience.
Later week totals
"The Perks of Being a Wallflower" (Lionsgate) – $1,060,000 in 67 theaters, total $14,452,000
"Simon and the Oaks" (Film Arcade) – $136,000 in 17; $141,600
"Searching for Sugar Man" (Sony Pictures Classics) – $105,000 in 94; $2,562,000
"The Master" (Weinstein) – $103,000 in 88; $15,688,000
"Arbitrage" (Roadside Attractions) – $79,900 in 87; $7,645,000