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Pre-Holiday Box Office: ‘Zero Dark 30’ ‘Amour’ Openings Boost Oscar Chances; ‘Guilt Trip’ ‘Monsters 3D’ Start Slow

Pre-Holiday Box Office: 'Zero Dark 30' 'Amour' Openings Boost Oscar Chances; 'Guilt Trip' 'Monsters 3D' Start Slow

Four new films opened midweek, during the pre-Christmas period when most people postpone their moviegoing until the holiday. "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Amour" both opened well in limited release in NY/LA, particularly for the date. The two wide studio releases — "Guilt Trip" and 3-D rerelease "Monsters 3D" fell far short of similar recent openings on a pre-Christmas Wednesday.

Most of the focus has been on Sony's "Zero Dark Thirty," not only because of its awards prospects, but because of all the controversy surrounding aspects of the narrative, reinforced by a letter from three U.S. Senators yesterday asking producers to revise the "based on" description in the credits to indicate the possible conflict with official versions of the events shown in the film. The first day's results were excellent – just under $125,000 in 5 theaters, for a PSA of about $25,000.

"Amour," which won the LA Film Critics award for best film despite being foreign language (French), boosted by superb reviews second only to "Zero Dark Thirty" this year (Metacritic has them scored at skyhigh 93 and 95 respectively), opened to around $15,000 in three NY/LA theaters for a PSA of $5,000. Though not at the same level as "ZD30," this looks like a strong opening for this more limited appeal story (not only subtitled, but focusing on mortality issues facing a married couple in their 80s).

"Guilt Trip" (Paramount) ended up in the #2 position for the day with around $1.1 million in 2,431 theaters. "Monsters 3D" (Buena Vista) was #4, with around $800,000 in 2,618. Both pale compared to the #1 film for the day, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," which was close to $6.5 million, still holding strong and now already over the $100 million mark in 5 days.

While these positions may appear strong, they are weak compared to other recent Wednesday openings days before Christmas. "True Grit" opened two years ago and did $5.6 million in 3,431 theaters — far better. Last year, "The Adventures of Tintin" managed a lesser but still superior $2.3 million in 3,087. "Little Fockers" did best of all – $7.1 million in 3,561. In earlier years, both "Fun With Dick and Jane" and "Cheaper by the Dozen" also were far above ($3.8 and $2.5).

These two new films Wednesday were hurt by playing in fewer theaters, but they are booked in the best-grossing ones. Business for both will improve from next Tuesday on, and "Guilt Trip" could benefit if strong word of mouth results from early viewing, helping it compete against strong new openings this Friday and next Tuesday. "Monsters 3D" as a reissue and likely to gain from kids' interest for the remainder of the holiday has less pressure to perform, though between the expense of the makeover and marketing, they have invested quite a bit in this effort.

The two limited films aren't quite as wasy to project from their initial day. "ZD30" could be the largest Wednesday platform release on record (this weekday is almost exclusively used during December for major NY/LA openings). At $25,000, its one-day PSA soars above those for others in recent years – "Juno" ($6,000), "The Wrestler" ($11,750), "Crazy Heart" ($12,700), "Letters from Iwo Jima" ($5,125) – all of which on to varying degrees of Oscar success. But the opening day didn't easily lead to consistant ultimate revenues – "Juno" was by far the best ($143 million) while the others ended up between $13 and 40 million. A normal multiplier for the upcoming weekend would suggest a total gross of as much as $500,000 for the three days, which would place it in the rarefied company of top platform releases ever – slightly below "The Master," "Dreamgirls" and "Moonrise Kingdom."

However, playing pre-Christmas, with the more limited available audience, the greater competition (both among adult moviegoers this year and for adequate seats in its theaters, unlike the unlimited access "The Master" and "Moonrise" had), as well as the nearly three-hour length could somewhat lessen its potential short-term, while still being at maximum levels.

And though these are by any standard terrific numbers, they don't necessarily guarantee future results. "The Master" even with its extraordinary $736,000 opening in five theaters, hit a roadblock the moment it widened, and stalled at a $13 million total so far. Nothing like that should happen with "ZD30." Although audience reaction has yet to be determined, it will have several things different in its favor. The wide national release date (January 11) will blanket the country far wider than "The Master" (which peaked at 788 theaters). That date parallels the Oscar nomination announcement, where this will be among the top contenders. The TV ad campaign behind this will be considerable. And its marketing, which is aimed at several audience quandrants, including males of all ages interested in military-themed stories as well as women with its female-character driven story, give it far more potential.

But most important is the historical precedent on which Sony seems to be basing the release pattern. It goes back 11 years, but the circumstances are similar. They also released Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down" (Muslim world military recreating of an actual mission, with emphasis on procedural issues over character-driven story lines). In that case, they platformed over the post-Christmas weekend, and grossed around $180,000 in four theaters, on the way to a total gross (opening wide three weeks later) of $109 million. Ticket prices are considerably higher today, but even if "ZD30" reaches these levels, it would be a very successful film (with an estimated budget of $45 million).

The best comparisons to "Amour" are limited – only "Letters from Iwo Jima" is at all similar, and that Clint Eastwood-directed film came with much greater initial advertising expenditures than the more pin-pointed efforts of Sony Pictures Classics. But the best comparison, although early, is quite favorable. A $5,000 opening per screen average Wednesday, under normal multipliers, should lead to a weekend PSA of somewhere between $20-25,000. Last year, "A Separation," which went on to win nearly all foreign language film awards, including the Oscar, and grossed $7 million – extraordinary for a subtitled film these days – had a PSA of $19,000, but opening after Christmas, a much better weekend usually. So the initial indication is quite strong for this.

For all these films, and particularly at this time of the year, the first day grosses are only the early indication. But based on history, they do offer strong suggestions of what is ahead. Because of that, Sony and Sony Classics, even though there films were limited, are likely much happier today than Paramount and Buena Vista with their results.

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