Arthouse Audit: ‘Emperor,’ ‘The We and the I,’ ‘Beyond the Hills’ Rely on Good Word To Grow Audiences

Arthouse Audit: 'Emperor,' 'The We and the I,' 'Beyond the Hills' Rely on Good Word To Grow Audiences

Specialized distributors continue to try to break beyond the usual review-driven New York/Los Angeles limited openings to find less conventional ways to release films.

Among this week’s openings, Mumblecore indie “Somebody Out There Likes Me,” starring Second City’s own Nick Offerman, premiered to significant success exclusively in Chicago in advance of its VOD debut as well as upcoming theater dates elsewhere. Peter Webber’s poorly reviewed World War II drama “Emperor” played mostly mainstream theaters in multiple cities. And Michel Gondry’s “The We and the I” had a better than expected New York single-theater release that holds promise for more attention.

The one with the best reviews and strongest advance presence, Cristian Mungiu’s Oscar nominee “Beyond the Hills,” enjoyed a modest start, highlighting the ongoing problem of getting even the most review-oriented audiences in the two top markets to show up.

Opening

“Emperor” (Roadside Attractions) – Metacritic score: 48; Festivals include: Toronto 12, Palm Springs

$1,043,000 in 260 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $4,012

Overcoming mediocre reviews (which likely would have damaged any limited platform opening more than this wider release), this historical drama shares both a genre and a supporting actor (Tommy Lee Jones) with “Lincoln.”  Set in Japan in the early at stages of post-war Allied occupation, the title refers to both Gen. Douglas MacArthur – who was effectively the leader of the country – and Hirohito, the actual emperor, whose status (including possible prosecution as a war criminal) weighed in the balance, much as in “Lincoln” crucial decisions depended on smart leadership on the personal level.

Earlier Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions collaborations such as “Margin Call” and “Arbitrage” had parallel video on demand availability. This has gone out via Roadside as a conventional theatrical release, with an emphasis on locations with older and military-related audiences. The result is a PSA that is equivalent to what “Margin Call” had in its later weeks at a somewhat fewer number of theaters, and below the $10,000 first weekend average of “Arbitrage” in 197 initial theaters, though without the expense of having to rent theaters in many locations (because major chains won’t normally play VOD films).

Director Peter Webber had an earlier specialized success with “The Girl With the Pearl Earring” with Lionsgate in 2003, which became something of a crossover success on its way to a $11 million domestic gross (coming on the heels of Scarlett Johansson’s breakthrough in “Lost in Translation”). That was more of a conventional art-house film initially. This played in mainly multiplex theaters, a tricky pattern without a big TV campaign (apart from local print ads, this was advertised mainly on the History Channel, along with grassroots marketing aimed at veterans groups).

What comes next: “Lincoln” showed that there is a potentially big audience for a period historical drama. Though the events here are well-known, this doesn’t have the awareness that “Lincoln” had with its studio marketing budget and overall pedigree. But these grosses look good enough to keep this around and justify some expansion. At that point, the future of this will depend on word of mouth doing the job that a bigger advertising expenditure would do.

“Somebody Out There Likes Me” (Tribeca) – Metacritic score: 51; Festivals include: South by Southwest 12, Locarno 12; Video on Demand available this Tuesday

$38,495 in one theater; PSA: $38,495

Opening initially at Chicago’s Music Box Theater, and aided by appearances by co-star Nick Offerman  (best known for “Parks and Recreation, and a Chicago-area native), this is a surprisingly strong performance reminiscent, if not quite at the level, of Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk With Me.” That film also opened at the Music Box, along with the even bigger gross at the IFC Center in New York, with personal appearances right before its VOD launch.

Directed by Austin-based Steve Byington, a veteran of microbudget films in the Mumblecore genre (the best known his earlier “Harmony and Me,” )“Somebody” follows the story of a two friends who meet when both are waiters (Keith Poulson is the co-lead) and their multi-year lives in which each pursues the same woman. Its brief running time (75 minutes) and surface familiarity as a slacker low-budget comedy likely worked against its chances as a more high-profile, mainstream release. But Tribeca, which is increasingly getting more adept in its VOD strategy (elevating it closer to the more successful IFC and Magnolia) seems to have found both an initial audience as well as a way to get much more attention than a conventional NY/LA opening would have.

What comes next: Openings in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Austin follow in successive weeks with Offerman also appearing. This gross will get the film additional theatrical attention, but the main benefit will be to its just-ahead VOD release.

“Beyond the Hills” (IFC) – Metacritic score: 79; Festivals include: Cannes 12, Toronto 12, New York 12

$18,000 in 3 theaters; PSA: $6,000

This Romanian film from the director of “Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days” had multiple strong elements behind it – a Cannes competition platform, placement on the semi-finalist group of nine films for the Foreign Language Oscar, strong reviews in New York and Los Angeles and major theater placement – but managed only a so-so gross for its opening weekend.  The heaviness of the film – it’s a lengthy story about two modern young women in a remote convent that seems from another era – doesn’t seem to have the immediate appeal director Cristian Mungiu’s earlier film did. That film opened to an  over $25,000 PSA in two theaters a few years back. But it could also just be another sign of the difficulty subtitled film, even when acclaimed, has these days reaching audiences.

What comes next: This non-VOD film (unlike many of IFC releases) expands to 15 more markets over the rest of the month.

“The We and the I” (Paladin) – Metacritic score: 60; Festivals include: Cannes 12, Toronto 12

$12,000 in one theater; PSA: $12,000

Michel Gondry’s latest off-beat film got a major boost from a strong lead review in the New York Times on Friday, and jumped to a decent opening including sold-out shows at the IFC Center.  Following of group of Bronx high school students on an afterschool bus ride, it continues his interest in urban themes and rhythms that he previously presented in “Dave Chappelles’ Black Party” as well as being reminiscent of elements of his biggest success, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

This is another film that ended up with an enthusiastic smaller distributor after its initial high profile premiere, aimed at a younger, not necessarily conventional art-house audience. This opening will give it a chance to attract more attention and some degree of success in theaters and beyond.

What comes next: Los Angeles and San Francisco open on March 22, with further exposure now guaranteed.

“The Silence” (Music Box) – Metacritic score: 72; Festivals include: Munich 2010, Locarno 2010, Palm Springs 11

$9,170 in two theaters; PSA:  $4,585

A German police procedural about an unsolved murder case from the 1986 which bears a strong similarity to one more than 20 years later opened in New York and Los Angeles to modest results.

What comes next: The grosses would suggest limited ongoing theatrical interest, though Music Box usually gets its releases played in most major cities.

Expanding/ongoing

“Stoker” (Fox Searchlight) – Week 2

$115,000 in 17 theaters (+10); PSA: $6,765; Cumulative: $330,000

This is a modest expansion at less than sensational levels for Park Chan-wook’s thriller with Nicole Kidman in advance of its wider break next week. Searchlight reports initial theaters held decently compared to their opening weekend, suggesting some hope for the film’s future.

What comes next: 20 new markets open next week, getting this up to around 80 theaters though  at this point though it appears to be a less likely candidate for the multi-hundred theater release that Searchlight usually aims for.

“Hava Nagila – The Movie” (International Film Circuit) – Week 2

$39,400 in 12 theaters (+11); PSA: $3,283; Cumulative: $90,800

Building on its decent New York opening last weekend, this documentary about the iconic Jewish song expanded both there and in the South Florida market to a reasonable level.

What comes next: This looks like it will have appeal in multiple markets and could grow to a considerably higher gross.

“No” (Sony Pictures Classics) – Week 4

$167,000 in 35 theaters (+24); PSA: $4,771; Cumulative: $511,000

Performing better than most recent subtitled films, more so without major award tie-ins, this Chilean political drama expanded decently this weekend at a level similar to what SPC’s “Rust and Bone” did over Christmas. Like that film, which starred Marion Cotillard, this is helped by its lead Gabriel Garcia Bernal. But it also continues to get strong reviews with its new cities, and likely is also being aided by being the first Spanish-language specialized film to breakout for some time.

What comes next: This will continue to expand, with a $2 million + gross seeming doable.

“The Gatekeepers” (Sony Pictures Classics) – Week 6

$250,000 in 67 theaters (+21); PSA: $3,731; Cumulative: $1,027,000

Continuing to perform at a steady level, this Israeli documentary has crossed the $1 million mark two weeks earlier than “Searching for Sugar Man,” helped by playing at twice as many theaters at this point. It continues to play on interest on contemporary Israel issues, which will likely sustain the interest in the film for several more weeks.

What comes next:  “Sugar Man” expanded to over 150 theaters (in its 12th week), beyond the appeal this likely will have, but this still looks like one of the better grossing documentaries of 2013, with $2 million or better possible.

Other grosses ( + totals)

“Quartet” (Weinstein) Week 9 – $1,279,000/$13,270,000

“Amour” (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 12 – $196,000/$6,245,000

“The Impossible” (Lionsgate) Week 12 – $90,000/$18,478,000

“Lore” (Music Box) – $67,000/$256,000

“Like Someone In Love” (IFC) – $16,800/$118,000

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