Arthouse Audit: Docs ‘Act of Killing’ and ‘Blackfish’ Open Strong, ‘Way Way Back’ and ‘Fruitvale Station’ Soar

Arthouse Audit: Docs 'Act of Killing' and 'Blackfish' Open Strong, 'Way Way Back' and 'Fruitvale Station' Soar

Strong openings for documentaries “The Act of Killing” and “Blackfish,” plus a rousing VOD day-and-date success for “Only God Forgives,” yielded one of the better first weeks for multiple specialized films in some time. An exclusive run of “Computer Chess” also shows some early promise, while a much wider debut for the Kristen Wiig-starrer “The Girl Most Likely,” although it is the biggest total grosser, suggests struggles ahead.

Two strong performers boast the potential to become breakout hits: both “The Way Way Back” and “Fruitvale Station” are building momentum as they expand.

Opening

“The Act of Killing” (Drafthouse) – Criticwire: A; Metacritic: 89; Festivals include: Telluride 2012, Toronto 2012, Berlin 2012, New Directors/New Films 2013

$28,000 in one theater (U.S. only); PSA (per screen average): $28,000

With a high-end PSA for a documentary (including better than other 2013 releases which also opened in one theater), this creative, original film, which has participants in Indonesian political massacres reenacting their crimes decades later,  received among the best reviews of any film this year on its way to a strong initial reaction at Landmark’s Sunshine Theater in New York. Veering from the usual personality-driven biodocs and/or performance footage, this is a serious issue film, which is trickier to market to audiences.

This is by far the best initial showing for Austin-based Drafthouse (owned and run by the expanding Alamo Drafthouse specialized theater chain), but consistent with their intriguing and risky choice of acquisitions, which have included the 2012 Oscar Foreign Language nominee “Bullhead” and the not dissimilar offbeat doc “The Ambassador” last year. This film could propel them to wider theatrical exposure than their previous films, aided not only by reviews but marketing support including endorsements from Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.

(Unlike the usual practice, the figures for four Canadian theaters, where the film opened for distributor Filmswelike, were not included in the report Drafthouse provided. Had they been, according to sources who have seen some of the grosses, the PSA would have been substantially lower and not the best of the week or the highest of the year for a documentary. None of this takes away from the very impressive performance at the Sunshine, which is likely more indicative of future American theater response, but it should have been included in the initial report.)

What comes next: This opens in Los Angeles and Washington this Friday, the rest of the top 10 largest markets the following week and deeper across the country throughout August. Drafthouse wants to keep this in play throughout the fall to enhance its award chances later this year and beyond.

“Blackfish” (Magnolia) – Criticwire: A-; Metacritic: 83; Festivals include: Sundance 2013, San Francisco 2013, Seattle 2013

$66,500 in 4 theaters; PSA: $16,625

Equally as impressive, though with its lower PSA divided among four theaters (all terrific ones in New York and Los Angeles), this Sundance-premiere doc about a captive whale gone wild and the larger issue of animal performers had a strong start. This is an unusual venture for Magnolia — they are partnered with CNN, which is beginning to present documentaries occasionally in their programming (even though corporate colleague HBO is a leader in the field with weekly new doc entries). The CNN showing comes later, but in the meantime this theatrical component, with both the strong reviews and initial audience response should help elevate the film both for later showings and for award consideration.

What comes next: This is moving quickly to other major cities next week.

“Only God Forgives” (Radius/Weinstein) – Criticwire: B-; Metacritic: 36; Festivals include: Cannes 2013,  Los Angeles 2013; also available on Video on Demand

$315,000 in 78 theaters; PSA: $4,038

Fresh from its Cannes competition premiere, and the earliest any Palme d’Or contender has gone out day-and-date on VOD and in theaters (“Melancholia” successfully went that route after later North American festival showings followed its Cannes presentation), this overcame consensus weak reviews from mainstream critics to successfully supplement its VOD purchases with a decent multi-city playoff. It is already at #2 on iTunes, suggesting the multi-platform release is enhancing both formats.

The pairing of Ryan Gosling and director Nicolas Winding Refn after their “Drive” collaboration was enough to make this by far the best theatrical opening for Weinstein’s VOD division Radius (who unusually eschewed initial VOD for their currently-playing “20 Feet from Stardom”).

What comes next: Unlike many VOD releases, these grosses look strong enough to ensure multi-week theatrical play and further expansion.

“The Girl Most Likely” (Roadside Attractions) – Criticwire: C-; Metacritic: 37; Festivals include: Toronto 2012, Nantucket 2013

$736,000 in 353 theaters; PSA: $2,085

Directing partners Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have kept busy since their success with “American Splendor” a decade ago, including a studio release with “The Nanny Diaries” and their HBO Loud-family film “Cinema Verite.” This romantic comedy, Wiig’s first lead role since “Bridesmaids” and also starring Annette Bening, Matt Dillon and Darren Criss, did not get a strong critical response out of its Toronto premiere (confirmed by its low ratings on release), leading Roadside to do the smart thing and release this wider initially, and optimally in the middle of summer when there is less older-audience competition. The results though were at best mediocre.

This falls short of the performance of their earlier 2013 release “Emperor” (just over $1 million in 260 theaters initially) and far below what “Mud” did in 360 its first week ($2.2 million). Many of the same theaters are thriving with “The Way, Way Back,” so the seasonal timing seems correct. Unfortunately, the intended audience is more likely to follow reviews, and they seem to have taken their toll.

What comes next: Not likely to expand much further or have a long run.

“Computer Chess” (Kino Lorber) – Criticwire: B+; Metacritic 74; Festivals include: Sundance 2013

$11,000 in one theater; PSA: $11,000

With a Wednesday opening at New York’s Film Forum bringing the five-day total to over $18,000, excellent for this small theater, Andrew Bujalski’s Sundance Next premiere is the best opening yet for this Mumblecore pioneer (“Frances Ha-Ha,” “Mutual Appreciation”). Set at a 1980s tournament between a computer and a group of young chess fanatics, it scored particularly strong reviews from the New York Times and the Village Voice to launch this to decent results.

What comes next: Five new cities are set for next Friday, with Los Angeles and elsewhere to follow on August 2.

Ongoing/expanding

Two potential breakout specialized films — both now looking like they might be in elevated awards contention — built on their initial successes as the expanded further this weekend. After a hiatus when nothing since “Mud” (released in April) has shown signs of real crossover success, both Fox Searchlight’s “The Way Way Back” and Weinstein’s “Fruitvale Station” are strong and getting stronger.

The Way Way Back” is perhaps the bigger surprise, which despite its writing pedigree (its directing/writing team won an Oscar for “The Descendants”) and some star quotient seemed possibly to fit into the dreaded tweener territory where so many promising specialized films end up, with neither strong appeal to core audiences nor wider more general ones a danger. Clearly benefitting from a successful screening program and other marketing as well as now strong patron word of mouth, the film grossed $2,240,000 in 304 theaters (+225, PSA $7,368, total $4,632,000) for its third weekend. The gross is just short of “Mud”‘s first week in slightly more theaters. That film went on to a $20 million + total, which is certainly now in range for this film, with Searchlight now having every reason to be confident that an even wider release should lead to much higher returns, as well as a possible screenplay nomination down the line.

“Fruitvale Station” in its second weekend did a strong $742,000 in 34 theaters (+27, PSA $21,824, total $1,334,000). As a summer time release and as a serious topical-issue themed film, this is short of the staggering initial grosses “Precious” received on its later-year release, nor is it quite at the level of the somewhat similar “Milk,” which had the benefit of bigger star appeal and a prime-awards season placement. But those are minor quibbles – this is already outpacing “Beasts of the Southern Wild” last year, with clear signs that audience response is very strong and more importantly it is reaching multiple audiences in its initial results, crucial for ongoing success. With Weinstein’s support and the likelihood of major awards consideration ahead (it is probably the best-positioned film of any released so far this year), this also has a real shot at hitting $20 million or higher.

The top grosser among other specialized releases is “20 Feet from Stardom” (Radius/Weinstein), holding up well at $398,000 in 135 theaters (+4, PSA $2,948, total $2,426,000). Though Radius has thus far not been as aggressive in chasing down high theater counts as its parent company, this looks likely to be at or near the top of documentary grossers for the year, and should easily top last year’s “Searching for Sugar Man.”

Among wider release films later in their runs, Sony Pictures Classics “Before Midnight” leads the way with another $201,000, now totaling $7.4 million, Roadside’s “Much Ado About Nothing” added another $144,000, just under $3.7 million, and A24’s “The Bling Ring” did $70,00 to get to $5.6 million. All three of these have fallen a bit short of what was anticipated.

Among more limited releases “I’m So Excited” (SPC) did $162,000 in 50 (+28) to reach $683,000 in its fourth weekend, Goldwyn’s “Still Mineadded New York in its second weekend to do in 18. Weinstein’s “Unfinished Song” did another $162,000 to get it passed the $1 million mark, while Cohen’s “The Attack”added another $134,000 as it nears that level.

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