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Arthouse Audit: ‘Nebraska’ Has Best Limited Opening Since ’12 Years,’ ‘Great Beauty’ Biggest Italian Opening in Years, ‘Dallas,’ ‘Book Thief’ Strong in Expansion

Arthouse Audit: 'Nebraska' Has Best Limited Opening Since '12 Years,' 'Great Beauty' Biggest Italian Opening in Years, 'Dallas,' 'Book Thief' Strong in Expansion

Going in, “Nebraska,” from Alexander Payne, one of the most consistently lauded American directors over the last decade, looked to have limited appeal due to its older rural characters, black and white presentation, and non-marquee names. But its better-than-expected opening, with strong marketing from big-studio Paramount, proved a promising start as the family dramedy heads into the competitive awards season.

Equally impressive at just one theater was the surprising start for “The Great Beauty,” the first Italian film to have such a strong opening in many years. Also notable are solid or better expansions for “The Book Thief” and “Dallas Buyers Club,” both of which look capable of withstanding the severe upcoming competition from both specialized and wider-released adult-oriented films.

Opening

“Nebraska” (Paramount) – Criticwire: B+; Metacritic: 84; Festivals include: Cannes 2013, Telluride 2013, New York 2013, AFI 2013

$140,000 in 4 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $35,000

Backed by strong reviews (equal to “The Descendants” two years ago), Payne’s return to his home state scored a decent opening in four prime New York/Los Angeles theaters, with a PSA the best since “12 Years a Slave” opened last month. The numbers are a bit above “Dallas Buyers Club”‘s opening (which has since expanded successfully) and more than doubled the initial take for “All Is Lost.” All four films are in the Oscar mix, particularly for Best Actor.

These aren’t numbers quite at the level of past Payne starts — “The Descendants” had a PSA of nearly $40,000 in a much wider 29 theaters (boosted by George Clooney and more general audience appeal) and also below the openings for “About Schmidt” pre-Christmas and “Sideways.” But still in a very crowded marketplace for adult/review oriented audiences and with initial appeal from the older segment, this is a credible start, with a good jump from Friday’s initial $10,000 PSA suggesting strong audience response.

This is Paramount’s first attempt at a platform release since Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult” two years ago (starring Charlize Theron), which had a PSA of $38,000 in 6 theaters. Produced for $12 million (slightly more than half of the budget for “The Descendants”) by respected veterans Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa (“Little Miss Sunshine”) for Paramount’s Vantage label, the film has been a question mark since the U.S. press at Cannes had a more tepid reaction to the cut shown there, which Payne subsequently revised. But Bruce Dern’s Best Actor win proved that taking the film to Cannes was the right decision, and a vigorous festival and screening strategy has generated major interest and enthusiasm for the film and its cast. These numbers alone don’t guarantee future success, but they are at the level suggesting Paramount was correct in positioning this as a prime awards candidate and risking a tricky expansion going into the heart of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday seasons.

What comes next: Paramount adds 10 more markets this Friday, more in time for Thanksgiving, with the expectation, backed by significant marketing, of widening this through the end of the year and a hoped for maximum release in January to coincide with anticipated major nominations and wins.

“The Great Beauty” (Janus) – Criticwire: B+, Metacritic: 86; Festivals include: Cannes 2013, Toronto 2013, AFI 2013

$23,000 in 1 theater; PSA: $23,000

Another Cannes prizewinner (for screenplay), Paolo Sorrentino’s acclaimed Rome-set contemporary drama with echoes ranging from “La Dolce Vita” to “Wild Strawberries” had a very strong start at New York’s Lincoln Plaza Theater, with its 142 minute running time allowing for only four shows and limited capacity on one screen. This gross is in the range of what “Amour” and “The Separation” — both Best Foreign Language Oscar winners, an award this is eligible for — opened to at the same theater.

What is notable though is how unusual this gross is for an Italian film in recent years. Led by directors like Roberto Rossellini and Vittoria DeSica, Italy almost singlehandedly created the post-World War 2 market for subtitled films in the U.S., and then in subsequent decades films from directors ranging from Fellini, Antonioni and Bertolucci to more recently Tornatore kept it close to France as the most consistent provider of art-house fare. But this is by far the best opening for any Italian film going back to at least 2005, including the mildly successful Sorrentino film “Il Divo.” This opening comes parallel to a concerted effort from the Italian industry to spotlight recent films (including week-long festivals in several cities) to help revitalize interest. It sometimes takes one successful film to do this, and although one week at one great theater isn’t definitive, this is a very encouraging sign for future prospects.

Part of the problem is the lack of interest from studio-backed distributors (other than Sony Pictures Classics, who along with IFC and Magnolia release the bulk of top art-house oriented subtitled films these days) in anything not in English. Weinstein released Sorrentino’s last film, the mostly English language Sean Penn-starrer “This Must Be the Place” to nothing results ($143,000 total), but unlike their Miramax days TWC less frequently takes on subtitled films (“Intouchables” last year though was a big success). “The Great Beauty” is being released by Janus Films, the decades-old rights-holder of a vast collection of masterpieces, now partnered with the Criterion Collection. The company’s theatrical releases are usually reissues of remastered classics prior to their Blu-Ray presentation, with their two first run films (the Austrian “Revanche” and Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre”) both having much smaller initial grosses.

In a year where the Foreign Language competition includes several films that have or will have already opened theatrically (in recent years frequently not the case), including “Renoir,” “The Grandmaster,” “The Past,” “Wadjda,” “The Broken Circle Countdown,” and “The Hunt,” having this level of reviews and audience interest at this point is a strong asset. Although this category with its vagaries is difficult to handicap (more so with the entire Academy for the first time voting for the winner), this start is a strong plus for Janus and Italy’s chances of winning the Oscar for the first time since “Life Is Beautiful” in 1998.

“The Christmas Candle” (EchoLight)

$75,600 in 5 theaters; PSA: $15,120

Though not remotely an art-house specialized release, this first film from the Christian-based film distributor (and future producer) EchoLight opened this English 1890-set Christmas themed film in 5 theaters in Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas this weekend ahead of its wider nationwide release next Friday. Echolight has gotten attention with ex-Senator Rick Santorum signing on as CEO, and more recently with internal executive turmoil that has resulted in lawsuits and unwanted attention. This film – about a village where every 25 years an angel visits the local candlemaker – includes in its cast Lesley Manville, Samantha Banks and perhaps most significantly Susan Boyle in a supporting role. These initial grosses (backed by strong grassroots as well as media marketing) show promise for the film before it goes wider, and shows once again the potential in the faith-based market, just one of several that have shown strength this year outside the studio structure.

What comes next: Echolight plans 400 runs next Friday, including all major markets.

Other openings:

The only other two openings reporting had lesser totals. Submarine Deluxe’s “Dear Mr. Watson,” (also available on ITunes) a documentary about the creator of the comic “Calvin and Hobbes” qualified for the Oscar documentary category by opening in New York and Los Angeles, with a gross of $6,800 for four theaters total. Sundance-premiered “Charlie Countryman” (Millennium) with a strong cast including Shia LaBoeuf, Evan Rachel Wood and Mads Mikkelsen, supplemented its Video on Demand opening with $8,600 in 15 locations. Among the non-reporting films, very atypically, was Weinstein’s Hurricane Sandy concert doc “12-12-12.”

Expanding/ongoing

“The Book Thief” (20th Century-Fox) jumped to 29 theaters this weekend (+25) for an impressive PSA of $14,665, continuing last week’s initial trend of overcoming mediocre reviews (Metacritic with new cities added remains a mixed 55 score) with fans of the novel clearly not being deterred. This is about 75% of what “Dallas Buyers Club” managed in its similar expansion last weekend, and gives the film a real shot at developing good word of mouth, crucial if the film is going to continue to grow successfully.

Among other second week films, Sony Pictures Classics’ Lance Armstrong doc “The Armstrong Lies” continues to struggle, grossing $37,600 in 18 theaters (+13) for a PSA of only $2,089. The PSA was a bit higher for John Sayles’ “Go For Sisters” (Variance), which added Los Angeles this weekend to do $7,800 in 2 theaters total, not sufficient to suggest a bright future ahead.

Much more impressive, and building on its strong second week performance is Focus’ “Dallas Buyers Club.” It hit the #12 slot overall in only 184 theaters (+149) for a PSA of $9,700 and a total already over 3 million. This falls a bit short of the third week performances of earlier bigger hits “Blue Jasmine” and “12 Years a Slave” in their third weekends, both in somewhat fewer theaters, but with both of those films having become substantial successes, the slightly lesser result remains very encouraging for future prospects, particularly with both holidays and awards attention still to come.

Among longer-running specialized releases grossing over $50,000 total (apart from the still top 10 “12 Years”) the best of the rest is Roadside Attractions’ “All Is Lost,” which took in another $979,000 in 483 (+84) for a PSA of $2,027 and a total of $4.3 million. Though the grosses have never taken off, this has stabilized decently, crucial for the film to continuing to have significant playoff in upcoming weeks. IFC’s “Blue Is the Warmest Color” also is holding steady at a so-so level, doing $274,000 in 108 theaters (+37, PSA $2,537), now with a $1,152,000 total, better than average for a subtitled film these days.

Still struggling are SPC’s “Kill Your Darlings” more than doubled its theaters (71, +39) for $129,000 (PSA $1.817, total $499,000 and EOne’s “Diana” ($52,800 in 82, -18, only $295,000).

Two long running hits still churned out business – “Enough Said” (Fox Searchlight) with another $510,000 to reach $16.6 million, and “Blue Jasmine” (SPC) adding $66,000 to get to $32.6 million.

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