“American Hustle” (Sony) had a year’s-best limited opening, while “Saving Mr. Banks” (Buena Vista) had a decent take in a slightly wider start, both in advance of 2,000-plus breaks next Friday. Nothing else of note opened this weekend, a sign of the times as the studios increasingly, particularly during awards season, dominate the market and make it difficult for smaller films to gain traction in the major cities.
Back before 2010 the weekends before Christmas usually saw a handful of year-end limited releases before slowly widening over the holidays in key cities prior to later expansions in the New Year. The new paradigm is that the best theaters in New York and Los Angeles play both wide studio and more limited films year round. The competition is too intense for most smaller films to stand a chance.
So that brings only two new films to report (along with a handful of documentaries and video-on-demand films) that are not remotely specialized fare. But they both limited openings appeal to smarthouse audiences.
Last week’s big opener “Inside Llewyn Davis” expanded in its two first markets, with a good performance despite a per-theater gross far below last week. Several other recent openers continued their wider runs, so there remains plenty for specialized audiences to see. The difference is that they almost all come from the big distributors, with little room for smaller companies to compete at the most lucrative time of the year.
“American Hustle” (Sony) – Criticwire: A-; Metacritc: 89
$690,000 in 6 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $115,000
The third straight David O. Russell film to open limited (after “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” both of which headed to $90 million + domestic grosses and Oscar acting wins), this one topped them both by a wide margin. Playing in six top-rank theaters in New York and Los Angeles, its PSA of $115,000 is far ahead of the great $75,000 (in four theaters) “The Fighter” achieved, and the $690,000 gross is almost $250,000 better than “Silver Linings Playbook” did in 10 more theaters. It is the best limited opening of the year (“Blue Jasmine” had a PSA of $102,000, also in six) and the best since “The Master” last year.
What makes this even more impressive is this performance comes against fierce competition at some of the theaters — the new “Hobbit” is playing at three, “Inside Llewyn Davis” also at three, “Saving Mr. Banks” at four. In other words, unlike earlier top grossing openers, both the number of screens and seats available at these theaters is limited to a smaller capacity, with the result that many if not most shows were sellouts with a large overflow not able to be accommodated, particularly with the 138 minute running time.
Accompanied by a Best Film win from the New York Film Critics, strong showings with the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominations and among the best set of reviews for the year, Sony hit a bulls-eye in its marketing. This huge opening, unlike the more cerebral “The Master,” looks like a precursor for what is ahead for this all-star 1970s-set con artist caper with Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner.
Sony a year ago opened another Megan Ellison-produced film (“Zero Dark Thirty”) in five theaters for a strong $83,000 PSA and similar acclaim. “Hustle” looks to have none of the controversy that may have damaged that film’s ultimate prospects. Ellison’s Annapurna Productions is also opening Warner Bros’ release “Her” limited this week. Ellison is the go-to financier for top directors looking both to reach a wide audience but still maintain their vision without studio interference.
What comes next: With “American Hustle” in significant play for top Oscar attention, this sort of early platforming can be both helpful and risky. The attention these grosses get will only aid both with its awards profile but also elevate it with the broader public as it goes wide on Friday.
“Saving Mr. Banks” (Buena Vista) – Criticwire: B; Metacritic: 66
$421,000 in 15 theaters; PSA: $28,067
Disney rarely goes limited with its films (other than an occasional animated release), although it launched “Lincoln” last year in 11 theaters for an $86,000 PSA in advance of its very successful wider run. The gross here though shows why studios are careful about going this route. Particularly in comparison to “American Hustle,” this looks disappointing and somewhat weak. But whatever the reasons for this strategy (the film opens in over 2,000 theaters on Friday), it would be premature to discount the film’s future based on these numbers.
Why? There are significant differences from “Hustle.” The former is playing at six of the highest grossing theaters in the world (in New York and Los Angeles). “Saving” opened in six cities, and for the rest these are actually decent numbers. And the audience for this is somewhat different from “Hustle” — likely older, more female, more suburban as well as family-oriented. That group of moviegoers is much less likely to trek out to theaters two weekends before Christmas.
This is not to make excuses for the gross, which, while good, isn’t at the level that Disney likely hoped for both in terms of marketing before it reaches a wider audience or in terms of its awards positioning. It comes after the film overall underperformed both with SAG and the Golden Globes. But the numbers are relatively better than the initial performance in Britain, where it opened two weeks ago to mediocre wide business. We won’t have a clear idea whether the reaction in these initial cities will benefit upcoming dates.
What comes next: The main audience for this film, if it is to appear in anticipated numbers, won’t show up to a large extent until December 25 and after. For some films, particularly at this time of the year, pre-Christmas numbers can be a bit deceptive. The bottom line is that the jury is still out on how well this will perform, but these grosses shouldn’t be read as a sign of impending disaster.
As an example of how different something different than a core 4-6 theater New York/Los Angeles can skew a gross, the second weekend of “Inside Llewyn Davis” (CBS) shows how expansions can be misleading if one only looks at PSA. Keeping to its initial two cities, but adding 11 more outlying and suburban runs in them, it grossed $344,000 in 15 (+11) for a PSA of just under $23,000, less than a quarter of last week. With its core theaters facing severe competition for seats (with “American Hustle” and/or “Hobbit 2” showing at most of them this week), it also didn’t have the access to maximum capacity it opened to. Still, the total gross came in at 15% less than what four theaters took in last weekend. This could suggest that this film will ultimately be of a more limited appeal than some of the Coen Brothers other films. Their last similar release, “A Serious Man,” in 2009 went from 6 to 21 theaters, with its second weekend gross up 83% from its opening (the comparable PSAs were $42 and 22,000 first and second weeks). “A Serious Man,” which got a Best Picture nomination months later, ended up grossing $9 million. CBS is expanding this slowly, opening in several other cities in limited theaters next Friday.
The other significant expansion this week was “Nebraska” (Paramount), which is being rolled out very slowly. It took in $850,000 in 250 theaters (+137), PSA a so-so $3,400, total so far of $3,316,000. This should hold on through Christmas at most of these, with the plans for a much wider release at the time of the Oscar nominations next month. This is clearly going to be at the low end of grosses for Alexander Payne’s films, but with a real chance of ending up with a much higher ultimate total, particularly if Bruce Dern wins Best Actor down the line.
Adding more theaters on a lower scale was “The Great Beauty” (Janus) which took in $85,000 in 35 theaters (+12), now up to $529,000. Holding steady at 4 screens in advance of its national planned expansion for Christmas, “Mandela” (Weinstein) took a big drop to $31,800, down a steep 58% from last week’s strong hold. Its total is $238,000 to date.
Two of the longer running initially limited placed in the Top 10 again, #8 “Philomena” (Weinstein) grossed $1,756,000 in 835 theaters (unchanged), up to $11 million, and #9 “The Book Thief” (20th Century-Fox) did $1,675,000 in 1,158 (-158), total $14,9 million. Just below at #11 was “Dallas Buyers Club” (Focus), $1,130,000 in 574 (-160, total $14,257,000) and “12 Years a Slave” (Fox Searchlight), $685,000 in 497 (-585), now at $36,317,000.
Also over $50,000 this weekend were “All Is Lost” (Roadside Attractions), which did $163,000 in 261 (+114, total $5.7 million), a reissue of “Blue Jasmine” (Sony Pictures Classics), $101,000 in 302 (+267), $32.9 million) and “Blue Is the Warmest Color” (IFC), $57,200 in 54 (-24, $1.9 million).