Who Needs an Oscar Nomination? Sony’s ‘The Lunch Box’ Is Best of the Limiteds

Who Needs an Oscar Nomination? Sony's 'The Lunch Box' Is Best of the Limiteds

A grab bag of new specialized openings were led by “The Lunch Box” (Sony Pictures Classics), a low-budget Indian film from a first-time director that nabbed attention at Cannes last May and showed significant early life in its two-city opening. Two other more unusual offerings showed modest per screen averages in wider breaks: “Repentance” (Lionsgate) played mainly in African-American theaters, while Russian war film “Stalingrad” (Sony, in IMAX 3D) was ill-timed. “The Wind Rises” (Disney” had much bigger success in its expansion. “Ernest and Celestine” (GKids) was strong in its single theater Los Angeles debut.

Opening

“The Lunchbox” (Sony Pictures Classics) – Criticwire: B+; Metacritic: 74; Festivals include: Cannes 2013, Telluride 2013, Toronto 2013, AFI 2013

$51,325 in 3 theaters (PSA: $17,108)

Falling just short of “Gloria” as the best non-exclusive limited subtitled opening in recent months, and the best one for SPC since early last summer (Pedro Almodovar’s “I’m So Excited” took in $97,000 in 5), this Indian film looks to fulfill the promise it had when acquired at Cannes. This non-Bollywood indie film seemed at Cannes to be a slamdunk Oscar contender, but due to the vagaries of local industry politics another film was submitted, and a film that might have been a prime contender lost its chance. Meantime, SPC pushed ahead and released it on Oscar weekend. The gross itself is encouraging, but the big news is the jump from Friday — yesterday more than doubled the first day’s take, a huge increase, suggesting initial strong word of mouth that could propel this simple story (two ordinary Mumbai residents who enter an unusual romance after their home delivered meals get mixed up) to beyond normal success.

Though commercial Indian films get regular semi-wide releases these days (usually the same date as back home), the more niche arthouse world remains a challenge for most more limited efforts. “The Lunchbox” seems to have universal elements that could propel it to not only core specialized success, but cross over to wider audiences.

What comes next: SPC is pushing this out much more rapidly than they usually do their subtitled films, adding 10 or more cities this week and pushing out to most major markets by the end of the month.

“Repentance” (Lionsgate) – Criticwire: C

$530,000 in 152 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $3,487

Lionsgate has been a leader in elevating African-American films for many years (it has been the exclusive home for Tyler Perry’s productions, although that partnership is now in transition). An extension of this has been teaming with Code Black films to handle more niche productions to limited audiences, with heavy grassroots marketing. They scored a major success last year with “Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain,” but most of their films have been more independent world entries from up and coming filmmakers. “Repentance” was acquired after film festival exposure last year. With “The Hurt Locker” star Anthony Mackie and Forrest Whitaker in the cast, this thriller with spiritual overtones was held back from critics, suggesting a lack of confidence in the film beyond its core audience. This opened in only 12 markets, with a modest PSA for the number of theaters involved. However, it had a healthy second-day jump from its opening, suggesting some initial positive response.

What comes next: This has room to expand depending on how much faith Lionsgate has in its prospects.

“Stalingrad” (Sony) – Criticwire: A-; Metacritic: 49

$500,000 in 308 theaters; PSA: $1,623

One of the more curious recent theatrical releases ended up with an unfortunate timeline. This Russian film, retelling the greatest victory against Germany in World War II, couldn’t have been helped by the parallel real world events in the news. Directed by successful Russian actor-director Fyodor Bondarchuk, the son of the director of “War and Peace,” an Oscar Foreign Language winner during the height of the Cold War, and also released more widely than most subtitled films, the IMAX/3D big budget presentation (submitted for this year’s Oscars) has already grossed in excess of $67 million worldwide. 

Sony’s involvement included distribution in Russia (through their joint company with Disney there), with its elevated-level U.S. release (those IMAX screens are valuable real estate) having more to do with fostering business ties with an important international market (their “RoboCop” has grossed $10 million there so far) than any profit here. And therein lies a peripheral point about the larger international news. Russia is now among the top five markets for American films overseas, with increasing partnerships and co-financing going on. Any major fallout from the Ukraine events could hurt Hollywood in the pocketbook (as well as some Russian film-related businesses).

What comes next: With IMAX pricing, this means that most theaters struggled to get 100 customers this weekend. Hard to see how they manage to hold on to many of these.

“Ernest and Celestine” (GKids) – Criticwire: B+; Metacritic: 77; Festivals include: Cannes 2012, Toronto 2012, Seattle 2013, San Francisco 2013

$15,600 in one theaters; PSA: $15,600

This long-delayed official release (this 2012 festival film had an off-radar LA qualifying one-week run last year, which positioned it for its Animated Feature nomination). Its single theater showing at Landmark’s Los Angeles prime theater had a strong bump of more than three times its first day gross yesterday, showing both good word of mouth but also attracting children to a theater normally populated by mainly older ticket buyers.

This French-Belgian production whose directors include the makers of festival favorite “A Town Called Panic” is based on a well known European children’s novel. GKids has had some success in finding U.S. audiences for these films, scoring previous Oscar nods over much better known studio productions, as they did this time. Their previous best result actually came from the Japanese, not European, “Up on Poppy Hill” (which last year reached $1 million).

What comes next: This expands in LA next week, with New York (IFC Center) and a handful of other cities coming along on March 14. The wider rollout will continue through next month, which based on this gross has real potential to mark GKid’s biggest success yet.

Two other new films reported grosses. Cinedigm released “The Bag Man” (actually a Universal-owned film) in two AMC theaters in New York and Los Angeles in addition to its video on demand showings for this John Cusack/Robert DeNiro film, with a better than expected $28,200 result. And Velvet Films opened Raoul Peck’s Haitian post-earthquake documentary “Fatal Assistance” in one 90-seat New York theater for $3,000.

Ongoing/expanding

In a weekend with end-of-run Oscar contenders still doing much of the specialized-world business (with DVDs either out or soon to come), one new awards-related release dominated. Hazao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” (Buena Vista, which has handled the domestic releases of his films for many years) grossed $1.6 million in 496 theaters (+475, PSA $3,234, total $2,040,000). This is not as wide an initial release as his previous “Ponyo,” in part likely due to its more adult/serious theme appeal. But it is a solid performance, overall consistent with Miyazaki’s earlier showings.

Lesser response came from two other second week films. Roadside Attractions “In Secret” went from bad to worse, losing more than half its theaters already to gross only $46,000 in 109. “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” (IFC) added VOD this week to go along with its 6 theaters (+4) to take in a modest $21,700.

Much of the rest of the action came from Oscar nominees. The most limited still, Janus’ Foreign Language Film co-favorite “The Great Beauty” saw its gross jump to $98,000 despite losing 2 theaters, and is already $2,232,000, with potentially a good deal more ahead should it win. The biggest gainer overall was the late arrival of a last-minute rush for “12 Years a Slave” (Fox Searchlight) with $900,000, up 72% in  411 (+62), now over $50 million. “Philomena” (Weinstein), in more than twice as many theaters, did $1,224,000, reaching $34.6 million, putting it ahead of “Blue Jasmine,” though the latter was on DVD by the time of the nominations and has had far less advertising expenditures. “Her” (Warner Bros.) did $431,000/$24.6 million total, “Dallas Buyers Club” (Focus) $427,000/$25.3, “Nebraska” (Paramount), out on DVD and VOD already $405,000/$17.1 million.

Other non-nominees later in their runs grossed as follows: “Gloria” (Roadside Attractions) – $166,000/$1.6 million, “Tim’s Vermeer” (SPC) $146,000/$508,000 and “The Past” (SPC) $51,000/$1,225,000.

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