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Arthouse Audit: ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Disappoints in Wide Release

"The Birth of a Nation" went wide to so-so numbers given its acquisition cost. "Denial" and "The Beatles: Eight Days a Week" are bright spots in a dreary fall box office season.

“The Birth of a Nation”

Nate Parker’s Sundance sensation “The Birth of a Nation” opened in over 2,000 theaters this weekend. That’s not exactly a limited release for specialty distributor Fox Searchlight, which acquired the film for $17.5 million in a festival bidding war. The slave rebellion drama was far from a failure, but was a disappointment given its cost.

As the prime fall season continues, limited openings made no major impression, while not even the best of the expanding and longer-running films could muster as much as $300,000. Holocaust drama “Denial” (Bleecker Street) shows signs of hope, but overall comparisons to normal results for this time of year reveal that specialized product is lagging.

In the same weekend last year, both modest performers “He Named Me Malala” and “99 Homes,” neither considered breakout specialized films, grossed over $600,000. That was business as usual. Specialized grosses continue to decline.

Opening

“The Birth of a Nation” (Fox Searchlight) – Metacritic: 69; Festivals include: Sundance, Toronto 2016
$7,100,000 in 2,105 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $3,373

This would be a terrific gross for most Sundance-premiered first-director efforts for their entire run. But “The Birth of a Nation” is not most Sundance films.

Clearly, one way that specialized distributors are bucking the weak market is to eschew platform runs for top specialized films. In this case, similar to “Precious,” “Twelve Years a Slave” and “Selma,” Searchlight marketing targeted both African-American and upscale broader audiences and positioned the film for awards. (They embarked on this course months before the rape scandal that arose from Parker’s college past.)

But actor Nate Parker (“Beyond the Lights”) was not a well-known entity, and took on multiple roles for his first directing effort, writing, directing and starring as Nat Turner. Which meant that when the narrative turned to his handling of his college rape trial, Searchlight was left without much else to sell, and many women said they would not attend the movie, while others protested on opening night.

READ MORE: IndieWire Movie Podcast: Screen Talk (Episode 118) 

In context, compared to these other films as well as the financials involved in “The Birth of a Nation” acquisition and release, Searchlight needed to get to closer to $10 million. The movie, which has screened well, did score a strong audience response with an A Cinemascore. But the numbers only rose 2% Saturday from Friday, resulting in a total gross below what seemed achievable. So this will likely prove a shortfall for Searchlight. (More details in Top Ten Takeaways.)

What comes next: The second weekend will be crucial for “The Birth of a Nation” sustaining a longer run.

Newtown

“Newtown”

Abramorama

“Newtown” (Abramorama) – Metacritic: 87; Festivals include: Sundance, South by Southwest 2016
$6,796 in 2 theaters; PTA: $3,398

Great reviews continue to follow this Sundance premiere about the Connecticut school massacre. Kim Snyder’s documentary had two prime Manhattan runs, with its tough subject resulting in minor results. The release is focusing on national one-night special event screenings through Fathom, not accidentally scheduled for six days before the election.

What comes next: Apart from the Fathom dates, this opens in Los Angeles for a qualifying run this Friday.

“Theo Who Lived” (Zeitgeist) – Festivals include: Jerusalem 2016
$5,539 in 1 theater; PTA: $5,539

This doc about an Arabic-speaking American journalist surviving captivity in Syria opened in New York at the prime Lincoln Plaza Theater to some interest above what its low-profile in festivals might have suggested.

What comes next: Boston opens this Friday, with Los Angeles the following week.

Blue Jay” (The Orchard) – Metacritic: 70; Festivals include: Toronto, Hamptons 2016
$5,235 in 1 theater; PTA: $5,235

The first effort from the Duplass Brothers resulting their deal with Netflix will premiere in December. The low-budget black-and-white romantic comedy boasted a short shooting schedule —like most of their productions. The critics favorably reacted to its quirky feel and anti-glamorous genre take. It opened in a single New York theater to modest results ahead of its home viewing life.

What comes next: Unlike most Netflix-adjacent productions, this is going the VOD route first starting Tuesday.

Also Available on Video on Demand:

“The Greasy Strangler” (FilmRise) – $25,000 in 11 theaters

Week Two

"Denial"

“Denial”

“Denial” (Bleecker Street)
$229,935 in 31 (+26) theaters; PTA: $7,417; Cumulative: $523,727

The Rachel Weisz libel trial drama about a Holocaust denier made a standard second weekend big city expansion. The result is a credible number which comes in at around 60% —a similar pattern to the second weekend of Bleecker Street’s “Eye in the Sky.” This doesn’t look likely to continue at that level for the remainder of its run, but for now it stands as the early leader among fall limited releases.

“American Honey” (A24)
$88,641 in 25 (+21) theaters; PTA: $3,546; Cumulative: $185,191
Andrea Arnold’s road trip movie with Shia LaBeouf leading a pack of youthful magazine salespeople added major cities its second week as well. Its performance didn’t match the first dates it the best possible platform theaters, with its limited nature (including nearly three hour length) and appeal to a younger crowd likely diminishing its reach.

“A Man Called Ove” (Music Box)

$95,000 in 27 (+18) theaters; PTA: $3,519; Cumulative: $178,721

Mostly expanded runs in New York and Los Angeles added to the initial results for this multi-city opener. The wider than usual push for a subtitled film isn’t typical but this Swedish comedy/drama about an oddball retiree (its Oscar submission) looks to be getting a foothold and initial good word of mouth ahead of its further expansion this Friday. Hitting an audience for an foreign language film is tricky, but Music Box looks to be off to a promising start.

“Do Not Resist” (Vanish)
$4,065 in 1 theater; PTA: $4,065; Cumulative: $15,259

Along with “13th” this limited theatrical doc is drawing acclaim for its probing of the criminal justice system. It played for an exclusive second week in New York before adding more dates this Friday.

Ongoing/expanding (grosses over $50,000 in under 1,000 theaters)

“Hell or High Water” (Lionsgate) Week 9
$265,000 in 275 (-245) theaters; Cumulative: $26,229,000

Winding down its very successful crossover run, John Mackenzie’s contemporary Western looks to top out between $27-28 million. That will make it 50% bigger than the best previous initial limited release.

“The Dressmaker” (Broad Green) Week 3
$234,970 in 174 (+15) theaters; Cumulative: $1,038,000

This Kate Winslet starrer expanded a bit but seems to be reaching its limits. Its PTA is weak for the number and quality of its theaters and doesn’t look to have much more potential beyond its where it is playing.

“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years” (Abramorama) Week 4; also available on Hulu
$204,122 in 141 (-14) theaters; Cumulative: $2,420,000

What was set up to be a one-day event alongside at-home subscription screenings has added some extra full-week runs. And now the concert doc has turned out to be the biggest theatrical doc of 2016. And it looks like it could still hit $3 million.

“No Manches Frida” (Lionsgate) Week 6
$190,000 in 138 (-118) theaters; Cumulative: $11,197,000

Pantelion’s latest is playing longer than most of their productions, though it looks to be nearing the end of its very successful with this latest Mexican comedy.

“Don’t Think Twice” (The Film Arcade) Week 12
$58,171 in 50 (-24) theaters; Cumulative: $4,232,000

Nearly three months into its run, Mike Birbiglia’s second comedy success is one of the few limited releases of late to reach $4 million.

Also noted:

“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (The Orchard) – $30,984 in 39 theaters; Cumulative: $5,139,000

“Captain Fantastic” (Bleecker Street) – $21,727 in 26 theaters; Cumulative: $5,804,000

“The Hollars” (Sony Pictures Classics) – $18,568 in 49 theaters; Cumulative: $964,368

“Harry and Snowman” (FilmRise) – $18,000 in 12 theaters; Cumulative: $97,164

“Indignation” (Roadside Attractions) – $14,125 in 12 theaters; Cumulative: $3,366,000
“Command and Control” (American Experience/PBS) – $9,050 in 6 theaters; Cumulative: $46,603

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