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Arthouse Audit: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and ‘Amour’ Open Strong

Arthouse Audit: 'Zero Dark Thirty' and 'Amour' Open Strong

The two most awarded and critically-acclaimed films of 2012 both opened last Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles, earning the highest Metacritic scores of the year (among the best of recent years). Their performance through the first five days show that audiences are responding. While faced with major competition for adult audiences as well as the normal pre-holiday slump, both posted numbers that would be considered strong any time of the year.

Four other major specialized films also opened in NY/LA. “The Impossible” starring best actress contender Naomi Watts shows the most promise. Other recent ongoing releases struggled to show sufficient strength to thrive the holidays, with one exception – Weinstein’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” which had another minor fall just ahead of its Christmas day doubling of theaters as its very slow (but so far successful) rollout continues.

A sign of the time of year is fewer new openings than any week for months, and not a single one of these films available on Video on Demand, which usually has seen two to three new entries a week going that route.


“Zero Dark Thirty” (Sony) – Metacritic score: 95

$410,000 in 5 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $82,000

Kathryn Bigelow’s search for Bin Laden film has, for better or worse, dominated the news recently, both in terms of awards received but more significantly with controversy generated. Whatever impact these contributed to audience interest or resistance, the first five days have been very strong, with a total of $639,000 in so far.

This is not a record overall for a December platform opening — “Dreamgirls” at three theaters six years ago had a PSA of $129,000 at somewhat lower ticket prices. But that film had several advantages — two weekends before Christmas, always a stronger time, less competition for seats and screens at theaters, much less competition for adult attention and a shorter running time allowing for more shows and better showtimes. Similar advantages helped “Moonrise Kingdom” and “The Master” earlier this year to have better openings (accompanied by nearly as good reviews).

Sony seems to be looking farther back and following the playbook of a very similar movie ripped from Mideast headlines, Ridley Scott’s military-themed “Black Hawk Down.” The actioner opened in four theaters in 2001, did 44000 PSA, expanded to sixteen two weeks later, then did $28 million in 3000 theaters on the way to $103 million.

“Black Hawk” went on to gross over $100 milliion, with $28 million on its first wide weekend. Unlike “Black Hawk,” “ZD30” has an extra advantage – it goes national the day after the Oscar nominations, which should give it an extra boost. Like the earlier film, Sony is emphasizing a commercial more than specialized audience. Though it opened at two theaters normally in high-level platform releases (Lincoln Square in NY, Arclight in LA), its additional three theaters primarily cater to general audiences, and atypically the Landmark Pavillion in LA is not in the mix, as well as either of the key downtown NY venues. Indications are going ahead that Sony is emphasizing conventional, non-specialized theaters as it moves forward.

Nothing guarantees a similar success, though, even if this opening is strong. Both films cover historical events about which the result is known – a failure in “Black Hawk,” a success in “ZD30.” But the difference are stark – as the massive coverage about the film has emphasized, torture is a central element (likely to scare away a substantial part of the potential audience), and attacks, mainly from some liberal writers and government officials, could increase resistance. Then any film which receives the critical acclaim this has could face heightened expectations (“The Master,” already a tricky film for audiences, was badly hurt by this) difficult to be equalled.

For the record, under vastly different circumstances (great reviews, somewhat similar theaters, June – so non-award heightened environment), Bigelow’s earlier “The Hurt Locker” opened in 2009 with $145,000 in four theaters (PSA $36,000, far ahead of advance expectations after most distributors passed on the film after its Venice/Toronto showings the previous year). That film – which never went beyond 545 theaters, had a TV campaign or any theatrical boost for late-year award attention, only grossed $17 million total.

But none of that lessens the excellence of this start. It may be indeed be at the level it should, but after the battering the film has taken over the last week or so, it looks battle-ready to advance forward.

What comes next: Sony plans to add some new markets and expand otherwise to about 60 theaters on January 4, allowing at least some additional moviegoers to see this before the nominations.

“Amour” (Sony Pictures Classics) – Metacritic score: 93; Festivals include: Cannes 2012, Telluride 2012, Toronto 2012, New York 2012

$70,700 in 3 theaters; PSA: $23,567

Finally, a foreign language film performs at a strong level, after months of several others (including SPC’s own “Rust and Bone”) not living up to expectations. Michael Haneke’s highly awarded (Palme d’or at Cannes; best film and more from the European Film Awards; best film from the LA Film Critics just a few) “Amour” opened in NY/LA even better than anticipated.

Though the praise and Haneke’s past track record gave in a strong base to build on, the story (about an elderly couple facing their mortality, mostly within the claustrophobic confines of a Paris apartment) as well as the pre-Christmas date could have been issues. Instead, it exceeded the performance of Haneke’s last two films (“Cache” and “White Ribbon”), both of which were end-of-year releases on their way to grossing $3.6 and $2.2 million respectively. Even more importantly, it is a better opening that what “A Separation” did last year the (better) weekend after Christmas. That later Oscar-winning film had a PSA a little under $20,000 for its opening, on its way to an amazing $7 million gross.

This is not an easy film, and word of mouth is likely to include both praise for the film (particularly its brilliant pair of lead performers) but also mention of its tough subject matter, however masterfully handled. But the initial response has to be gratifying for SPC, and gives it a strong base upon which to expand.

What comes next: This as expected made the Foreign Language short list, and it would be a shock if it is not a nominee, and then a strong contender. The Oscar reaction though could be much stronger, with nominations for Best Picture, Actress, Director and Original Screenplay all possible. How it fares on January 10 (just before it begins to go to more cities) will make a lot of difference on the level of success the film has.

“The Impossible” (Lionsgate) – Metacritic score: 75; Festivals include: Toronto 2012, San Sebastian 2012, AFI 2012

$139,000 in 15 theaters; PSA: $9,267

After already grossing over $60 million worldwide, primarily from its native Spain (a staggering $53 million, a country less than 1/6th the population of the US), this post-Tsunami story of a vacationing family struggling to reunited in Thailand opened in several cities to a pre-Christmas weekend positive, if not great (at least not yet) result. Starring Naomi Watts in an already-nominated performance, with hopes to repeat with the Oscars, and getting generally favorable reviews, Lionsgate got the early attention and audience sampling needed to get some momentum going into the holidays and beyond. With neither “ZD30” nor “Amour” opening wider than NY/LA, they also have the advantage of being the most important new opening, at least in core specialized theaters, at the moment. But it also faces fresh competition from “Les Miserables” and “Django Unchained” on Tuesday and beyond.

What comes next: Assuming good word of mouth, and the possibility of further attention for Watts (who could compete for the Oscar win), getting this open early was likely the right move, even if some of the initial cities lagged behind what would be considered strong numbers. But the real verdict won’t come until next week when much larger audiences are available.

“On the Road” (IFC) – Metacritic score: 52; Film festivals include: Cannes 2012, Toronto 2012

$43,200 in 4 theaters; PSA: $10,800

With “Amour” also opening this week, this makes 11 (of 22 total) Cannes competition films to open in the US by year’s end – an unusually high, if not record, total (a few more will open in early 2013). The Cannes placement seemed warranted at the time, as this was one of the most highly anticipated specialized (at least at its roots) films of the year, with of course its source having been contemplated as a film for decades.

The Cannes response wasn’t as good as hoped, but IFC has gone ahead and opened it at the end of the year for awards qualifying, with a great four theater run in NY/LA resulting in modest figures. Given the context of all the competition at these and similar theaters, the decidedly mixed reviews and the scarcity of people going to movies at the moment, the grosses at least suggest that there is continued interest in Jack Kerouac and the Beats.

Brazilian director Walter Salles, who first got international attention for “Central Station,” had a significant success with a similar road movie, “Motorcycle Diaries,” in 2004. Opening in September, it grossed a vastly better $160,000 in three theaters on its way to a domestic total of just under $17 million, likely what gave IFC incentive to make as strong a push for this as possible.

This has also opened in several other foreign markets, with a much lower total than the $41 million non-US total for “Motorcycle.”

What comes next: This has its national expansion on January 18 in 25 more cities.

“Not Fade Away” (Paramount) – Metacritic score: 70; Festivals include: NY 2012, Hamptons 2012

$19,000 in 3 theaters; PSA: $6,333

This rock’n’roll drama, the feature film directing debut of David Chase (“The Sopranos”), even with good reviews, opened weakly despite highest profile theater presence. With a familiar cast in some key roles (Brad Garrett, James Gandolfini) but not a lot of star power, and little to attract a younger crowd, this looks to have gotten swamped by higher profile competition. The absence of any serious talk for future awards also didn’t help.

Paramount is releasing this under its Vantage label, although the separate distribution/marketing team disappeared after the heavy expense of the “There Will Be Blood” campaign five years ago. It was co-produced by Weinstein, which has a full, and more Oscar-friendly, slate otherwise at the moment to distribute themselves. Still, one wonders if they might not have done better with this.

(Chase is not the oldest director of a first film this year. Dustin Hoffman, at 75, is eight years older.)

What comes next: 16 other theaters open on Tuesday, so we’ll known soon if this has much further life to it.

“Barbara” (Adopt) – Metacritic score: 88; Festivals include: Berlin 2012, New York 2012

$70,000 on 15 screens; PSA: $4,667

Openly up unusually wide for a German-language film (Boston and DC as well as NY/LA, with 5 theaters in LA alone), this started with great reviews, including all-out raves in the NY and LA Times from lead critics. The result – dampened a bit by the number of runs – is modest, at least initially, despite the acclaim.

The date was chosen in part because this was Germany’s submission for the Foreign Language Oscar. In past years, the shortlist was selected days before the final viewing of those films for a small group of voters. Strong reviews, theoretically, could have helped the film’s chances of reaching the group of nine (three of which are selected from as the most worthy among those not voted on by the larger committee). But then, to everyone’s surprise, the shortlist was decided before Friday, when this opened, much earlier than past years. It is total speculation of course whether any of this had any impact. The movie did not get picked. But Adopt’s game plan was logical, at least until the timing changed.

This East German-set drama, which won best director and actress at Berlin, touches some of the same notes as previous German successes “The Lives of Others” and “Goodbye, Lenin!” set in the former regime. A more intimate and rural set drama, it contains a strongly personal tale of compromise and heroism involving two young doctors both exiled because of past transgressions.

What comes next: Though it seemed reasonable to think that the Academy audience might favorably react better than they did, regular specialized moviegoers – with less competition, at least in the foreign language area, could still make this at least a minor success. By opening it pre-Christmas, Adopt has given it a chance to build on word of mouth.


“Rust and Bone” (Sony Pictures Classics) – Week 5

$129,000 on 27 screens (+21); PSA: $4,778; Cumulative: $369,000

Hitting several new big cities in time for Christmas, this Marion Cotillard-starrer/Oscar contender did a modest gross, although as with all others, the pre-holiday time is a big factor. It has a better PSA than the new release “Barbara” despite being on nearly twice the screens and several weeks playtime already in NY/LA, so it appears to be easily the stronger of the two.

What comes next: A likely jump in grosses from Tuesday and on.

“Hyde Park on Hudson” (Focus) – Week 3

$399,000 in 86 theaters (+50); PSA: $4,640; Cumulative: $921,000

For this number of theaters, a good PSA – it is about the same as “Rust and Bone” with nearly three times as many screens. That should keep this performing at least at a good level though the holidays.

What comes next: Though not likely to crossover, the Christmas positioning will maximize the gross.

“Silver Linings Playbook” (Weinstein) – Week 6

$1,821,000 in 371 theaters (unchanged); PSA: $4,908; $19,901,000

Though it fell from its #10 slot last weekend, the minor percentage drop (14%) continues to justify Weinstein’s very slow rollout of this likely major Oscar contender. Just about at $20 million with no more theaters than what it has now, it doubles the number on Tuesday.

What comes next: The wide release – finally – comes parallel to the nominations in a few weeks. By that point, the film likely will already have grossed $30-40 million, with the potential backed with awards momentum and a TV campaign of soaring much higher, just when the Oscar voting is underway. Slow and steady, not exactly the Weinstein historic method, for once could win the race.

Other grosses (in millions/total)

“Anna Karenina” (Focus) – $668,000/$9,646,000

“Hitchcock” (Fox Searchlight) – $600,000/$12,416,000

“The Sessions” (Fox Searchlight) – $95,000/$5,379,000

“Chasing Ice” (Submarine Deluxe) – $83,200/$709,000

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