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’12 Years a Slave’ Scores Big in Specialty and African-American Theaters, ‘All Is Lost’ and ‘Kill Your Darlings’ Start Soft

'12 Years a Slave' Scores Big in Specialty and African-American Theaters, 'All Is Lost' and 'Kill Your Darlings' Start Soft

The fall awards season went to full blast this weekend with three major festival specialty successes launching their commercial releases. One, Fox Searchlight’s “12 Years a Slave,” matched the current #1 smash “Gravity” in acclaim and–on a smaller scale at this point–better-than-expected grosses. Playing in six markets and a range of theaters with varied audiences, “12 Years a Slave” scored on all fronts and has begun its march to inevitable awards.

Two other new releases opening in New York and L.A. enjoyed less success: Roadside Attractions “All Is Lost” and Sony Pictures Classics “Kill Your Darlings.”  The former starring Robert Redford shows initial signs of strong audience reaction as it picked up from opening day thanks to strong matinees. These results show the perils of timing openings against not only a potential specialty juggernaut like “12 Years” but also the handful of wide release hits that draw away major attention from the same ticket buyers needed to launch limited openings.


“12 Years a Slave” (Fox Searchlight) – Criticwire: A-; Metacritic: 96; Festivals include: Telluride 2013, Toronto 2013, New York 2013

$960,000 in 19 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $50,526

The PSA alone is impressive, more so with its multi-city break. Add to that the tough subject matter and lack of big stars. Steve McQueen’s acclaimed pre-Civil War tale of a free black man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) sold into the hell of slavery is one of the top specialized openers of the year, above expectations (the game plan has been to move slowly and wait for word of mouth to grow).

How big is this? Most awards-contending top art house films open in a handful of New York/Los Angeles theaters in their first weeks, which tends to push up the PSA. Based on grosses for the first two days, the lineup of core theaters in those two cities will end up with a PSA of around $80,000, at the top end of its potential (there were sell-outs). “Blue Jasmine” had a $100,000 PSA earlier this year in a similar configuration, but had more upfront interest from mainline older audiences.

But equally impressive is the performance outside the initial conventional theaters of choice. “12 Years a Slave” opened in four other cities — Chicago, Washington, Toronto and Atlanta — and then expanded beyond just the normal theaters for similar releases. A few years ago “Precious” also opened in African-American neighborhoods, whose “12 Years” performance shows that it immediately connected with those audiences. 

The film also performed well in three top U.S. theaters that were not arthouse. This is critical going forward for the film, which doesn’t have the contemporary connection or the “Precious” marketing hype offered by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry. That film did its business — getting to  $47.5 million — fairly quickly. More significantly, even though the “12 Years” grosses are somewhat lower in African-American theaters, the jump from Friday to Saturday was greater, suggesting strong initial word of mouth. This looks, even apart from the awards push to come over the next few months, like it is in for the long haul with a potentially much higher eventual gross.

Also worth comparing is “12 Year”‘s theater total to specialty Oscar contenders “The Descendants,” which opened in November in 29 theaters with a PSA of $41,000, and “No Country for Old Men,” which reached $43,000 on 28 screens. The lower screen count helps “12 Years” average, which are in line with both films, which went on to strong total grosses ($82 and $74 million respectively). And a historical note: including Atlanta among the initial cities (an unusual choice for a specialized film) has parallels with movie history; Atlanta was one of only three cities, along with New York and Los Angeles, to open “Gone With the Wind” in 1939. The response for this here is perhaps the most important positive indication for Fox Searchlight going forward.

The sense from these initial numbers is that Fox Searchlight could manage to have a much broader film than “Precious” turned out to be, while approaching that film’s powerful appeal to African-American moviegoers. And this is all before the awards start pouring in, which should broaden it even more.

What comes next: This will get to six more markets and around 100 screens this week, then many more markets and about 400 the week after. The current plans are to expand to up to 800 theaters by Thanksgiving, then keep playing in as many as possible through the holidays, with the widest expansion around the time of the Oscar nominations in January.

“All Is Lost” (Roadside Attractions) – Criticwire: A-; Metacritic: 89; Festivals include: Cannes 2013, Telluride 2013, New York 2013

$97,400 in 6 theaters; PSA: $16,233

It’s unfair to compare raw numbers of J.C. Chandor’s acclaimed sailor lost at sea drama (with Robert Redford the sole actor for the entire film) with an event film like “12 Years a Slave.” Playing at six New York/Los Angeles theaters, its PSA for these core ones is about 20% of what Fox Searchlight’s film did. The good news for Roadside was a much better showing projected for the full weekend than the initial Friday grosses, making the results look better (this had a better than usual 61% jump Saturday above Friday).

The more apt comparisons should be with other high-end, awards potential films released between Labor Day and Thanksgiving (those amid the holidays tend to have a higher opening potential with this earlier period a bit more uneven). Among these, this gross falls short of the most similar films, most of which ended up being minor specialized successes. 

Keeping in mind that most of these opened in fewer than six theaters (fewer theaters can elevate a PSA), these are some comparable openings: “The Sessions” opened exactly one year ago in four theaters to a PSA of $28,367, with hopes of a John Hawkes best actor nomination, settling for Helen Hunt in supporting and an ultimate $6 million gross; “Martha Marcy May Marlene” did even better the year before, a $34,413 PSA on its way to a $3 million total, although not a hoped for Elizabeth Olsen nomination; and “Take Shelter,” also in 2011, opened only in three, for a $17,437 PSA and eventual $1.7 million gross, though also not getting the hoped-for nod for Michael Shannon.

The film most similar to “All Is Lost,” which also had advance festival acclaim, was “127 Hours,” another story of one man’s quest to survive under dire circumstances. It opened to a $66,000 PSA in four theaters, got its expected best actor nomination and made it to over $18 million (with a major wide push getting to 916 theaters from Fox Searchlight).

So why the spotty initial numbers? Robert Redford, whose performance has been acclaimed from its Cannes career (although the strong reviews also have praised Chandor’s directing of a boat in the middle of the ocean with a virtually silent actor). These other films didn’t face quite the competition for older audience attention. “Gravity” and “Captain Phillips” for starters are grabbing adult moviegoers. And it’s tough to go against “12 Years a Slave.” But this film needs word of mouth to induce a wider group of ticket buyers. Redford hasn’t been a big draw for many years. His “The Company You Keep,” which he directed and starred in, opened to a PSA of $26,355 in five theaters earlier this year (ultimately $5.1 million). So this might have been a more uphill climb to get attention than appeared likely prior to its opening.

Director Chandor’s “Margin Call” was also released by Roadside, with a video on demand/theatrical combined pattern. It grossed $5.3 million in theaters alone.

What comes next: Word of mouth and dedicated support from Roadside Attractions (the former possible, the latter certain), the rollout to 15 new cities (which may slow down, according to the distributor) starts next week, with a commitment to keep this in the spotlight heading toward hoped for awards attention for Redford.

“Kill Your Darlings” (Sony Pictures Classics) – Criticwire: B; Metacritic: 64; Festivals include: Sundance 2013, Venice 2013Toronto 2013

$57,700 in 4 theaters; PSA: $14,425

The time-of-year comparisons for “All Is Lost” above also apply for the most part to this 1940s-set pre-Beat circle murder mystery with strong gay overtones. With even a bigger star than Redford in Daniel Radcliffe (though perhaps not for specialized audiences), SPC opened this on Wednesday perhaps in part to get a jump on the other two big-name films (the five-day total is $73,000.)

Where it fell short was the all-important reviews. The consensus was mildly favorable, but far below other new wide and limited films in this stronger than expected October. Though with its share of good actors (Ben Foster, Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Elizabeth Olsen among others), the lengthy delay since its Sundance premiere (followed by some prime September festival exposure) doesn’t seemed to have helped its cause. SPC acquired the film for multiple territories at Sundance (price not disclosed), where the film had a strong reaction and Radcliffe’s involvement was an asset for future sales. The film, director John Krokidas’ debut, played in dramatic competition there. After the less than expected performance of “Austenland” (also in competition), this is another example of how a sensation at that festival doesn’t always yield the same response in theaters.

What comes next: The usual slow, thorough roll out from SPC across the country to maximize its potential.

“I’m in Love With a Church Girl” (FilmDistrict/Hightop) – Metacritic: 22

$1,025,000 in 457 theaters; PSA: $2,243

Aimed mainly (though not solely) at the African-American religious audience, with marketing centered on church outreach, this film starring rapper Ja Rule as a gangster who falls in love with a churchgoing woman did uneven business across the country, which a low PSA for this relatively narrow level of release. Director Steve Race comes from a music video and doc background, and similar to other recent religious-based films uses this contemporary setting to try to make the story more accessible to a wider audience. The scattered reviews have been awful, but they aren’t really the real gauge of response.

What comes next: This likely sticks around for a second week in most theaters, but it doesn’t seem to have much growth potential.

“American Promise” (Rada) – Criticwire: B; Metacritic: 60; Festivals include: Sundance 2013

$18,250 in 2 theaters; PSA: $9,125

Winner of a Special Jury Prize among the American docs at Sundance, this story of an African-American student at a prestigious private school opened in two small capacity New York theaters to frequent turnaway business this weekend that likely decreased the total gross. This is a very personal film — the two directors filmed their son from kindergarten through high school, and has specific NYC appeal that might have sparked extra interest (along with multiple personal appearances at both theaters).

What comes next: Los Angeles opens this Friday, with other major markets to follow throughout November.


None of last week’s openings showed much life. Two, both of which opened fairly wide, had big drops from weak starts. Relativity’s “Romeo and Juliet held its 461 theaters, but managed only $231,000 (down 50%), for a total of $948,000. Lionsgate’s “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete” fared worse, still in 147 theaters, but falling 66% to $87,000 (total $444,000).

Three far more limited openings all had PSAs of $2,100 or less — James Franco’s “As I Lay Dying” (Millennium) added Los Angeles to gross $4,200 in two theaters, FilmBuff’s “Broadway Idiot” added 5 theaters to gross $11,600 total, and PDA’s “Escape from Tomorrow” fell to 11 theaters from 30 last week to gross only $18,000 (the last two are also on VOD).

Three alternative-audience independent films provided the top grosses among the longer playing films. Two Panteleon/Lionsgate Mexican films still added to their totals, with “Pulling Strings” adding another $605,000 (total $5,161,000) and the much more successful “Instructions Not Included” with $515,000 more to get to $43,500,000. Roadside Attractions faith-based “Grace Unplugged” did $245,000 to reach $2,189,000. All three films are still playing on 300 or more screens.

Beyond these, only five films managed to gross more than $50,000, led by two films from SPC — the still active “Blue Jasmine” with $187,000 (total $31,970,000), the much narrower ““Wadjda” ($150,000 in 66, + 19, total $734,000. “Metallica Through the Never”  (Picturehouse) added another $70,000 in 45 (total $3,348,000); the director self-released “Generation Iron” did $55,000 in 33, up to $700,000, and The Film Arcade’s “A.C.O.D.” grossed $50,700 in 42 (total $126,000).

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