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Arthouse Audit: A24’s ‘Swiss Army Man’ Slices ‘The Neon Demon’

Rising distributor A24 is cutting a swath at the specialty box office that is the envy of its rivals.

A24 is having a strong 2016. They started out winning Oscars for three films (“Room,” “Ex Machina” and “Amy”), took smart horror flick “The Witch” wide to great success, and now with “The Lobster ” and “Swiss Army Man,” can claim the two highest per theater average limited openings of the year.  And they’ve done what other companies seem not to be able to do: reached a younger audience quite different from those that have elevated such adult hits as “Eye in the Sky” and “Hello, My Name Is Doris.”

The cast and crew of "Swiss Army Man" at Sundance

The cast and crew of “Swiss Army Man” at Sundance

Daniel Bergeron

Among the elevated number of prime openings fleshing out the summer specialized release schedule, the surprise second best was “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (The Orchard), a New Zealand countryside story that could become a sleeper success with wider audiences.

The other shocker: the complete failure of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” (Amazon Studios/Broad Green), which despite major advance attention at Cannes found little interest from audiences in national release.

"The Neon Demon"

“The Neon Demon”


“Swiss Army Man” (A24) – Metacritic: 60; Festivals include: Sundance 2016

$114,000 in 3 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $38,000

Targeting younger audience worked again for A24, which is also adept at marketing high concept films. This black comedy—”Castaway” meets “Weekend at Bernie’s”—stars Paul Dano as an island-stranded man who befriends a washed-up corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) who seems to come back to life. The movie popped at Sundance—writers enjoyed describing its vivid peculiarities—and that carried over to its opening. Unlike most specialized openers, on its second day the film fell from Friday. Also of note, A24 made the unprecedented move to run no print ads in all Los Angeles Times editions and the national New York Times, as opposed to other significant buys for this week’s openers. Nor was “Swiss Army Man” propelled by reviews. Clearly, concept prevailed, along with the sauce (secret or otherwise) that A24 keeps bringing to the table.

What comes next: “Swiss Army Man” begins its national expansion this week. More is needed to see how broad this will play, but A24 definitely made a strong opening statement.

“The Neon Demon” (Broad Green) – Metacritic: 51; Festivals include: Cannes 2016

$606,594 in 783 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $775

Showing that social media interest doesn’t automatically translate into box office success, Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest American effort continues his attempts at stylish, bravura takes on edgy genres. But this mostly female-centered horror story of Los Angeles models totally struck out despite a well-supported national release. One of five Amazon productions debuting at this year’s Cannes (they also backed breakout hit “Love & Friendship”), this is a case where the rich marketing operation did not save the patient. Whether this would have managed better as a limited initial release is a reasonable question, but even if it had opened decently, sustaining those runs and their expansions would have been tricky. The 18% drop Saturday suggests even the core audience that drove cyber attention lost interest quickly.

What comes next: Hard to expect going into a holiday weekend that most of these theaters continue with more than token shows.

hunt for the wilderpeople

“Hunt For the Wilderpeople”

“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (The Orchard) – Metacritic: 80; Festivals include: Sundance 2016

$85,336 in 5 theaters; PTA: $17,067

In a weekend with several higher-profile new releases, this New Zealand tale of a curmudgeonly older man taking a difficult teen under his wing nabbed press at Sundance which translated into strong reviews and top theaters in its initial New York/Los Angeles dates. Directed by Taika Waititi, who is moving up in the food chain after specialized successes like “Eagle Vs. Shark” and last year’s “What We Do in the Shadows” and is currently helming Marvel’s “Thor: Ragnarok,” this crowd-pleaser showed a strong 47% second day boost that helped bring this to a promising initial gross. With likely older audience appeal, this could turn out to be one of the better summer releases ahead.

What comes next: The initial expansion starts this weekend, but expect this to fare well and get elevated attention ahead.

Wiener-Dog (IFC) – Metacritic: 65; Festivals include: Sundance, San Francisco, Seattle 2016

$27,020 in 2 theaters; PTA: $13,510

Todd Solondz has been a leading American indie director for two decades now. This ensemble return to form is similar to his earlier “Welcome to the Dollhouse” ($4.6 million in 1996) and “Happiness” ($2.8 million in 1998), connecting diverse stories with an ever-present dog. Considering its high-end support from IFC (releasing this Amazon acquisition) and placement at two prominent (and younger-skewing) New York and Los Angeles theaters, these are modest results. To its credit and unlike similarly positioned “Swiss Army Man,” the movie did go up on Saturday and did well enough to justify further support. But will need word of mouth to sustain further success.

What comes next: The national expansion starts this Friday.

“Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words” (Sony Pictures Classics) – Metacritic: 76; Festivals include: Sundance, South by Southwest, San Francisco, Seattle 2016

$18,002 in 2 theaters; PTA: $9,001

Two venues appealing to older Zappa fans (the Film Forum in Manhattan, West LA’s Nuart) opened this documentary on the still beloved musician to adequate results. This falls a bit short of several other recent doc openings (“Tickled” last week, “De Palma,” “Art Bastard” and “The Witness” also this month) despite its well-known subject.

What comes next: SPC as always will get this maximum play around the country, but it looks like a modest performer ahead.

“Three” (Well Go)  – Metacritic: 71

$(est.) 55,000 in 17 theaters; PTA: $(est.) 3,235

Hong Kong master Johnnie To is back again, this time with a hospital operating room thriller involving cops and gangsters. Booked mainly at Chinese-American audience theaters, this got some review attention (its opening is concurrent with homeland play) but looks to develop longer-term interest among his fans, if not during its initial theatrical play here.

What comes next: This opened well enough to keep these dates going with some possible expansion.

“Les Cowboys” (Cohen)  – Metacritic: 65; Festivals include: Cannes, Toronto, New York 2015

$14,283 in 4 theaters; PTA: $3,571

A significant festival player last year, this French-language film takes classic Western conflicts (particularly those of “The Searchers”) to a contemporary missing teen story. Though ideally placed in New York and Los Angeles, it failed to draw audiences (similar to the plight of most quality subtitled films this year), with good but not great reviews not helping much.

What comes next: Cohen has good national reach in placing its films, but this one will struggle ahead.

“Nuts” (MTuckman Media) – Metacritic: 83; Festivals include: Sundance, San Francisco, Seattle 2016

$(est.) 3,500 in 1 theaters; PTA: $(est.) 3,500; Cumulative: $(est.) 6,000

The week’s best-reviewed film is a doc about an eccentric inventor with a wide range of interests. It opened at the ideal location (New York’s Film Forum) last Wednesday but came in with at best an ordinary five-day gross under the circumstances.

What comes next: Looks like a niche rather than wider play film ahead.

“Right Now, Wrong Then” (Grasshopper) – Metacritic: 81; Festivals include: Toronto, New York, AFI 2015

$(est.) 6,500 in 2 theaters; PTA: $(est.) 3,250

Festival favorite Korean director Hang Song-soo scored excellent reviews for his latest film. This tells the story of a director appearing at a retrospective of his films. Hang actually tells the story twice from different perspectives. Placed at two Manhattan locations with discerning buff audiences, this had at best a modest initial response despite its acclaim.

What comes next: Grasshopper, a new distributor, has been able to place its films at core theaters around the country, but this one looks like it will have limited potential.

“The Kind Words” (Strand)  –  Festivals include: Toronto 2015

$ in 8,686 theaters; PTA: $8,686

With a low-key advance presence and only a handful of reviews (a decent one in the New York Times helped), this Israeli comedy/drama about a group of adult siblings exploring their family history played at the ideal Manhattan theater (the Lincoln Plaza) to a promising start. The Saturday gross doubled Friday’s and positions this to benefit from good word of mouth.

What comes next: Any Israeli film that gets initial traction gets national play, so expect this to play extensively ahead. The absence of any other recent similar film will help as well.

Also on Video on Demand:

“The Duel” (Lionsgate) – (est.)$ 4,500 in 11 theaters

“The Phenom” (RLJ/Tribeca 2016) -(est.) $3,000 in 10 theaters

International releases:

“Sardaarji 2” (India/White Hill) -(est.) $255,000 in 62 theaters

Week 2

“Tickled” (Magnolia)

$(est.) 54,000 in 18 theaters (+16); PTA: $(est.) 3,000; Cumulative: $(est.) 92,000

The top city expansion of this Sundance doc exploring the people behind a tickling cult didn’t have the same spark as its decent initial openings last weekend.

"Love & Friendship"

“Love & Friendship”

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

“Love & Friendship” (Roadside Attractions) Week 7

$490,160 in 281 theaters (-216); Cumulative: $11,886,000

The steep drop in theaters actually led to a good increase in the PTA here. That likely means this hit still has traction and the ability to hold the best theaters and the possibility of besting Roadside’s own “Hello, My Name Is Doris” as second-best art-house oriented specialized release this year.

The Lobster” (A24) Week 7

$434,464 in 210 theaters (-109); Cumulative: $7,414,000

The theater count is dropping, but the PTA went up to a level suggesting this sleeper off-beat romance-centered story continues to find fans, with an eventual gross approaching $10 million still possible.

“Maggie’s Plan” (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 6

$297,378 in 203 theaters (-132); Cumulative: $2,279,000

Though not a breakout success, Greta Gerwig’s most recent lead role quirky comedy looks to top her previous effort “Mistress America” as soon as SPC keeps its presence alive nationally.

Genius“Genius” (Roadside Attractions) Week 3

$216,686 in 152 theaters (+18); Cumulative: $807,487

Performing below several other recent period biofilms, this time American-set in the New York literary world, the result so far looks like a smaller result by some distance than several recent Roadside Attractions successes.

“Weiner” (IFC) Week 6; also available on Video on Demand

$115,120 in 88 theaters (+8); Cumulative: $1,227,000

Steady grosses are even more impressive against parallel viewing opportunities at home. This looks like it will end up one of the top-grossing docs of the year. (Sex sells.)

“The Music of Strangers – Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble” (The Orchard) Week 3

$101,717 in 43 theaters (+32); Cumulative: $188,333

A big expansion led to continued sampling among music fans as yet another performer-based doc gets attention.

“The Dark Horse” (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 8

$92,465 in 74 theaters (+31); Cumulative: $493,122

This Welsh horse racing doc keeps to a steady trot as SPC adds more dates as it does much better than initial grosses suggested. Word of mouth is elevating it.

“The Man Who Knew Infinity” (IFC) Week 9

$88,400 in 65 theaters (-23); Cumulative: $3,553,000

This middle-level success British period biofilm  is winding down its two-month+ run with its ultimate $4 million total ahead of most recent specialized releases.

Also noted:

“The Meddler” (Sony Pictures Classics) – $46,781 in 59 theaters; Cumulative – $4,123,000

Eye in the Sky” (Bleecker Street) – $26,264 in 47 theaters; Cumulative – $18,629,000

“Hello, My Name Is Doris” (Roadside Attractions) – $16,868 in 29 theaters; Cumulative – $14,410,000

“De Palma” (A24) – (est.) 15,000 in 21 theaters; Cumulative – (est.) 121,000

“Dough” (Menemsha) – $13,350 in 13 theaters; Cumulative – $1,035,000

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