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Arthouse Audit: ‘Moonlight’ Soars to Near-Record Levels; ‘The Handmaiden’ Beats the Odds

The fall specialty box office roars back as Barry Jenkins' festival breakout scores the best reviews and best per theater average of the year.




The slumbering specialized world woke up this weekend.

Critically acclaimed “Moonlight” (A24) pulled a sensational response far beyond its already high expectations. But it wasn’t the only positive story: “The Handmaiden” (Magnolia) beat the odds against subtitled films. And Michael Moore’s election special “Trumpland” (Dog Eat Dog) scored strong numbers in theaters along with its iTunes debut.


“Moonlight” (A24) – Metacritic: 99; Festivals include: Telluride, Toronto, New York 2016
$413,175 in 4 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $103,685

In a lackluster year at the specialty box office, even a $30,000 initial platform per theater average for Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” would have looked great. Instead, with a rare 99 Metacritic score, ahead of any other film this year, the opening PTA of $103,685 is sky high and among the top initial results ever.

How good is it? It is second only to “The Revenant” (which opened on Christmas weekend) among releases over the last two years. Among the titles it bested are “The Big Short” ($88,000), “Carol” ($63,000) “Spotlight” ($57,000), and the even lower “Room,” “Brooklyn” and “The Danish Girl.” And for the most part those films opened on later, more prime dates that often bring big results.

Clearly the reviews are key. (The New York Times headline asked “Is this the year’s best movie?”). But similar reviews also boosted “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” It had an excellent initial four-theater PTA of $42,000, less than half.

What made the difference? This isn’t a typical platform audience film, which helped. Its multi-faceted story, centered on a gay African-American man, broadened the initial audience. The must-see movie comes in a season with little to get people back into theaters as different and special compared to what increasingly is offered on cable and streaming. And A24 continues to find ways to reach other than just the older educated big city audiences that usually serve as the base for most top entries.

READ MORE: Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’ Journey: How the Year’s Great Discovery Became an American Cinema Milestone

Does this mean “Moonlight” crosses over and becomes a wide success a la “Precious”? Way too early for that. But with its strong presence in the awards cycle, this should have a sustained run. And these numbers should boost its chances.

What comes next: Big cities add on this Friday with a national release on November 4.

The Handmaiden

“The Handmaiden”

Amazon Studios

“The Handmaiden” (Magnolia) – Metacritic: 82; Festivals include: Cannes, Toronto 2016
$91,600 in 5 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $18,320

A Korean 1930s period romance in top platform New York/Los Angeles theaters wouldn’t seem a likely candidate for standout success these days. But director Park Chan Wook’s cult following after “Oldboy” and others plus strong reviews led to an impressive initial response at the high-end for subtitled films this year. This is another Amazon success (with different distributors) as they continue to seek out top directors from around the world. The length (145 minutes) makes the result even more impressive.

What comes next: 25 more markets open this Friday.

"American Pastoral"

“American Pastoral”

“American Pastoral” (Lionsgate) – Metacritic: 46; Festivals include: Toronto 2016
$151,000 in 50 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $3,020

Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut, adapting Philip Roth’s classic novel, premiered to mixed response at Toronto and downbeat reviews across the board. This led to the decision to open in multiple markets, all with elevated presence showing support for the release. The grosses are mediocre despite the effort.

What comes next: Likely to expand based on preset plans, this looks to fall far short of its promise.

“Michael Moore in Trumpland” (Dog Eat Dog) – Metacritic: 57; Also available on Video on Demand

$50,200 in 2 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $25,100; Cumulative: $64,247

With the director’s appearance accompanying multiple shows at its New York theater, his surprise film of a recent Ohio performance did stellar business. This wasn’t even on people’s radar a week ago, yet still created this strong gross. At the same time the concert film opened at #1 on iTunes.

What comes next: Streaming will be its main outlet, and additional theatrical showings will lack Moore’s presence to boost it. Still, this is a strong initial response whatever the added help.

“I’m Not Ashamed” (Pure Flix)
$900,000 in 505 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $1,782

This faith-based release recounts one student’x experience at the school shooting at Columbine. It played the typical mid-country theaters to modest results.

What comes next: This looks to have maybe a second week at these theaters with no further expansion.

Fire at Sea - Gianfranco Rosi

“Fire at Sea”

“Fire at Sea” (Kino Lorber) – Metacritic: 86; Festivals include: Berlin, Telluride, Toronto, New York 2016
$11,350 in 2 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $5,675

With great reviews, this Berlin Golden Bear-winner and Italian Oscar submission, a timely refugee documentary, did respectable business at two New York theaters.

What comes next: Los Angeles opens Friday with further expansion in November.

“King Cobra” (IFC) – Metacritic: 45; Festivals include: Toronto, London 2016; Also available on Video on Demand
$9,500 in 1 theater; PTA (per theater average): $9,500

James Franco and Christian Slater co-star in this true story set in the world of gay porno, with pronounced similarities to “Boogie Nights.” With a less than full screen schedule at New York’s IFC Center it turned in a respectable initial gross.

What comes next: Along with its VOD availability, this opens in Los Angeles this week and other cities in November.

“We Are X” (Drafthouse) – Festivals include: Sundance, South by Southwest 2016
$8,300 in 1 theater; PTA: $8,300

The Japanese glam rock band X and its revival are the subject of this documentary which opened exclusively in Los Angeles to a decent initial response.

What comes next: Three more markets open this Friday, with New York on Nov. 4 at the distributor’s new theater in Brooklyn.

“The Uncondemned” (Abramorama) – Metacritic: 82; Festivals include: Hamptons 2015
$5,146 in 1 theater; PTA: $5,146

Rape survivors in Rwanda seeking justice isn’t an easy subject for a commercial documentary, but strong reviews elevated this to a credible initial response in New York.

What comes next: Los Angeles opens this Friday.

“Tampopo” (Janus) (reissue)
$17,200 in 1 theater; PTA: $17,200

This 1980s art house Japanese hit centered around the food in the title returned to a very strong initial number at New York’s Film Forum. This is at the high-end of revival grosses in recent years.

What comes next: An already planned national release likely gets wider with this early results.

International releases

“El Jeremias” (Sony/Mexico) – $(est.) 260,000 in 192 theaters
“Ism” (Cinegalaxy/India) – $(est.) 130,000 in 81 theaters
“The Third Party” (ABS/Philippines) – $(est.) 175,000 in 38 theaters

Week Two

“Shin Godzilla” (Funimation)
$(est.) 110,000 in 258 theaters (+); PTA: $(est.) 426; Cumulative: $(est.) 1,860,000

Last weekend’s sensation came down to earth with mostly limited Saturday shows, but it already has achieved success and likely further interest in other venues.

“Desierto” (STX)
$474,000 in 168 theaters (+95); PTA: $2,821; Cumulative: $1,120,000

20 additional markets, again mostly in Spanish-speaking areas, were added to this Gael Garcia Bernal border crossing drama. The overall gross is about $50,000 under the total in its initial weekend theaters, but the overall average looks good enough to sustain most of its runs.

“Priceless” (Roadside Attractions)
$265,300 in 294 theaters (-9); PTA: $902; Cumulative: $1,166,000

This film about a faith-based country singer dropped more than half this weekend and looks like to disappear quickly.

“Certain Women” (IFC)
$157,850 in 41 theaters (+36); PTA: $3,850; Cumulative: $243,850

Kelly Reichardt’s multiple episode film with a cast including Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart expanded to most major markets. It is getting some sampling but not at the level its strong reviews might indicate. It will add about 20 more markets this week.

“Aquarius” (Vitagraph)
$55,000 in 17 theaters (+14); PTA: $3,236; Cumulative: $95,788

Sonia Braga’s bravura performance continues to receive acclaim as it expands to top markets. Among subtitle releases in 2016, this Brazilian drama ranks as above average so far.

“Miss Hokusai” (GKids)
$71,299 in 84 theaters (+82); PTA: $849; Cumulative: $105,459

A very rapid and very low grossing expansion in the second week for this Japanese animated feature not getting a public response similar to other of GKids’ releases.



The Orchard

“Christine” (The Orchard)
$37,810 in 12 theaters (+11); PTA: $3,151; Cumulative: $57,126

Rebecca Hall’s acclaimed performance continues to elevate interest in this recreation of a news anchor’s tragedy. Its second week expansion found modest response in Los Angeles and other new cities.

Ongoing/expanding (Grosses over $50,000)

“Denial” (Bleecker Street) Week 4
$972,940 in 648 theaters (+552); Cumulative: $1,990,000

Rachel Weisz’s Holocaust courtroom drama moved much wider this weekend to mixed results. Bleecker Street’s “Eye in the Sky” did nearly as well ($932,000) in only 123 theaters in its third week. This has been the best of the mediocre fall limited openers in what so far has been an uninspiring season, though “Moonlight” ahead looks to change that.

“The Birth of a Nation” (Fox Searchlight) Week 3
$925,000 in 633 theaters (-1,472); Cumulative: $14,190,000

Nate Parker’s much talked about but much less seen slave rebellion story dropped precipitously in its third weekend. The gross fell by about 2/3rds with the likely total domestic gross likely to end up below what Fox Searchlight paid to acquire it.

“Queen of Katwe” (Disney) Week 5
$380,000 in 319 theaters (-743); Cumulative: $7,755,000

Mira Nair’s feel-good chess-world story took a big drop in theaters, with the remaining ones holding on to give it a shot at $8 million. That’s disappointing for the effort that Disney made in pushing this into a fairly wide break.

“A Man Called Ove” (Music Box) Week 4
$262,770 in 96 theaters (+17); Cumulative: $802,490

In the difficult world of subtitled releases, Music Box has scored another relative success as this Swedish story about a retired curmudgeon expands further and actually increases its PTA. That shows terrific word of mouth and the chance that this could surpass “Embrace of the Serpent” as the top arthouse foreign language title of the year. Also, with this as Sweden’s Oscar submission, this early release could find its chances soar in the category.

“The Dressmaker” (Broad Green) Week 5
$115,348 in 103 theaters (-43); Cumulative: $1,561,000

Kate Winslet’s Australian small town homecoming story continues to fall short of expectations as it nears the end of its run.

“Hell or High Water” (Lionsgate) Week 11
$93,000 in 87 theaters (-101); Cumulative: $26,658,000

Wrapping up its run, this sets the standard for specialized releases for 2016 heading into the awards season.

“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Year (Abramorama) Week 6; also available on Hulu
$69,930 in 82 theaters (-20); Cumulative: $2,687,000

Late in its run this impressive release of vintage Beatles footage still is finding interest.

“American Honey” (A24) Week 4
$(est.) 65,000 in 96 theaters (-39); Cumulative: $(est.) 518,000

Andrea Arnold’s young salespeople on the road film isn’t getting a response similar to its reviews as it falls quickly.

Also noted

“Don’t Think Twice” (Film Arcade) – $30,393 in 25 theaters; Cumulative: $4,335,000
“No Manches Frida” (Lionsgate) – $29,000; Cumulative: $11,461,000
“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (The Orchard) – $14,858 in 18 theaters; Cumulative: $5,190,000 (+$1,270,000 streaming)
“The Hollars” (Sony Pictures Classics) – $11,892 in 45 theaters; Cumulative: $997,391

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