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Arthouse Audit: Oscar-Contender ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ Soars, ‘The Comedian’ Dies

In a rare moment, three Best Picture nominees launched as specialty films are in the Top Ten -- "Hidden Figures," "La La Land" and "Lion."

"I Am Not Your Negro" (2016)

In putting together “I Am Not Your Negro,” director Raoul Peck mined writer and social critic James Baldwin’s published and unpublished work, selecting passages from books, essays, letters, notes, and interviews that are every bit as incisive and pertinent today, as they have ever been. Weaving these texts together, Peck brilliantly imagines the book that Baldwin never wrote. In his final years, Baldwin had envisioned a book that was to be a revolutionary, personal account to be titled “Remember This House,” of his three assassinated friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. Peck’s film juxtaposes Baldwin’s previously unpublished private words with his public statements, in a radical, up-to-the-minute examination of the tragic history of race in America. It pulls still and moving images from a variety of sources to weave an immersive audiovisual tapestry. It’s a kaleidoscope, featuring a frantic and poetic medley, all in Baldwin’s very own style. The images punctuate the words and the music and vice versa. Collectively, the film redefines their meaning and impact. While not a primer for those unfamiliar with Baldwin, “Negro” a tribute to a project that Baldwin himself didn’t live to see completed. Samuel L. Jackson narrates the documentary.

Magnolia Pictures

I Am Not Your Negro” (Magnolia), Raoul Peck’s acclaimed documentary on author James Baldwin, opened extremely well this weekend to achieve an elevated position among this year’s Oscar Documentary Features. It also defied the usual strategy for specialized releases, documentary or otherwise, with a wider that usual first week opening.

It joins the Iranian “The Salesman” as a perfectly timed late-stage release. Asghar Faradi’s film expanded in its second weekend to about the same number of theaters showing “Negro.” They stand out as fresh blood in a period when multiple longer running Oscar nominees are still thriving, including a rare trifecta of three Best Picture nominees in the Top Ten: “Hidden Figures,” “La La Land” and “Lion.”

The first two Sundance 2017 films debuted theatrically, both with near-term home viewing prospects. Barbara Kopple’s “This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous”  (on YouTube Red this Wednesday) and “Oklahoma City” (on PBS Tuesday night) opened in New York and Los Angeles for review attention and film award qualification.

Raoul Peck and producer Rémi Grellety

Daniel Bergeron


I Am Not Your Negro (Magnolia) – Metacritic: 96; Festivals include: Toronto, New York, AFI 2016

$709,500 in 43 theaters; PTA (per theater allowance): $16,500

In three days “I Am Not a Negro” has grossed more than double than its four competitors for the Documentary Feature Oscar combined for their entire runs. Yes, that’s in part because two ESPN’s “O.J. Simpson: Made in America” and Netflix’s  “The 13th” – enjoyed token runs just to qualify while mainly showing on other platforms. But still, that alone is enough to make it stand out.

But a niche specialty film about the mid-century pioneer black writer James Baldwin –not a biopic but a passionate, personal and creative non-fiction — opened in 18 cities in 43 theaters (after its qualifying one-week one theater runs in December) and still managed a per theater average that would have been strong had it started in just New York and Los Angeles like most similar films.

The nomination and the reviews helped. But these numbers would be very good for any serious documentary in a conventional slow expansion. To reach this level right from the start, with this topic, suggests that in certain conditions (strong reviews are essential) that a far wider reach is possible at the start of a release.

In normal circumstances, this depth of theaters and cities would not be found until perhaps the second month. Distributors hesitate to tamper with formulas, but in these times when specialized exhibition is seeing a clear decline, in part because so much is available via alternative venues to audiences nationally at the same time, perhaps this shows how in certain circumstances a much wider swath of the country doesn’t need to wait so long.

What comes next: A rapid expansion with demand for this film from theaters that normally wouldn’t touch a documentary along with more conventional playdates.

“The Comedian”

Sony Pictures Classics

The Comedian (Sony Pictures Classics) – Metacritic: 40; Festivals include: AFI 2016

$1,108,000 in 848 theaters; PTA: $1,306; Cumulative: $1,122,000

If it wasn’t clear prior to its qualifying run and initial downbeat reviews, Taylor Hackford’s film with Robert De Niro as a comic trying out a different approach after a prison stay related to an anger-issue assault, was never a likely awards contender. That led to this mid-level release on a date where it had a better chance of getting some attention. No dice. Too much quality competition drowned out whatever minimum interest this might have had. Not much was expected, but this fell short of even minimal hopes. To put this in context: “The Comedian” played in 805 more theaters than “I Am Not Your Negro” yet grossed only $400,000 more.

What comes next: A quick hook.

Chapter and Verse (Paladin) – Festivals include: Urbanworld 2015

$32,713 in 1 theater; PTA: $32,713

The first production from the Harlem Film Company opened beneath the conventional specialized radar but nabbed attention from its local audience at a theater (the MIST in the heart of the community where this was set) not normally known for this level of gross. The story about a one-time gang member returning post-prison to a changed Harlem is familiar, but limited but strong reviews (this was a New York Times’ Critics Pick) and grassroots marketing clearly helped. Keep an eye on this.

What comes next: An added Times Square Manhattan run along with openings in Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta this Friday will reveal how much wider appeal this film has.

Journey to the West: Demons Strike Back (S0ny) – Metacritic: 59

$(est.) 520,000 in 66 theaters; PTA: $(est.) 7,879

Tsui Hark is one of the masters of Hong Kong cinema (“Peking Opera Blues,” “Once Upon a Time in China”) going back to the early 1980s. This $63 million sequel was released for the Chinese New Year, the single biggest date on the calendar in the region. Sony, which also handled domestic duties for last years massive “The Mermaid” got this into prime theaters for the overseas ethnic audience as well as crossover fans (including Landmark’s Sunshine in lower Manhattan). These numbers came in below that sensation’s opening, however, as the North American adjunct grosses showed. That worldwide $554 million smash debuted to $985,000 in 31 theaters.

What comes next: “The Mermaid” expanded to over 100 theaters, so this might get a wider showing.

Mr. Gaga (Abramorama) – Metacritic: 62; Festivals include: South by Southwest, San Francisco 2016

$24,685 in 2 theaters; PTA: $12,343; Cumulative: $33,963

This Israeli documentary views the life of an innovative choreographer whose Tel Aviv company is world renowned. It opened Wednesday in two appropriate New York theaters that have seen success with similar art-oriented documentaries. Another example of performing arts profiles that can click with intended audiences (one of its theaters is at Lincoln Center adjacent to Julliard), this initially had results higher than most recent documentaries — except for “I Am Not a Negro.”

What comes next: Los Angeles opens this Friday.

The Lure (Janus) – Metacritic: 74; Festivals include: Sundance, Seattle 2016

$(est.) 6,500 in 1 theater; PTA: $(est.) 6,500; Cumulative: $(est.) 9,806

Two mermaids go out for fun (temporarily gaining near-human form sans genitalia) in Warsaw in this fantasy musical horror hybrid. Its initial date at New York’s IFC Theater showed some steady interest after its Wednesday opening.

What comes next: Niche dates likely follow across the country.

Dark Night (Cinelicious) – Metacritic: 60; Festivals include: Sundance, Venice, AFI 2016

$(est.) 4,000 in 2 theaters; PTA: $(est.) 2,000

Like “The Lure,” “Dark Night” comes out of Sundance 2016 (the Next section in its case). This drama inspired by the Aurora Colorado movie theater massacre had a year’s worth of festival play before getting its initial theater showings (in Brooklyn and San Francisco).

What comes next: This is scheduled for additional big-city dates over upcoming weeks.

Also available on Video on Demand:

Youth in Oregon (Orion/Tribeca 16) – $(est.) 8,000 in 37 theaters

The War on Everyone (Saban/ Berlin, South by Southwest 2016) – $(est.) in 10 theaters

International releases:

Nenu Local (Big Sky/India) – $(est.) 700,000 in 115 theaters

Kirik Party (Indin/India) – $(est.) 210,000 in 57 theaters

The Salesman

“The Salesman”

Cohen Media Group

Week Two

The Salesman (Cohen)

$236,871 in 48 theaters (+45); PTA: $5,149; Cumulative: $346,924

Asghar Faradi’s Foreign Language Oscar nominee expanded unusually quickly. The game plan makes sense with the run-up to the awards, but also with the recent lack of new releases after the heavy dose of contenders over recent weeks. The furor over the short-lived ban on Iran and other Muslim countries yielded heightened publicity and awareness for Farhadi and the film.

Among recent subtitled releases at this depth of play, these are quite strong numbers (though they pale compared to “I Am Not Your Negro”). Faradi’s previous Oscar winner “A Separation” had a stronger initial showing a few years ago in a somewhat different pattern. It grossed more in fewer theaters as it initially expanded ($267,000 in 31 theaters) on its way to $7 million. But few art house subtitled films have made it to even $3 million since then. These grosses could, combined with a possible win, propel this to that level or more.

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

Manchester By the Sea (Roadside Attractions) Week 12

$1,440,000 in 974 theaters (-194); Cumulative: $43,915,000

Kenneth Lonergan’s multiple Oscar nominee continues to add to its impressive numbers late in its run. Amazon’s biggest success so far comes to Digital HD this Tuesday with VOD and DVD two weeks later.

Moonlight (A24) Week 16

$1,234,000 in 842 theaters (-262); Cumulative: $19,640,000

Barry Jenkins’ indie hit continues to accumulate more post-nominations extra gross. The theaters are beginning to drop, but the PTA increased from last weekend.

Jackie (F0x Searchlight) Week 10

$360,000 in 327 theaters (-181); Cumulative: $12,862,000

Pablo Larrain’s critically well received and Best Actress nominated effort is adding minor numbers at this stage of its run. The movie, short of a Natalie Portman win, looks to end up under $15 million despite some wide play.

20th Century Women (A24) Week 6

$483,230 in 253 theaters (-397); Cumulative: $4,790,000

As lesser grossing theaters fall off, those remaining have a higher PTA (it went up about 50 per cent this weekend). This could see a sustained run at some of these getting this to a better than expected total considering the lack of its hoped for Best Actress nomination.


Paterson (Bleecker Street) Week 6

$179,652 in 58 theaters (+7); Cumulative: $1,050,000

Jim Jarmusch’s latest is holding well at modest but steady levels as it slowly reaches deeper into the country. The PTA fell less than 10 per cent with a small increase in theaters.

Julieta (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 7

$127,729 in 58 theaters (+10); Cumulative: $1,023,000

Though it still is running behind others of his films, Pedro Almodovar’s latest has crossed the $1 million mark even without any awards push. That’s not a guaranteed level for any subtitled release these days.

Toni Erdmann (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 7

$103,302 in 24 theaters (+4); Cumulative: $528,079

The German Foreign Language Oscar nominee (and the most critically hailed among the group) continues its very slow expansion with average grosses compared to similar films during the run up to the awards.

Elle (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 11

$95,044 in 58 theaters (-70); Cumulative: $1,943,000

Isabelle Huppert’s Best Actress nomination has given new life to Paul Verhoeven’s French erotic thriller, with $2 million just ahead.

The Red Turtle (Sony Pictures Classics)  Week 3

$75,357 in 21 theaters (+6); Cumulative: $235,249

Moderate results in still limited prime specialized big city dates for this Belgian Oscar Animated Feature nominee.

Neruda (The Orchard) Week 8

$67,989 in 47 theaters (-10); Cumulative: $536,320

Pablo Larrain’s other biopic also continues its run but will now likely fall short of its potential, due to its lack of Oscar recognition.

Also noted:

The Eagle Huntress (Sony Pictures Classics) – $40,459 in 48 theaters; Cumulative: $2,936,000

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