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The 5 Biggest Indie Auteurs at the Box Office: Wes Anderson, PTA, and More

"Isle of Dogs" will open in 27 theaters, but platform releasing — movies that start small in hopes of going big — is an art unto itself.

(From L-R): Edward Norton as “Rex,” Bryan Cranston as "Chief," Jeff Goldblum as “Duke,” Bob Balaban as “King” and Bill Murray as “Boss” and in the film ISLE OF DOGS. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

“Isle of Dogs”

Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Where studio distributors have tentpole titles, specialized releasing has platform princes. These filmmakers are intellectual property: They will never produce blockbusters, at least not in the traditional sense, but their names trigger a passionate, arthouse fanbase eager to devour their work. And in the kingdom ruled by per-theater averages, Wes Anderson is the crown prince.

Dozens of directors have found massive success with a platform release: Clint Eastwood, Darren Aronofsky, Jason Reitman, Tom Hooper, Steven Spielberg, the Coen Brothers, Richard Linklater, and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Other directors to achieve over $100,000 per-theater averages in the last decade include Kevin Smith, Damian Chazelle, Morten Tyldum, Terence Malick, Lee Daniels, Luca Guadagnino, and Barry Jenkins. (Among women, Kathryn Bigelow came closest with “Zero Dark Thirty.”)

However, Anderson is among the few whose work consistently thrives not only in its initial limited release, but also expands to find a larger audience. That’s rare; in my film-buying days, we’d talk about a “John Wayne in Texas” — a movie that might not work beyond its big limited opening. A Woody Allen movie was guaranteed to be huge in Manhattan, but you couldn’t expect that in the rest of the country.

Anderson’s ninth film, the animated “Isle of Dogs,” opens March 23 at 27 theaters in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, Austin, and Toronto. All of his films exploit a similar platform opening: limited, then wider, and expanding to about 1,500 theaters by week four. It’s a pattern many try to exploit, but there’s really only five directors who use it to create a record of consistent, sustained success.

"Isle of Dogs"

“Isle of Dogs”

1. Wes Anderson

Anderson built a career on platform releasing. His last film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” holds the record for a specialized platform opener. Exuberant reviews, his reputation, and a post-Oscars March playdate — when theaters want fresh product — conspired to create a $234,000 per-theater average (All numbers adjusted.)

It followed a consistent pattern of big-city fans immediately responding to his films. “Moonrise Kingdom” had a similarly astronomical debut with a per-theater average of $148,000. “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” (his previous animated film) had a sky-high $80,000 average. Other directors have multiple platform successes in the past decade, but none consistently achieved the same level.

With Fox Searchlight’s initial opening of 27 theaters, “Isle of Dogs” almost certainly will come in lower. Even so, it will be in Anderson’s and the film’s interest to show broader strength as it advances to its staggered release over the next three weeks. There is massive potential in animated films, and wider positioning and exposure is far more important than getting another $80,000-plus initial take.

"There Will Be Blood"
“There Will Be Blood”

2. Paul Thomas Anderson

Similar to Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas has made a career out of platform releasing. His best per-theater average came from Weinstein’s “The Master,” released mid-September 2012 with little competition. With the addition of higher-priced 70mm playdates, that film had a staggering $174,000 four-theater opening weekend.

“Phantom Thread” (Focus Features) had a per-theater average of $54,000 in its first weekend, but it opened on Christmas Day, a Monday; had it debuted on a Friday, it likely would have exceeded an $80,000 average for the weekend.  “Inherent Vice” (Warner Bros.) had a $72,000 average, while “There Will Be Blood” (Paramount) as well as “Punch-Drunk Love” (Columbia) both exceeded $100,000.

Where Paul Thomas varies from Wes has been crossover appeal. Paul Thomas topped out at $52 million adjusted for “Boogie Nights” in 1997, a number that Wes bested with “Grand Budapest,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and “Moonrise Kingdom.”

“Blue Jasmine”

3. Woody Allen

The one-time standard bearer of platform releases has done well enough in the past decade to still deserve mention. “Midnight in Paris,” “Blue Jasmine,” even “To Rome With Love” all had initial per-theater averages over $80,000. However, Allen’s been on a downhill trend since “To Rome.” Since that film, only one (“Cafe Society”) managed a per-theater opening over $50,000. “Wonder Wheel” last December could only manage $25,000.

Steve Jobs

“Steve Jobs”

4. Danny Boyle

News that Danny Boyle might become the second Oscar-winning director (after Sam Mendes) to direct a James Bond film surprised a lot of people. It also might surprise some to realize how strong he has been at the opposite end of the release spectrum.

Bond films are global openers that bear few hallmarks of an individual director’s style. As a distinctive director, Boyle’s name has always guaranteed an above-average opening in platform releases — and in some cases, massive.

His second film, “Trainspotting,” had a $68,000 adjusted per-theater average at a time when numbers at that level were rare. He had more modest results with “Sunshine” and “Millions” before the triumph of “Slumdog Millionaire,” with its initial per-theater of $46,000; a multi-city initial run of 10 theaters reduced its average. It went on to an adjusted $174 million domestic, a Best Picture Oscar win and a half billion worldwide.

Since then he’s made four films, all with platform debuts. “127 Hours” adjusted fell just short of $80,000, while “Steve Jobs” proved to be John Wayne in Texas with a misleading start of nearly $140,000. But what he brings to a limited release is shown by “Trance,” and “T2: Trainspotting;” neither did well at the box office, but both opened above $35,000.

5. David O. Russell

Before the disappointing wide release of “Joy,” Russell’s four previous films all were propelled to success by their initial limited starts. His biggest hit, “Silver Linings Playbook,” had a 16-theater opening with a modest $31,000 per-theater average. “I Heart Huckabees,” “The Fighter,” and especially “American Hustle” all opened to adjusted per-theater averages over $100,000. The last two, as well as “Playbook,” zoomed to over $100 million domestic totals. He looks like a commercial director who does best when he makes films designed for platform release.

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