In mid-summer, 2019 finally delivered a breakout specialized hit. Lulu Wang’s Sundance breakout “The Farewell” (A24), which is neither a documentary nor a wide release, drew a stellar response from arthouse moviegoers. Produced in America and set in China, this family dramedy marks one of the best platform openings ever for a film outside the year-end awards season. That the movie comes from a little-known director makes its initial response all the more gratifying. The standard arthouse release formula can still work.
Bleecker Street also scored better than average initial results for “The Art of Self Defense” with an eclectic set of initial theaters. A24 is on a roll, as “The Farewell” joins the still-limited “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” (A24) in fighting to keep the specialized narrative brand alive.
The Farewell (A24) – Metacritic: 89; Festivals include: Sundance, San Francisco 2019
$351,330 in 4 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $87,833
Lulu Wang’s comedy/drama about a Chinese-American woman (Awkwafina) who returns to her roots to be with her dying grandmother was one of best received at this year’s Sundance, where A24 picked up most territories for a reported $6 million. But this year’s top festival acquisitions have had no guarantee of success, even with great reviews.
A24’s traditional limited release yielded the best platform opening of the year. It is actually the best per theater result since “The Favourite” ($106,000) which had the benefit of debuting three days after Thanksgiving and the expectation of major awards hopes. “The Farewell” also tops recent “Late Night” ($61,000), as well as last summer’s best, also from A24, “Eighth Grade” ($66,000).
Like the wide “Crazy Rich Asians” release last summer, “The Farewell” got a boost from Asian-American audiences, but also drew a considerably wider group, including younger viewers. In any event, it is the rare non-documentary specialized initial release that clicked immediately, with numbers that would be impressive at any time of the year: for midsummer they are outstanding.
What comes next: This should eventually widen to multi-hundred theaters. But it will have a traditional slow expansion, starting with the first wave of top cities this Friday.
The Art of Self Defense (Bleecker Street) – Metacritic: 71; Festivals include: South by Southwest 2019
$121,080 in 7 theaters; PTA: $17,297
Jesse Eisenberg continues to explore eclectic projects. Here he plays a quiet man who after a random street assault decides to learn self-defence and bonds with people outside his normal circle. It open in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Austin, including an unusual assortment of theaters in New York. This box office is a strong start, particularly with different theater choices. Bleecker Street tends to favor more older audience titles, but this one should have some younger appeal.
What comes next: More cities will add on this week.
Sword of Trust (IFC) – Metacritic: 68; Festivals include: South by Southwest 2019
$22,512 in 2 theaters; PTA: $11,256
Premiered at SXSW, this Lynn Shelton comedy tracks an Alabama pawn shop owner and a supposed Civil War sword that becomes the object of nationwide interest. Shelton directed her star Marc Maron in TV series “Glow.” The comedy debuted in two New York locations to a decent initial response (including sold out shows in small auditoriums).
What comes next: This expands to other cities including Los Angeles this Friday, as well as a Video on Demand and iTunes availability.
Sea of Shadows (National Geographic) – Metacritic: 80; Festivals include: Sundance 2019
$(est.) 11,000 in 4 theaters; PTA: $(st.) 2,750
National Geographic, which among its other documentaries partnered on the Oscar winning “Free Solo,” gave major support to this winner of the Sundance World Cinema Documentary audience award about the crisis of illegal small whale trapping off the Baja California coast. The eco-thriller opened in New York and Los Angeles including top-tier platform theaters to a disappointing result.
What comes next: This is set for around 40 further dates so far in the rest of July.
Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable (Entertainment Studios) – Metacritic: 60
$250,000 in 205 theaters; PTA: $1,220
The injured surfer who returned to her sport after losing an arm has been portrayed on film before (Sony’s “Soul Surfer,” which grossed nearly $50 million in 2011). This documentary covers the same story, with a cross-country opening finding limited response.
What comes next: This doesn’t look likely to expand much, particularly in this crowded mid-summer market.
I Got the Hook Up 2 (RLJE/Urban World) – also on Video on Demand
$143,300 in 37 theaters; PTA: $3,873
Miramax in 1998 released Master P’s crime comedy to what today would be a $20 million total. 21 years later, the sequel opened in multiple southern cities as well as New York, Los Angeles, and Washington (scheduled shows in Louisiana were disrupted). Given the home viewing option, these figures are even more impressive. The Urban Movie Channel partnered on this sequel. RLJE is coming off an impressive $1.2 million total for “Mandy,” which also had a day and date release.
What comes next: This expands to more cities this Friday.
Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (Roadside Attractions)
$110,160 in 30 theaters (+26); PTA: $3,672; Cumulative: $177,397
The second weekend expansion of this movie about Leonard Cohen and his muse underscores the continued interest in documentaries about iconic performers.
The Return of Martin Guerre (Cohen) (reissue)
$3,108 in 2 theaters (+1); PTA: $1,554; Cumulative: $16,506
The reissue of this 1982 Gerard Depardieu French film had a modest second weekend.
Ongoing/expanding (grosses over $50,000)
The Last Black Man in San Francisco (A24) Week 6
$361,613 in 207 theaters (+19); Cumulative: $3,337,000
Joe Talbot’s film continues its slow expansion and continued positive results. This should be able to reach $5 million or better, which is impressive these days for a narrative film from a first time director.
Late Night (Amazon) Week 6
$334,642 in 330 theaters (-63); Cumulative: $14,807,000
Mindy Kalin and Emma Thompson’s disappointing but well-received comedy is still getting theater play. It could hold on for a few more weeks at specialized locations.
Wild Rose (Neon) Week 4
$294,000 in 161 theaters (+91); Cumulative: $755,647
Jessie Buckley as a Scottish country singer trying to find Nashville success continues to find interest as it expands.
Pavarotti (CBS) Week 6
$255,000 in 196 theaters (-54); Cumulative: $3,501,000
Ron Howard’s documentary about the opera superstar continues to draw audiences as it heads to a level above many recent non-fiction hits.
Maiden (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 3
$224,328 in 68 theaters (+44); Cumulative: $484,218
The decent response for this sailing contest documentary continues, though below the level at this stage of other recent successes.
Echo in the Canyon (Greenwich) Week 8
$205,563 in 147 theaters (+3); Cumulative: $2,337,000
The L.A. music scene about 50 years ago continues to hold appeal; the movie is still playing in limited theaters as it nears the end of its second month.
Booksmart (United Artists) Week 7
$(est.) 162,000 in 160 theaters (no change); Cumulative: $(est.) 21,980,000
The gross is minor at this stage, but curiously, this high school comedy looks to have plateaued as a decent level of theaters are still holding. That suggest interest remains among specialized audiences.
The Dead Don’t Die (Focus) Week 5
$87,000 in 142 theaters (-125); Cumulative: $6,498,000
The last stages of Jim Jarmusch’s zombie comedy with Bill Murray and Adam Driver which should find a decent afterlife in home viewing.
The Biggest Little Farm (Neon) Week 10
$76,125 in 99 theaters (-8); Cumulative: $3,924,000
This surprise documentary hit on a seemingly less-than-sexy topic is on the verge of a $4 million gross.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (Magnolia) Week 4
$(est.) 52,000 in 50 theaters (no change); Cumulative: $(est.) 347,000
This well-received documentary about the Nobel laureate is getting a modest reaction so far.
The Souvenir (A24) – $17,575 in 25 theaters; Cumulative: $1,017,000