Two wide releases from top directors with appeal to adult audiences are specialty films, even if their distributors opted to open them in over 2,000 theaters. Warner Bros. had strong reasons for wide-releasing New Line Cinema’s Bruce Springsteen-infused Sundance pickup “Blinded by the Light” this weekend, as did United Artists with Annapurna’s long-delayed Cate Blanchett vehicle “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.”
The question is how to find audiences for these films, as studios and indies alike wrestle with deeply rooted issues in today’s theatrical market. Even Sony Pictures Classics, which has pivoted to documentaries, found a weak initial arthouse audience for fast-frame-rate “Aquarela,” despite top-end reviews and theaters.
In wider release, “The Farewell” (A24) continues to add to its impressive totals. So does Roadside Attractions’ crowdpleasing “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” which showed a strong second weekend with non-specialized audiences as a key element.
Blinded by the Light (Warner Bros.) Metacritic: 71; Festivals include: Sundance, Seattle 2019
$4,450,000 in theaters; PTA: $1,929
Where’d You Go, Bernadette (United Artists) Metacritic: 51$3,450,000 in 2,404 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $1,438
The comparative initial response to two top-end independent films from acclaimed and successful directors is revealing. There are significant differences, as the Saturday gross for Gurinder Chadha’s “Blinded by the Light” (Warner Bros.) shows initial strong growth. Richard Linklater’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” (United Artists) also showed an unusual second-day increase, fueled in both cases by older audiences (who are far less likely to attend Thursday early shows).
Many observers question why these specialty-audience films opened so wide. This question came up earlier this summer when Annapurna’s “Booksmart” took that route and opened to $6.9 million. But the following week, “Late Night,” with bigger stars and a $15-million Amazon Sundance buy, had built even more anticipation than “Booksmart,” and went from a four-theater platform with a strong $61,000 PTA to a lesser initial wide result of $5.3 million. And SXSW-launched “Booksmart,” without a name cast, ultimately grossed more than $22 million, almost $7 million more than “Late Night.”
Neither “Late Night” nor “Booksmart” will likely turn a profit. With “Late Night” Amazon has a branded streaming title, while the $6 million “Booksmart” cost less.
“Blinded” and “Bernadette” both represent significant investments for their companies. New Line bought the period British-set Springsteen-themed crowdpleaser from the director of “Bend It Like Beckham” (which tallied an adjusted domestic gross close to $50 million in 2003), for around $15 million after a great Sundance response (for the world, except the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand). “Blinded” seemed to have potential, but as “Late Night” showed, even a great platform run doesn’t guarantee success. The film scored a respectable but not stellar 71 on Metacritic, brought down by a harshly negative New York Times review, which hurt the movie where it should have been strongest.
Universal took wide another similar movie from a top director with great success earlier this summer: Danny Boyle’s “Yesterday,” also set in England and featuring a young Anglo-Asian lead riffing on popular retro music, scored a surprise $75 million domestic.
Presumably, the Beatles bring wider appeal than Springsteen. But when New Line spends $15 million on a mainstream movie intended to hit audiences all over the country, staggering initial dates can be risky while adding to the marketing total.
The Saturday increase is an encouraging sign of upbeat word of mouth. With the mid-August release date, room to run, and a likely 100% theater hold on week two, “Blinded” could reach $20 million-$25 million ahead. That’s still disappointing, but the strategy will be justified if it gets there. Slow rollouts are risky when audiences not only have access to so much content, but “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” also dominates adult moviegoers.
What comes next: Next weekend will be crucial for “Blinded,” with the possibility that it holds well and then finds enough response to maximize the gross and add to its post-theater value.
Initially, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” boasted better grosses than “Blinded.” But the film based on the Maria Semple bestseller fell short of the top 10 with a weaker Saturday. Richard Linklater swings both toward studio fare (“School of Rock,” “The Bad News Bears”) and specialty films (“Boyhood,” “Last Flag Flying”). Throw in Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett as a brilliant but blocked designer stymied by parenthood, and the film could warrant a slow rollout.
But Annapurna (who hire and trust top talent) delayed the release several times, and when the movie finally opened (without festival support), “Bernadette” garnered tepid critical response. Not a formula for success. With its reported $18 million initial cost, going limited would have made no sense. A distributor at that point needs to get it open, take its chances, and try to realize as high a gross as possible, even if it’s disappointing.
What comes next: “Bernadette” likely will fare far less well; unless it holds better than expected, it could quickly disappear.
Sony Pictures Classics
Aquarela (Sony Pictures Classics) Metacritic: 84; Festivals include: South by Southwest 2018, Venice 2018, Sundance 2019
$23,474 in 5 theaters; PTA: $4,693
Despite the recent success of several documentaries (often celebrity-related), some acclaimed efforts struggle to find interest. That’s the case with this strongly reviewed, visually stunning study of water and its power, which failed to connect with initial New York/Los Angeles audiences. This had the benefit of playing at some of the best available theaters in both cities, making the result more disappointing. The film comes from Participant Media, a frequent high-end non-fiction film provider. The film’s promotional materials include the line “the ultimate theatrical experience” which should set this apart from other releases, but not so far. It’s odd that SPC did not do more to make an event around the film’s fast-frame-rate presentation in New York’s Landmark at 57 West (the only theater showing the film at 96 frames per second) and other more numerous 48 frame-per-second formats.
What comes next: Word of mouth along with SPC’s usual ability to attain top theaters everywhere could help boost this above its weak initial reaction.
End of the Century (Cinema Guild) Metacritic: 84; Festivals include: New Directors/New Films, Frameline 2019
$10,398 in 1 theater; PTA: $10,398
This Argentine drama about two men who unexpectedly reconnect 20 years after their initial encounter had a strong initial response at New York’s IFC Center. The film, propelled by strong reviews, had an above average initial result for a subtitled film of late.
What comes next: This will have a slow expansion, with Los Angeles opening mid-September (Landmark is showing the film in multiple theaters among upcoming dates).
Seth Johnson, Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Armory Films
The Peanut Butter Falcon (Roadside Attractions)
$294,090 in 49 theaters (+32); PTA: $6,002; Cumulative: $589,915
Roadside continues to include heartland theaters early in this movie’s run. This story of a 22-year-old special needs man who pursues his dream of wrestling success continues to show interest and word of mouth appeal outside normal specialized theaters. The careful handling so far is paying off. This well-selected date allows room for the drama to grow and could yield a sleeper success.
After the Wedding (Sony Pictures Classics)
$86,957 in 26 theaters (+21); PTA: $3,345; Cumulative: $159,378
Bart Freundlich’s gender-switching remake of Susanne Bier’s earlier Danish arthouse comedy about a family reunion gone bad showed a modest second weekend expansion. Starring Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams, the movie continues to deal with mixed reviews. The comparative gross falls well below the second weekend of “The White Crow,” SPC’s best grossing narrative release so far this year.
One Child Nation (Amazon)
$49,569 in 19 theaters (+17); PTA: $2,609; Cumulative: $79,367
Despite continued great reviews as the standout documentary opens in new cities, this expose of China’s draconian population control policy is drawing only modest response in its initial big city theaters.
Ongoing/expanding (Grosses over $50,000)
The Farewell (A24) Week 6
$1,502,000 in 861 theaters (+157); Cumulative: $12,838,000
Still expanding, Lulu Wang’s return-to-China dramedy continues to pull added interest. The results per theater as well as the total gross are dropping, but the trajectory for the total is now headed to over $16 million. This year, that number is terrific for any specialized/festival world title, but even more so for a primarily non-English language one.
Maiden (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 8
$186,319 in 154 theaters (-19); Cumulative: $2,259,000
Off its peak in terms of number of theaters, this rousing documentary about women sailors circumnavigating the globe continues to find interest. It could end up at $3 million or better. It is SPC’s top grosser this year.
Luce (Neon) Week 3
$163,965 in 58 theaters (+34); Cumulative: $530,402
With Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts giving this interracial adoption drama some added heft, Neon is expanding this drama slowly with hope that word of mouth will boost it ahead of wider dates. At the same third weekend point, it is grossing somewhat less than their recent “Wild Rose” at a similar number of theaters.
Tel Aviv on Fire (Cohen) Week 3
$60,566 in 30 theaters (+2); Cumulative: $234,586
As usual, Israeli films (this one, a comedy about a Palestinian who becomes a successful local TV writer) find interest more easily than many subtitled films. Further play ahead is likely, particularly with the film holding well in ongoing theaters.
Honeyland (Neon) Week 4
$56,997 in 32 theaters (+20); Cumulative: $211,721
The slow expansion of this highly regarded non-fiction account about different cultures among Macedonian beekeepers continues to show steady interest.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (Magnolia) Week 9
$(est.) 56,000 in 58 theaters (+11); Cumulative: $(est.) 727,000
Though this documentary hasn’t had anything like the response that Magnolia’s “I Am Not Your Negro” (a similar look at a literary-figure), the death of Toni Morrison led to some continued interest in this well-reviewed film.
David Crosby: Remember My Name (Sony Pictures Classics) – $45,492 in theaters; Cumulative: $385,946
The Nightingale (IFC) – $45,409 in 39 theaters; Cumulative: $184,257
Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (Roadside Attractions) – $40,502 in 65 theaters; Cumulative: $860,500
Last Black Man in San Francisco (A24) – $37,490 in 29 theaters; Cumulative: $4,486,000
Jay Myself (Oscilloscope) – $13,550 in 2 theaters; Cumulative: $71,579
Echo in the Canyon (Greenwich) – $29,325 in 35 theaters; Cumulative: $3,250,000
The Biggest Little Farm (Neon) – $17,370 in 27 theaters; Cumulative: $4,340,000
Wild Rose (Neon) – $13,893 in 17 theaters; Cumulative: $1,615,000
Jay Myself (Oscilloscope) ) – $13,550 in 2 theaters; Cumulative: $71,579
Sword of Trust (IFC) – $12,633 in 20 theaters; Cumulative: $317,512