‘The Death of Stalin’ Lives as the First Big Specialized Opener of 2018

The IFC political comedy from the creator of "Veep" could become the year's first specialty hit.
The Death of Stalin
"The Death of Stalin"
Photo by Nicola Dove, courtesy of IFC Films

New blood! “The Death of Stalin” came along just in time to replace the aging awards titles that dominated the specialized world since October. In its initial two-city platform, audiences embraced the unlikely comedy about the chaotic aftermath of the Communist despot’s passing. Maybe the Oscar hangover won’t be so bad this year.

Two other wider releases — “The Leisure Seeker” and “Thoroughbreds” — had larger grosses, but far lower per-theater averages. Neither suggest much traction.


The Death of Stalin (IFC) – Metacritic: 88; Festivals include: Toronto 2017, Sundance 2018

$181,308 in 4 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $45,307

Armando Iannucci’s early-1950s, Moscow-set comedy that surrounding plotting and maneuvers at the dictator’s demise is the first 2018 platform release to suggest crossover appeal. The $45,000 PTA in four New York/Los Angeles theaters is impressive; it’s just behind “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “While We’re Young,” both in March 2014. “Stalin” more than doubled the starts for same-month openers “Eye in the Sky” and “Hello, My Name Is Doris” two years ago, both of which went on to good mid-teens.

“Stalin” has perhaps a more big-city feel; its cast includes Steve Buscemi in the unlikely role of Nikita Khrushchev, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, and Paddy Considine among the Politburo plotters. Strong reviews helped, but the title — it hardly sounds like a comedy — represented a marketing challenge. The hook came from director-writer Iannucci, and his return to movies after his success as creator of “Veep.” That hit HBO show confirmed his reputation for political satire after “In the Loop” (2009), another IFC release.

What comes next: Top 10 markets add on this week, with other large cities the following and broader beyond that.

The Leisure Seeker (Sony Pictures Classics) – Metacritic: 46; Festivals include: Venice, Toronto 2017

$119,573 in 28 theaters; PTA: $4,270

Returning to theaters after one-week qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles late last year, this older-audience comedy about a retired couple’s journey down the East Coast in an aging RV did best where the audience resembled the cast. The two best theaters in its 10-market, 28-theater break were in Phoenix and Orange County, Calif. Saturday (a bigger senior audience night) was up enough to suggest some interest. With Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland as the leads, expect this to gain a foothold as it expands, though it might be a challenge to hold on to some of the initial theaters.

What comes next:With less competition and SPC’s usual aggressive push, it should be available in all decent-size areas before long.

“Thoroughbreds”Courtesy of Sundance

Thoroughbreds (Focus) – Metacritic: 76; Festivals include: Sundance, Hamptons, AFI 2017

$1,225,000 in 549 theaters; PTA: $2,229

This female film noir comedy, centered around a murder plot amid lush Connecticut surroundings, scored one of the top buys at Sundance 2017, where it premiered in the U.S. Dramatic section. More than a year later, it received a significant national release. Its young cast with Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy (as well as Anton Yelchin’s final performance) served as a reason to bypass traditional platforming. The result was modest, with enough gross to ensure second-week play but not enough to suggest further expansion. This should end up with a gross under its $5 million acquisition cost, much less added marketing expense.

What comes next: Similar offbeat films with dangerous young female characters have gone on to post-theatrical cult status.

Claire’s Camera (Cinema Guild)- Metacritic: 80; Festivals include: Cannes, AFI 2017

$11,843 in 1 theater; PTA: $11,843

South Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s brief (69 minute) story of a fired movie sales agent assistant’s encounters in Cannes (including extended time with previous Hong actress Isabelle Huppert) had a strong initial showing at Manhattan’s Film Society of Lincoln Center. Excellent reviews and the director’s growing reputation helped, putting this above many subtitled releases. This gross is particularly encouraging given the current demise of Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, once the site of choice for high-end foreign releases.

What comes next: Select big-city and other dates roll out later this month, with Los Angeles opening March 30.

“Leaning Into the Wind”

Leaning Into the Wind: Andy Goldsworthy (Magnolia) – Metacritic: 75; Festivals include: San Francisco, Edinburgh 2017

$(est.) 20,000 in 4 theaters; PTA: $(est.) 5,000

This is Thomas Riedelsheimer’s second film about the British artist; the 2001 “Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time” saw an adjusted gross over $3 million. This covers Goldsworthy’s more recent land-centered creations and designs. Its initial New York/Los Angeles/San Francisco four-theater start yielded modest results. But films about creative forces tend to find response in wider release, which this one will see.

What comes next: A planned expansion starts this week.

Itzhak (Greenwich) – Metacritic: 65; Festivals include: Hamptons 2017, Palm Springs 2018

$14,442 in 2 theaters; PTA: $7,221

This documentary on iconic violinist Itzhak Perlman is getting a theatrical release before its PBS premiere on American Masters. Opening initially in two Manhattan locations, it got off to a respectable start, with a particularly strong Saturday uptick.

What comes next: Expect at least 50 theaters, leading off with five in Los Angeles, Houston, and a New York outlying expansion next Friday.


Week Two

Foxtrot (Sony Pictures Classics)

$29,757 in 6 theaters (+2); PTA: $4,960; Cumulative: $112,569

Two outlying Los Angeles theaters were added to the initial two-city platform for this acclaimed Israeli drama about parents of a soldier going through a rollercoaster experience over his fate. The gross only declined slightly from its four-theater opening, which suggests some positive initial reaction. Expect this to get the usual SPC major market expansion and support, and some strength where Israeli films often thrive.


Ongoing/expanding (grosses over $50,000)

The Shape of Water (Fox Searchlight) Week 16

$2,407,000 in 1,552 theaters (+750); Cumulative: $61,000,000

To the victor, the spoils. While nearly all other winners declined steeply in theater counts, the Best Picture winner more than doubled its count. Still, particularly with its own initial limited home viewing date set for this Tuesday, Guillermo del Toro’s film should head toward a $5 million increase and around $65 million in theatrical domestic gross. That’s the highest of any top winner since “Argo.”

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Fox Searchlight) Week 18; also streaming

$705,000 in 552 theaters (-218); Cumulative: $53,350,000

Credible result considering its multi-platform streaming and other home viewing available.

"Call Me by Your Name"
“Call Me by Your Name”Sony Pictures Classics

Call Me By Your Name (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 16

$304,228 in 309 theaters (-605); Cumulative: $17,467,000

Just before it becomes available for home viewing, the Oscar Adapted Screenplay winner added some final gross to its total, which should be about $18 million.

A Fantastic Woman (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 6

$287,277 in 166 theaters (+77); Cumulative: $1,173,000

The Chilean Foreign Language Oscar winner got a boost, but less than expected. “The Salesman,” last year’s recipient, saw a per-theater average of $2,183, with a gross of $251,000 in 41 fewer theaters. Even with elevated attention and strong hook (the transgender story and its lead actress here), subtitled films continue to struggle. Word of mouth, along with little short-term competition, could still give it the boost it deserves.

Darkest Hour (Focus) Week 16; also streaming

$280,000 in 245 theaters (-668); Cumulative: $56,103,000

After Gary Oldman’s win for Best Actor, some minor additonal receipts for this Churchill 1940 drama that grossed more than “Three Billboards” and less than $10 million under the Best Picture winner.

“I, Tonya”Courtesy of NEON

I, Tonya (Neon) Week 14; also streaming

$263,471 in 243 theaters (-268); Cumulative: $29,510,000

An impressive run for this title only acquired six months ago, then propelled into a Supporting Actress win and a gross that’s quadruple any previous Neon release.

Phantom Thread (Focus) Week 11; also streaming

$245,000 in 184 theaters (-541); Cumulative: $20,723,000

It’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s best-grossing film since “There Will Be Blood.” Still only in theaters.

Lady Bird (A24) Week 19; also streaming

$200,035 in 156 theaters (-554); Cumulative: $48,728,000

Nearing the end of almost five months in theaters, Greta Gerwig has a major success despite no Oscar wins.

The Party (Roadside Attractions) Week 4    92-385

$98,925 in 91 theaters (-1); Cumulative: $483,723

Sally Potter’s London dinner party ensemble-cast comedy dropped only about 20 percent this week, but individual grosses remain minor.

Loveless (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 4

$54,132 in 37 theaters (+12); Cumulative: $303,406

Post Oscars, the Russian Foreign Language contender will need to build on very good reviews as it expands. Grosses remain modest.

Also noted:

2018 Oscar Nominated Shorts (Magnolia) – $(est.) 46,000 in 42 theaters; Cumulative: $(est.) 3,447,000; also streaming

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (Sony Pictures Classics) – $21,976 in 41 theaters; Cumulative: $811,321

The Insult (Cohen) – $19,762 in 16 theaters; Cumulative: $904,496

The Young Karl Marx (The Orchard) – $11,829 in 13 theaters; Cumulative: $79,724

Faces Places (Cohen) – $10,267 in 12 theaters; Cumulative: $921,919

Daily Headlines
Daily Headlines covering Film, TV and more.

By subscribing, I agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

PMC Logo
IndieWire is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 IndieWire Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.