Middle of Nowhere
Ava DuVernay's 'Middle of Nowhere'

The high quality of some recent wide-release films is taking its toll on specialty films. With "Argo" nabbing raves, "Looper," "Seven Psychopaths" and "The Perks of Being a Wildflower" also in the top ten and "The Master" and "Arbitrage" still drawing audiences, it's tough to compete with smaller films.

The surprise breakout is "Middle of Nowhere," which with precise and careful handling scored a strong opening in mainly non-specialized theaters in several cities. It is yet another recent example of distributors and filmmakers exploring a way to success outside the conventional model at a time when innovation and outside-the-box thinking has never been more important.


"Middle of Nowhere" (AFFRM) - Metacritic score: 78; Festivals include: Sundance 12, Los Angeles 12, Toronto 12, Urbanworld 12

$78,000 in 6 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $13,000

Despite its Sundance acclaim (including the U.S. best director narrative award) this contemporary drama was unable to secure distribution from the top established companies, and opened this weekend mostly away from the usual indie theaters. And yet it was the best-reviewed new film with the best PSA of any of the openings. That speaks volumes about the narrow range of films considered mainstream specialized these days.

Just before this year's Sundance, Focus Features released "Pariah," which they had acquired at the previous festival. Giving it their best shot, including key theaters in the heart of the holidays, the film underperformed and likely discouraged some possible buyers. Fortunately, African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement was there to make sure this got the attention it deserved, playing at a mix of theaters reaching a core audience initially. In a weekend where films with considerably more advance attention opened to less business, this ended up on top.

Opening in five cities (New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington), exclusively except LA (where it played at the reopened Sundance Sunset as well as the Rave 18) at theaters located mainly to maximize African-American audience, this benefited from first-class marketing and active support from partner Participant Media. It turns out that the best thing that happened to the film is that it was handled more directly by people close to the film rather than the normal channels.

What it means: This expands to 19 more theaters next week. If success continues, this could turn out to be a model for future similar films.

"Smashed" (Sony Pictures Classics) - Metacritic score: 74; Festivals include: Sundance 12, Toronto 12

$30,025 in 4 theaters; PSA: $7,506

A modest opening for this Sundance film on a tough subject (alcoholism and its impact on a relationship). Highlighted by strong performances from Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul, with some thoughts that they might receive awards consideration, this looks like it will have a tough time going beyond top specialized theaters. It played initially in NY/LA with by far the strongest lineup of theaters of any new films, which makes the PSA more discouraging.

What it means: Sometimes films with tough subjects need a week or more of strong reaction to find their audiences, so this still could rebound.

"The Big Picture" (MPI) - Metacritic score: 70; Festivals include: Toronto 10, City of Lights City of Angels 11, Provincetown 12

$14,500 in 2 theaters; PSA: $7,250

MPI got two strong NY theaters and decent reviews to get to an OK but not great gross for this French thriller a la "The Talented Mr. Ripley."

What it means: This got the initial attention needed to ensure further playoff.

"Simon and the Oaks" (Film Arcade) - Metacritic score: 57; Festivals include: Stockholm 11, Palm Springs 12, Seattle 12

$10,377 in 1 theater; PSA: $10,377

Playing at NY's prime Paris Theater, this gross holds some promise considering the overall mediocre reviews (this received much more acclaim in Europe). Film Arcade reports very positive audience response. The story - antisemitism in neutral Sweden during WWII - is a variation on a theme that often finds interest beyond the initial limited runs  This is the new distributor's second release (after "The Other Dream Team"), suggesting they are planning an eclectic and diverse slate as the go forward.

What it means: This expands Friday to LA, Chicago and San Francisco with wider playoff shortly after. This could find deeper interest in suburban theaters than a first weekend's gross at this level usually suggests.

"War of the Buttons" (Weinstein) - Metacritic score:35; Festivals include: Palm Springs 12, City of Lights City of Angeles 12, Seatttle 12

$4,570 in 5 theaters; PSA: $914

This French film comes with a solid pedigree - the producer of "The Artist," the director of "Les Choristes" which Weinstein also pushed hard a couple years ago. Back in Europe, it was released at about the same time as another adaptation of the same novel. The same dilemma didn't occur here, but with the poor reviews this received, it made little difference.

What it means: Very limited upcoming playoff is most likely.

"Gayby" (The Film Collaborative) - Metacritic score: 58; Festivals include: Seattle 12, Los Angeles 12

$4,450 in 1 theater; PSA: $4,450

Minor opening gross in NY for this popular festival comedy about a woman asking a gay friend to impregnate her in the conventional way.

What it means: This opens in LA in two weeks, but so far it doesn't look like more than a niche film.