Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave"
Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave"

The fall awards season went to full blast this weekend with three major festival specialty successes launching their commercial releases. One, Fox Searchlight's "12 Years a Slave," matched the current #1 smash "Gravity" in acclaim and--on a smaller scale at this point--better-than-expected grosses. Playing in six markets and a range of theaters with varied audiences, "12 Years a Slave" scored on all fronts and has begun its march to inevitable awards.

Two other new releases opening in New York and L.A. enjoyed less success: Roadside Attractions "All Is Lost" and Sony Pictures Classics "Kill Your Darlings."  The former starring Robert Redford shows initial signs of strong audience reaction as it picked up from opening day thanks to strong matinees. These results show the perils of timing openings against not only a potential specialty juggernaut like "12 Years" but also the handful of wide release hits that draw away major attention from the same ticket buyers needed to launch limited openings.


"12 Years a Slave" (Fox Searchlight) - Criticwire: A-; Metacritic: 96; Festivals include: Telluride 2013, Toronto 2013, New York 2013

$960,000 in 19 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $50,526

The PSA alone is impressive, more so with its multi-city break. Add to that the tough subject matter and lack of big stars. Steve McQueen's acclaimed pre-Civil War tale of a free black man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) sold into the hell of slavery is one of the top specialized openers of the year, above expectations (the game plan has been to move slowly and wait for word of mouth to grow).

How big is this? Most awards-contending top art house films open in a handful of New York/Los Angeles theaters in their first weeks, which tends to push up the PSA. Based on grosses for the first two days, the lineup of core theaters in those two cities will end up with a PSA of around $80,000, at the top end of its potential (there were sell-outs). "Blue Jasmine" had a $100,000 PSA earlier this year in a similar configuration, but had more upfront interest from mainline older audiences.

But equally impressive is the performance outside the initial conventional theaters of choice. "12 Years a Slave" opened in four other cities -- Chicago, Washington, Toronto and Atlanta -- and then expanded beyond just the normal theaters for similar releases. A few years ago "Precious" also opened in African-American neighborhoods, whose "12 Years" performance shows that it immediately connected with those audiences. 

The film also performed well in three top U.S. theaters that were not arthouse. This is critical going forward for the film, which doesn't have the contemporary connection or the "Precious" marketing hype offered by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry. That film did its business -- getting to  $47.5 million -- fairly quickly. More significantly, even though the "12 Years" grosses are somewhat lower in African-American theaters, the jump from Friday to Saturday was greater, suggesting strong initial word of mouth. This looks, even apart from the awards push to come over the next few months, like it is in for the long haul with a potentially much higher eventual gross.

Also worth comparing is "12 Year"'s theater total to specialty Oscar contenders "The Descendants," which opened in November in 29 theaters with a PSA of $41,000, and "No Country for Old Men," which reached $43,000 on 28 screens. The lower screen count helps "12 Years" average, which are in line with both films, which went on to strong total grosses ($82 and $74 million respectively). And a historical note: including Atlanta among the initial cities (an unusual choice for a specialized film) has parallels with movie history; Atlanta was one of only three cities, along with New York and Los Angeles, to open "Gone With the Wind" in 1939. The response for this here is perhaps the most important positive indication for Fox Searchlight going forward.

The sense from these initial numbers is that Fox Searchlight could manage to have a much broader film than "Precious" turned out to be, while approaching that film's powerful appeal to African-American moviegoers. And this is all before the awards start pouring in, which should broaden it even more.

What comes next: This will get to six more markets and around 100 screens this week, then many more markets and about 400 the week after. The current plans are to expand to up to 800 theaters by Thanksgiving, then keep playing in as many as possible through the holidays, with the widest expansion around the time of the Oscar nominations in January.

"All Is Lost" (Roadside Attractions) - Criticwire: A-; Metacritic: 89; Festivals include: Cannes 2013, Telluride 2013, New York 2013

$97,400 in 6 theaters; PSA: $16,233