By Tom Brueggemann | Thompson on Hollywood December 15, 2013 at 4:20PM
"American Hustle" (Sony) had a year's-best limited opening, while "Saving Mr. Banks" (Buena Vista) had a decent take in a slightly wider start, both in advance of 2,000-plus breaks next Friday. Nothing else of note opened this weekend, a sign of the times as the studios increasingly, particularly during awards season, dominate the market and make it difficult for smaller films to gain traction in the major cities.
Back before 2010 the weekends before Christmas usually saw a handful of year-end limited releases before slowly widening over the holidays in key cities prior to later expansions in the New Year. The new paradigm is that the best theaters in New York and Los Angeles play both wide studio and more limited films year round. The competition is too intense for most smaller films to stand a chance.
So that brings only two new films to report (along with a handful of documentaries and video-on-demand films) that are not remotely specialized fare. But they both limited openings appeal to smarthouse audiences.
Last week's big opener "Inside Llewyn Davis" expanded in its two first markets, with a good performance despite a per-theater gross far below last week. Several other recent openers continued their wider runs, so there remains plenty for specialized audiences to see. The difference is that they almost all come from the big distributors, with little room for smaller companies to compete at the most lucrative time of the year.
"American Hustle" (Sony) - Criticwire: A-; Metacritc: 89
$690,000 in 6 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $115,000
The third straight David O. Russell film to open limited (after "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook," both of which headed to $90 million + domestic grosses and Oscar acting wins), this one topped them both by a wide margin. Playing in six top-rank theaters in New York and Los Angeles, its PSA of $115,000 is far ahead of the great $75,000 (in four theaters) "The Fighter" achieved, and the $690,000 gross is almost $250,000 better than "Silver Linings Playbook" did in 10 more theaters. It is the best limited opening of the year ("Blue Jasmine" had a PSA of $102,000, also in six) and the best since "The Master" last year.
What makes this even more impressive is this performance comes against fierce competition at some of the theaters -- the new "Hobbit" is playing at three, "Inside Llewyn Davis" also at three, "Saving Mr. Banks" at four. In other words, unlike earlier top grossing openers, both the number of screens and seats available at these theaters is limited to a smaller capacity, with the result that many if not most shows were sellouts with a large overflow not able to be accommodated, particularly with the 138 minute running time.
Accompanied by a Best Film win from the New York Film Critics, strong showings with the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominations and among the best set of reviews for the year, Sony hit a bulls-eye in its marketing. This huge opening, unlike the more cerebral "The Master," looks like a precursor for what is ahead for this all-star 1970s-set con artist caper with Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner.
Sony a year ago opened another Megan Ellison-produced film ("Zero Dark Thirty") in five theaters for a strong $83,000 PSA and similar acclaim. "Hustle" looks to have none of the controversy that may have damaged that film's ultimate prospects. Ellison's Annapurna Productions is also opening Warner Bros' release "Her" limited this week. Ellison is the go-to financier for top directors looking both to reach a wide audience but still maintain their vision without studio interference.
What comes next: With "American Hustle" in significant play for top Oscar attention, this sort of early platforming can be both helpful and risky. The attention these grosses get will only aid both with its awards profile but also elevate it with the broader public as it goes wide on Friday.