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Arthouse Audit: Could 'Boyhood' Mark a Turning Point for Distributors?

Indiewire By Tom Brueggemann | Thompson on Hollywood July 13, 2014 at 2:09PM

Richard Linklater's much anticipated "Boyhood" (IFC) debuted to astonishing figures this weekend in its initial five theaters, providing initial proof that the festival and critical sensation has a real shot of finding popular appeal.
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'Boyhood'
'Boyhood'

Richard Linklater's much anticipated "Boyhood" (IFC) debuted to astonishing figures this weekend in its initial five theaters, providing initial proof that the festival and critical sensation has a real shot of finding popular appeal. Though some past even stronger openings in New York and Los Angeles have stumbled as they broadened, the special one-of-a-kind nature of this film as well as its heartland, universal appeal could mean that this is not just a platform success as has been the case with some other recent huge openers.

The other new release of note, Sony Pictures Classics' "Land Ho!," shared a Sundance premiere with "Boyhood," but not remotely the same level of interest. Although several significant films from that festival have already opened (recently "Obvious Child" and the docs "Whitey" and "Life Itself"), this weekend begins a series of July and August openers that will include many of the top films from the fest (next week brings "I Origins" and "Wish I Was Here"). But it is hard to imagine any of the other forthcoming films will have anything close to the impact that "Boyhood" has already achieved.

Two films from Weinstein were the two most significant expansions this weekend, with "Begin Again" making the Top 10 in 905 theaters and sister company RADiUS-TWC's "Snowpiercer" going to VOD in only its third week despite having showing major theatrical appeal in its initial runs.

Opening

"Boyhood" (IFC) - Criticwire: A-; Metacritic: 99; Festivals include: 2014/Sundance, Berlin, South by Southwest, San Francisco, Seattle
$359,000 in 5 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $71,800

More than doubling any limited opening this year other than the unprecedented "Grand Budapest Hotel" (which did $811,000 in 4 theaters its initial weekend), Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" far exceeded pre-opening estimates for its initial five theater New York/Los Angeles performance. Its figure, extremely impressive on its own, is more so when accounting for its nearly three-hour length and somewhat limited capacity, particularly in its three New York locations (none of which screened "Budapest"). With maximum seating and with reports of numerous early sold out shows, this could easily have exceeded a $100,000 PSA with more shows, placing it among the best specialized openings ever.

The reviews alone - this ranks as the highest scored new release for at least this century at Metacritic - as well as its unique content (a fictional story about a boy growing up in Texas, filmed with the same actors over a 12 year period). The addition of director Richard Linklater and his long career guaranteed initial interest. But it still remained something of a question mark - would word of the length be off-putting? Is it too unconventional? However dubious those questions might have been, the initial reaction is resoundingly positive in answering them.

Linklater, a mainly independent voice in American film for nearly 25 years, has been on something of a roll. His two most recent releases, "Before Midnight" and "Bernie" were both above average performing specialized films, though neither, with aggressive wider pushes, passed $10 million ("Bernie" actually did better). Both were solid openers -- "Midnight" with a PSA of just under $50,000, "Bernie" just under $30,000.

Length can be an issue in limiting grosses, although the even longer "Wolf of Wall Street" did major wide business a few months ago. IFC itself released "Blue Is the Warmest Color" last year, with a NY/LA PSA of $25,000 in the middle of major attention and strong reviews.

Do these initial grosses ensure ultimate break out crossover appeal? Higher initial PSAs and nearly as strong reviews didn't for "The Tree of Life," "The Master" and "Inside Llewyn Lewis," all of which failed to surpass $17 million, less than a third of "Budapest," with only "Tree" getting an Oscar best picture nod. But "Boyhood" benefits from among other elements being something unique, with the potential of touching a nerve among a wider, particularly younger audience as a film that speaks to a place more intimate and personal than most films.

Which is to say that while these initial numbers don't guarantee crossover success, they clearly enhance its already elevated advance appeal. The under 30 generation, unlike earlier ones, haven't had films that touch on their everyday childhood lives as much as earlier ones experiences (John Hughes, who of course made comedies but still tried to convey average lives, has had no counterpart among current film makers - TV dramas have taken over that position in recent years). And it is possible that if this reaches more cities, and assuming that audience reaction is strong (still a question mark, better answered when we see if word of mouth among audiences parallels critics, not always the case), this could become a phenomenon that propels it beyond niche audiences and becomes a touchstone for a generation. And if that happens, its ultimate success and awards potential (apart apart from very likely strong critics' group showings) could be enormous.

One last point. With production starting in 2002, in an era vastly different from the media platforms of 2014, this was always intended as a theatrical release, despite its length. Would someone starting today have embarked in the same way? The project feels like one that could have been done for cable or even streaming (12 years each, 30-60 minutes, done as free standing episodes). That could have been the format of choice, but this is a moviegoing experience that could be on screen over the next few months and not available elsewhere until at least the end of the year (that is, nurtured and maximized for theaters). It's incredibly important at a time when specialized theaters are threatened with competition from VOD and high-end cable fare. The success of "Boyhood" could make other distributors realize that quality can trump unconventionality.

What comes next: The pressure to expand this quickly has to be enormous within IFC. Their plans as of now are add 10 additional top markets next weekend.

This article is related to: Box Office, Box Office Top Ten

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