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Arthouse Audit: 'Emperor,' 'The We and the I,' 'Beyond the Hills' Rely on Good Word To Grow Audiences

Photo of Tom Brueggemann By Tom Brueggemann | Thompson on Hollywood March 10, 2013 at 4:24PM

Specialized distributors continue to try to break beyond the usual review-driven New York/Los Angeles limited openings to find less conventional ways to release films. Among this week’s openings, Mumblecore indie “Somebody Out There Likes Me," starring Second City's own Nick Offerman, premiered to significant success exclusively in Chicago in advance of its VOD debut as well as upcoming theater dates elsewhere. Peter Webber's poorly reviewed World War II drama “Emperor” played mostly mainstream theaters in multiple cities. And Michel Gondry's “The We and the I” had a better than expected New York single-theater release that holds promise for more attention.
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Tommy Lee Jones in 'Emperor'
Tommy Lee Jones in 'Emperor'

Specialized distributors continue to try to break beyond the usual review-driven New York/Los Angeles limited openings to find less conventional ways to release films.

Among this week’s openings, Mumblecore indie “Somebody Out There Likes Me," starring Second City's own Nick Offerman, premiered to significant success exclusively in Chicago in advance of its VOD debut as well as upcoming theater dates elsewhere. Peter Webber's poorly reviewed World War II drama “Emperor” played mostly mainstream theaters in multiple cities. And Michel Gondry's “The We and the I” had a better than expected New York single-theater release that holds promise for more attention.

The one with the best reviews and strongest advance presence, Cristian Mungiu's Oscar nominee “Beyond the Hills,” enjoyed a modest start, highlighting the ongoing problem of getting even the most review-oriented audiences in the two top markets to show up.

Opening

“Emperor” (Roadside Attractions) – Metacritic score: 48; Festivals include: Toronto 12, Palm Springs

$1,043,000 in 260 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $4,012

Overcoming mediocre reviews (which likely would have damaged any limited platform opening more than this wider release), this historical drama shares both a genre and a supporting actor (Tommy Lee Jones) with “Lincoln.”  Set in Japan in the early at stages of post-war Allied occupation, the title refers to both Gen. Douglas MacArthur – who was effectively the leader of the country – and Hirohito, the actual emperor, whose status (including possible prosecution as a war criminal) weighed in the balance, much as in “Lincoln” crucial decisions depended on smart leadership on the personal level.

Earlier Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions collaborations such as “Margin Call” and “Arbitrage” had parallel video on demand availability. This has gone out via Roadside as a conventional theatrical release, with an emphasis on locations with older and military-related audiences. The result is a PSA that is equivalent to what “Margin Call” had in its later weeks at a somewhat fewer number of theaters, and below the $10,000 first weekend average of “Arbitrage” in 197 initial theaters, though without the expense of having to rent theaters in many locations (because major chains won’t normally play VOD films).

Director Peter Webber had an earlier specialized success with “The Girl With the Pearl Earring” with Lionsgate in 2003, which became something of a crossover success on its way to a $11 million domestic gross (coming on the heels of Scarlett Johansson’s breakthrough in “Lost in Translation”). That was more of a conventional art-house film initially. This played in mainly multiplex theaters, a tricky pattern without a big TV campaign (apart from local print ads, this was advertised mainly on the History Channel, along with grassroots marketing aimed at veterans groups).

What comes next: “Lincoln” showed that there is a potentially big audience for a period historical drama. Though the events here are well-known, this doesn’t have the awareness that "Lincoln" had with its studio marketing budget and overall pedigree. But these grosses look good enough to keep this around and justify some expansion. At that point, the future of this will depend on word of mouth doing the job that a bigger advertising expenditure would do.

“Somebody Out There Likes Me” (Tribeca) – Metacritic score: 51; Festivals include: South by Southwest 12, Locarno 12; Video on Demand available this Tuesday

$38,495 in one theater; PSA: $38,495

Opening initially at Chicago’s Music Box Theater, and aided by appearances by co-star Nick Offerman  (best known for “Parks and Recreation, and a Chicago-area native), this is a surprisingly strong performance reminiscent, if not quite at the level, of Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk With Me.” That film also opened at the Music Box, along with the even bigger gross at the IFC Center in New York, with personal appearances right before its VOD launch.

Directed by Austin-based Steve Byington, a veteran of microbudget films in the Mumblecore genre (the best known his earlier “Harmony and Me,” )“Somebody” follows the story of a two friends who meet when both are waiters (Keith Poulson is the co-lead) and their multi-year lives in which each pursues the same woman. Its brief running time (75 minutes) and surface familiarity as a slacker low-budget comedy likely worked against its chances as a more high-profile, mainstream release. But Tribeca, which is increasingly getting more adept in its VOD strategy (elevating it closer to the more successful IFC and Magnolia) seems to have found both an initial audience as well as a way to get much more attention than a conventional NY/LA opening would have.

What comes next: Openings in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Austin follow in successive weeks with Offerman also appearing. This gross will get the film additional theatrical attention, but the main benefit will be to its just-ahead VOD release.

“Beyond the Hills” (IFC) – Metacritic score: 79; Festivals include: Cannes 12, Toronto 12, New York 12

$18,000 in 3 theaters; PSA: $6,000

This Romanian film from the director of “Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days” had multiple strong elements behind it – a Cannes competition platform, placement on the semi-finalist group of nine films for the Foreign Language Oscar, strong reviews in New York and Los Angeles and major theater placement – but managed only a so-so gross for its opening weekend.  The heaviness of the film – it’s a lengthy story about two modern young women in a remote convent that seems from another era – doesn’t seem to have the immediate appeal director Cristian Mungiu’s earlier film did. That film opened to an  over $25,000 PSA in two theaters a few years back. But it could also just be another sign of the difficulty subtitled film, even when acclaimed, has these days reaching audiences.

What comes next: This non-VOD film (unlike many of IFC releases) expands to 15 more markets over the rest of the month.

This article is related to: Box Office, Box Office, Box Office, Emperor, The We and the I, Beyond The Hills


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.