Scarlett Johansson in "Hitchcock"
Scarlett Johansson in "Hitchcock"

In a weekend that had adult audiences flocking to theaters in numbers rarely seen apart from Christmas and New Year's weeks, core specialized theaters struggled to get their normal share of the action. Three potentially award-contending films opened, all with the kind of pedigree expected to make them stand out in the crowd. All of them did gain some traction, but none marked a successful Thanksgiving weekend opening.

Last year, "The Artist" and "A Dangerous Method" both opened, with NY/LA per screen averages of $50,000 and $41,000 respectively. Pedro Almodovar's "Broken Embraces" did even better at $53,000 in 2009. This year's releases didn't come close,  but not so much because of their own inherent weakness -- all three likely would have done must better in other years.

The problem? Six of the top ten films overall this week have earned reviews as good or better than these new releases, all are considered major awards contenders, all are aiming right at the same adult audience, with bigger ad budgets, bigger name stars and directors and theaters and often accessible closer to home. It takes its toll, and this weekend shows the results.


"Hitchcock" (Fox Searchlight) - Metacritic score: 56; Festivals include: AFI 2012

$301,000 in 17 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $17,706

Considering less than stellar reviews, this is a just-decent opening for the reimagined telling of the making of "Psycho" and marital conflict between Alfred and Alma Hitchcock. Helped by a Friday holiday and in a similar multi-city release pattern as "Silver Linings Playbook" last weekend, this did around 60% of that film's gross. With so much in the marketplace competing for adult attention, this is a just-adequate starting point.

Like so many other films at the moment, its hard to fully assess what the future holds. Clearly, there is appeal in a film about the still-fascinating great director (still in the news with "Vertigo" rising to the best film of all time in Sight and Sound's once a decade critics' poll). The casting (Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren), the focus on his most famous film "Psycho" and then the comical point of view does hold interest, more so with Searchlight's fun and inventive marketing campaign.

Assuming this offers broad appeal, getting an initial sampling in a tough market is the crucial element for Searchlight. Still, these figures pale compared to other Searchlight limited releases: "The Descendants" last year pre-Thanksgiving weekend had a PSA of $41,000 in more (29) theaters on its way to an awards-period driven gross of $82 million. But "Hitchcock" has always had more modest expectations.

What comes next: A roll-out that will extend to whatever audience interest (an awards boost seems uncertain). In a period rife with serious high-end releases, positioning this as a comedy and playing off of Hitchcock's reputation and the interest in his films, this is positioned to have a chance to become a decent holiday period specialized performer.

"Rust and Bone" (Sony Pictures Classics) - Metacritic score: 71; Festivals include: Cannes, Telluride, Toronto

$30,200 in 2 theaters; PSA: $15,200

One of the most anticipated subtitled film releases of the year, elevated with an acclaimed performance by Marion Cotillard, opening on a holiday weekend and receiving mostly positive reviews in its NY debut had an above average but far from sensational opening at two prime theaters for a non-English film. The victim of the incredible competition for adult viewers at the moment, it still marks one of the top recent foreign language openings But its PSA fell short of other recent limited non-English releases ("Intouchables" $25,000, "A Separation" $20,000, "Farewell My Queen" $18,000) to perform more at the level of "Kid With a Bike" earlier this year.

This is a tricky time for the foreign language market. Although 2012 has seen two major successes ("Intouchables" and "A Separation"), for the most part films have struggled within the specialized market since the summer, despite the fall being their prime season. All specialized films are facing tough competition from the many adult-oriented studio releases, but those that are subtitled seem to be most vulnerable. In that context, any reasonable initial number such as "Rust and Bone" achieved should be regarded as a small win. Magnolia's "A Royal Affair" opened much lower two weeks ago, and has been struggling to reach its expected potential as it expands despite having solid appeal - its somewhat wider opening weekend PSA was only $5,500. (Weekend estimates for that film are unavailable.)

Cotillard is considered a possible best actress contender, and SPC knows how to roll out films slowly and to maximum effect. This doesn't even get to LA for two weeks, with other big cities opening by Christmas, when the potential audiences will be even bigger and the competion possibly less intense.

What comes next: This has broader appeal than most FL films - it is at its core a romance and the story of a woman prevailing over adversity that, adapted for domestic tastes, could have easily been made as a studio film. And Cotillard - both as an awards contender and her high awareness as an Oscar winner and her English language films - is a real asset going forward. That said, this less than spectacular opening suggests SPC will need all its considerable talents to maximize this going forward.