Richard Gere and Brit Marling in "Arbitrage"
Richard Gere and Brit Marling in "Arbitrage"

Not only did "The Master" (limited) and "Arbitrage" (wider and also available outside of theater viewing) do great business this weekend, they did so at what is usually a slow time of the year. The same weekend in 2011 saw "My Weekend With Margueritte" and "Restless" open to modest at best results. After an unusually strong specialized summer, not only does the fall start off with a bang, but earlier than usual.

These two films stand apart from uneven performances for many others, but several -- "Sleepwalk With Me," "Samsara," "Robot and Frank" and "Searching for Sugar Man"--continue to show strength.


"The Master" (Weinstein) - Metacritic score: 90; Festivals include: Venice 2012, Toronto 2012

$729,745 in 5 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $145,949

A great opening with the best reviews for an Oscar contender since "The Social Network," this sets a new record (non-inflation adjusted) for a specialized platform release ever. What makes these numbers even more impressive is that this PSA comes from five, rather than the more usual four (as was the case for "The Moonrise Kingdom"), two of which were within a mile of each other in Greenwich Village, which is rare and could have dissipated the audience.

After premiering within the last two weeks in Venice and Toronto, and following the recent successful trend of opening major fest films right after ("The Tree of Life," "Midnight in Paris," Moonrise Kingdom" were after Cannes) rather than waiting until year's end, this presents a risk/reward situation for the Weinstein Co. The positive side is justified by these grosses, and with a fairly clear field with few other potential awards contenders/review-driven films opening right away, this has a chance to soar with less competition than it would have later. And Weinstein will have no trouble getting any screen (and capacity) it wants in theaters over the near-term, always a factor in grosses.

The risk side is that even with the great reviews, "The Master" will not have at this point the benefit of critics awards, ten best lists and early nominations that parallel a late-year Oscar release, a game-plan that Weinstein plays with virtuousity and uses to build both momentum and gross. TWC also has other fish to fry over the next few months. This is not their only Oscar contender this year (by a long shot), but it seems likely to score big overall and especially in top categories. But winning often is connected with timing, including where a film is in its theatrical release. Also there's no guarantee how this brainy critics' fave will play in wider release.

Weinstein plans to quickly expand this to multiple new markets with a wider than usual second week to capitalize on the huge opening reaction. But they will need to keep this visible theatrically into next year (including planned ad support three months from now during the holidays). So this early date should not be seen as an indication that they have anything less than major expectations for it come awards time.

Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" opened on two screens post-Christmas weekend in 2007 for a great PSA of $95,000 (likely limited by intense competition in theaters), then with strong Oscar support and major ad costs proving costly, ended up grossing $40 million, which in turn was a factor in Paramount deciding to back away from its stand-alone specialized unit. Whether this outgrosses "Blood" remains to be seen. "Moonrise Kingdom," which also scored with a younger specialized audience (which seems to have been the case this weekend for "The Master") as well as the usual older sector, has grossed $45 million so far, without any benefit from awards. "The Master" is a complex and thought-provoking film which potentially will have some polarized reaction. But based on this start, an ultimate gross at above this level is a possibility.

What it means: This has been the year of record grosses in months outside the usual late-year arthouse timeframe, which will likelyincrease the number of major films in the future that open year-round.

"Arbitrage" (Roadside Attractions) - Metacritic score: 73; Festivals include: Sundance 2012, Phoenix 2012, San Sebastian 2012; also available on Video on Demand, ITunes

 $2,069,770 in 197 theaters; PSA: $10,505

The great numbers for "The Master" overshadow the equally important news from the grosses of "Arbitrage." This Sundance-premiered crime story revolving around a Wall Street mogul (Richard Gere) did very solid numbers in an elevated limited release (going nationwide in major cities, most with multiple runs, but still under 200 total). What is significant about these grosses is that the film simultaneously debuted on home viewing platforms, with no obvious damage to the theatrical returns.

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions last year advanced the Video on Demand platform when it released "Margin Call" in October day and date in theaters and at home, with an ultimate theatrical gross of over $5 million (and a writing Oscar nod to boot). This is off to a much bigger start. The PSA from 197 theaters is better than "Margin Call" had in 56, and double what the earlier film had in its second with with 140 theaters - truly impressive and encouraging for further business.

But what makes this even more remarkable is the realities of getting VOD releases into theaters. Most independent theaters have dropped their resistance, but the major chains mostly refuse to play anything simultaneously available at home. (AMC, the second-largest chain, is playing "Arbitrage," as they did "Margin Call," under reported different-from-normal rental deals). Particularly at a time of the year when grosses are softer, and more so when theaters are underperforming as they have been for the last few weeks, not participating in what could be a $10 million-plus film only hurts these major chains.

What it means: Although the VOD play has been mainly limited to independent companies (as Weinstein now enters the field), the people watching this most carefully are likely the studios, who crave access to alternative venues either the same date as theatrical release or closer to their openings. That is what makes "Arbitrage" such a big deal -- it advances the case that films, at least at this level, can still gross in theaters while they are also available at home.

"Liberal Arts" (IFC) - Metacritic score: 50; Festivals include: Sundance 2012, Dallas 2012, Seattle 2012, Provincetown 2012

$30,000 in 4 theaters; PSA: $7,500

Opening in NY/LA to mixed reviews, this Sundance competition film directed by and starring Josh Radnor ("How I Met Your Mother") sold out for some shows at its LA theaters. Compared to several other recent weeks' Sundance film openings, these aren't great numbers, but do justify IFC's planned rollout to at least 15 new markets starting next week.

What it means: In a week with two strong competitors opening, this still managed to get at least some initial interest even without anything like the review support the others commanded.