Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina"
Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina"

Two anticipated openings dominated art houses this week, as both “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Anna Karenina” launched in multiple cities as part of a strategy to push audience response in advance of wider playoffs. Both faced – as do all limited releases at the moment – massive competition from wider release studio films that are drawing the same target adult audience.  Both showed strength despite all the alternative films in play.

And with “Life of Pi” opening wide on Wednesday, followed by Friday limited launches of “Rust and Bone,” “Hitchcock” and “Central Park Five,” the congestion is only going to get more intense.

“Silver Linings Playbook” (Weinstein) – Metacritic score:  84; Festivals include:  Toronto 2012, Mill Valley 2012, AFI 2012
$458,000 in 16 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $28,625

With rrelease reviews almost as fab as last week’s “Lincoln,” and also opening wider than just the normal NY/LA platform, David O. Russell’s well-received offbeat romantic comedy-drama had a solid initial reaction, although significantly below the Spielberg film (which boasted an $85,000 PSA in 11 theaters).

Weinstein knew from tracking that they would have to build word-of-mouth buzz. These grosses are on below eexpectations but are good enough to launch the film. Having won the People’s Choice Award at Toronto (as did “The King’s Speech” and “Slumdog Milliionaire”) and screening to great reaction, the film needs to grow upbeat WOM in advance of wider openings. It is not an event film that appeals to review-reading older moviegoers who flock to opening weekends (contributing to much bigger openings for films like “The Master” and “Moonrise Kingdom”). Its appeal is broader and more youth-oriented. The film is not remotely a typical rom-com, but its casting (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as the leads) reinforces a conventional feel that the film far transcends.

It is also facing incredibly strong competition – “Breaking Dawn Part 2” among the younger female audience, and a slew of acclaimed adult-oriented films (led by “Lincoln” in broader release). Weinstein initially planned to go wide next Wednesday with no platform. Instead they decided to open in ten top markets to get the ball rolling, then late last week decided to pull back their expansion from a typically wide Thanksgiving release to a more modest, but still substantial, 400+ theaters. This would seem to come not from concern but faith in the film once the word of mouth begins to spread. This also is consistent for the much more nuanced and careful expansion they’ve given their films, rather than a rapid push out to grab all the gross they can.

What comes next: Setting the film up as a leading Oscar contender, the pressure to catch the right wave is intense. The plan is to gradually increase theaterd through the next few weeks, sustain significant presence through the tough Christmas stretch, then go widest at the peak of the awards/nomination period just after New Years.

“Anna Karenina” (Focus) – Metacritic score: 63; Festivals include: Venice 2012, Toronto 2012
$315,000 in 16 theaters; PSA: $19,688

Fighting the same traffic jam of must-see films as “Silver Linings Playbook” but not benefitting from the same level of reviews (some significant raves, but many more mixed) and also needing to overcome a degree of familiarity with multiple previous versions, this is a decent enough gross. Opening in seven cities (which as usual cuts down the PSA), Focus has at a minimum gotten the initial sampling they needed going into the intense period ahead.

This is the third collaboration between Joe Wright and Keira Knightley, and in some ways the most ambitious in its idiosyncratic treatment of Tolstoy’s novel about adultery among Russian aristocracy. The two previous films had slightly different launches: both were more successful early on. “Pride and Prejudice” in 2005 started off at 214 theaters to just under $3 million as a November release. “Atonement” in 2007 opened at 32 theaters totaling $784,000. Those films went on to domestic totals of $38 and 50 million respectively with clear cross-over appeal and significant Oscar representation.

The film has passionate supporters among those who have seen it already. The trick going forward is to grab the core (more female) audience. Like “Silver Linings Playoff,” this has potential beyond the initial numbers, and the game plan of getting the word started is well under way.