By Tom Brueggemann | Thompson on Hollywood August 18, 2013 at 5:51PM
The ongoing success of several late-summer hits plus serious competition from "The Butler" this weekend contributed to disappointing results for three new entries. Over July and August, four Sundance 2013 releases opened strongly with two breakouts: "The Way, Way Back" and "Fruitvale Station." But this weekend's three acclaimed Sundance hits stumbled at the August box office. The combined grosses of "Austenland," "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" and doc "Cutie and the Boxer" didn't even add up to the opening of "The Spectacular Now," and grossed only slightly better than last week's "In a World." This year the mid-August period isn't ready to join an expanded prime summer calendar.
"Blue Jasmine" continues to impress and joins "The Way, Way Back" and "Fruitvale Station" as movies that will belong in the $20 million-plus grossers club.
"Austenland" (Sony Pictures Classics) - Criticwire: C+; Metacritic: 47; Festivals include: Sundance 2013, Nantucket 2013, Traverse City 2013
$42,600 in 4 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $10,650
This was a rare comedy entry at Sundance's American Narrative competition, where it was a crowd favorite and ended up as a worldwide acquisition for Sony Pictures for a reported $4 million, one of the bigger buys of the year. With SPC handling the U.S. release, grabbing the best theaters available in New York and Los Angeles and backing it with a creative and larger-than-usual marketing campaign aimed at young women, this looked headed for potential success. Critics weighed in with a consensus brutal response that looks like it undid much of the good will this contemporary Jane Austen-inspired romantic fantasy seemed to have going for it.
The reviews weren't gender-driven. Per the top critics surveyed by Metacritic, reviews from women critics came in below those from males (out of 16 so far, they are split evenly, eight men, eight women). And while SPC normally attracts prominent coverage from top critics, neither of the top two New York Times critics reviewed it, and the Los Angeles Times ran a mixed review written by Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips (unusual since the film hasn't even opened in Chicago yet). Negative reviews plus a rather unconventional escapist fantasy vacation in which women pay to role play with actors inhabiting Austen era characters seems to have made this a tougher than expected sell.
Directed by Jerusha Hess, the wife of "Napoleon Dynamite" director Jared Hess (she co-wrote that film), with "Twilight" novelist Stephanie Meyer as one of the producers, this romantic comedy stars Keri Russell (a hit in FX Russian spy series "The Americans"), who has been underused in films since her breakout performance in "Waitress" in 2005. "Dynamite," which Fox Searchlight drove to an amazing $44 million gross in 2004, started out better with a $19,000 PSA in six theaters. That was one of the best ever multiples ever for a non-Oscar driven wider release of a limited film, so these initial grosses may not be the final word. This movie still could end up reaching a more appreciative audience, and the word of mouth from these initial dates could lead to a better sustained performance. But as of now, this ranks as a real disappointment.
What comes next: "Austenland" adds a handful of new limited runs next week, with more by Labor Day weekend, in line with SPC's usual slow rollout strategy.
"Ain't Them Bodies Saints" (IFC) - Criticwire: B+; Metacritic: 75; Festivals include: Sundance 2013, Cannes 2013, Seattle 2013, Los Angeles 2013
$28,800 in 3 theaters; PSA: $9,600
With strong reviews, good buzz out of Sundance (it was another Narrative competitor) and decent theater placement in New York and Los Angeles, along with an above-average cast with acclaimed younger actors Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster, this could only muster up a modest gross in its initial dates. With an intriguing if unclear title for this contemporary Western-set crime drama (focusing more on family impact than actual crimes), IFC decided, like many other distributors this year, to open the film after already significant fest exposure without a Toronto-relaunch. The results are mixed, but the astute distributor has already set the film for Video on Demand release this Friday.
Director David Lowery's earlier "St. Nick" had major festival play in 2009 before its minor theatrical release, and also co-edited Shane Carruth's "Upstream Color" (another strong Sundance film). Irrespective of the performance for this, he looks to have a strong future, with a remake of Disney's 1970s "Pete's Dragon" a somewhat surprising project on his agenda.
What comes next: Along with the VOD (which will be elevated by the strong reviews), this is also set to open in 10 more cities on Friday.