Over the past two years, the Memorial Day weekend has become a significant time to release important new specialized films. Last year, coming off its Cannes debut, "Moonrise Kingdom" opened to a staggering $130,000 four-theater PSA, while a year earlier Cannes-winner "The Tree of Life" did lesser but still stellar business. And in both years, an earlier May opener ("The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" and "Midnight in Paris" respectively) were already in the top 10 in expanded runs.
The exceptional start for "Before Midnight" (Sony Pictures Classics) doesn't rise to the same level, but its gross nonetheless show the wisdom of positioning a strong crossover film during the holiday in advance of summertime counterprogramming. SPC also had a second strong opener with the Israeli "Fill the Void." But Focus World's well-publicized WikiLeaks doc "We Steal Secrets" started slow.
Very promising are the grosses for the rapid expansion of "Frances Ha" (IFC), which leads the rest of the films in limited play at the moment.
"Before Midnight" (Sony Pictures Classics) - Criticwire grade: A; Metacritic score: 98; Festivals include: Sundance 2013, Berlin 2013, Tribeca 2013, San Francisco 2013
$274,000 in 5 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $54,800
The best reviewed film of 2013, gaining nearly unanimous praise both at Sundance and with opening weekend reviews, Richard Linklater's "Before Midnight" got off to a great start in five theaters in New York, Los Angeles and his hometown Austin. In more limited openings than the first two films in the "Before" series, it still managed to pull more moviegoers than 2004's "Before Sunset" did in 20.
Both of the prior films ended up at $6 million in the U.S., but between the reviews and the film's placement at the start of the summer season, were positioned to break out in upcoming weeks. The film will easily outperform its predecessors and place, along with "Quartet," "The Place Beyond the Pines" and "Mud," among the top indie releases of the first half of the year. All thrived outside of the awards season, although they may yet turn up in the awards fray.
Linklater's appeal as a director was reinforced by the surprise success of "Bernie" last year, which with low expectations managed $9.2 million without ever going above 322 screens in any given week.
What comes next: Expect Sony Classics to expand this quickly and find considerable broad exhibitor interest in the months ahead despite the very crowded calendar. "Mud" is showing currently how an adult-oriented drama can still draw despite the competition (or perhaps, because of it).
"Fill the Void" (Sony Pictures Classics) - Criticwire grade: B+; Metacritic score: 83; Festivals include: Jerusalem 2012, Venice 2012, Toronto 2012, New York 2012, Sundance 2013
$60,400 in 3 theaters; PSA: $20,133
Taking the unusual step of opening two films the same week, and continuing with their recent success with Israeli films (both "Footnote" and "The Gatekeepers" also opened to PSAs of over $20,000, very good these days for subtitled films), "Fill the Void" is off to a decent start. SPC had hopes of this in the Oscar Foreign Language category (it was its country's submission), but its compelling story of courtship drama within an ultra-Orthodox family, despite coming from an unknown director, was helped by decent reviews to make an initial impact.
What comes next: As other Israeli films have shown, there is a steady and loyal audience that responds to ones of this pedigree, which should position it to gross upwards of $2 million over the summer. This, unlike "Before Midnight," will get a slower and much less wide release from SPC, but its initial promise should show success with their usual careful nurturing.
"We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wiki-Leaks" (Focus World) - Criticwire grade: A-; Metacritic score: 75; Festivals include: Sundance 2013
$29,000 in 4 theaters; PSA: $7,250
This was one of the odder choices for one of the studio-owned specialized companies to take on this year. Focus' biggest foray into documentaries previously was "The Kid Stays in the Picture" over a decade ago. But this Sundance-premiered doc about the controversial Wiki-Leaks founder Julian Assage was produced by Marc Schmuger, a recent Universal exec (Focus is part of the Universal group), which gave it, along with director Alex Gibney (whose ninth theatrically distributed film this is since 2005, including "Enron"), the standing for this elevated backing.
This helped place the film in the very top New York/Los Angeles theaters, but with the result that is underwhelming at best. Despite decent reviews and much larger than usual ad buys for a doc, this managed to garner little interest.
What comes next: Focus will get this played off across the country, but more important for its long term viewing will be its major pay cable access because of the Universal connection.
"Frances Ha" (IFC) - Week 2