This week's newbies are a mixed bag. "The Book Thief," a rare major studio platform release, overcame less than great reviews for a respectable showing, while Disney's release of Hayao Miyazaki's subtitled animated feature "The Wind Rises" sold out most shows at two one-week-only theaters. The rest of the newcomers fell far short of these two, with Alex Gibney's documentary "The Armstrong Lie" the best of the mediocre bunch.
Meanwhile, last week's "Dallas Buyers Club" is showing some real strength in its expansion, as highly-touted awards contenders "Nebraska" and "Philomena" will enter the noisy fray in the next two weeks.
"The Book Thief" (20th Century-Fox) - Criticwire: B; Metacritic: 54; Festivals include: Mill Valley 2013
$108,000 in 4 theaters; PSA: $27,000
Take note: this decent if not spectacular platform gross (backed by significant TV and print ad spends) depended on Fox taking unusual marketing risks and patterns to open the film. Based on a long-term YA bestseller, the project was nurtured by Fox 2000 Productions as a big studio rather than specialized film (like last year's "The Life of Pi") and wasn't finished in time for the usual fall fest launch, playing only Mill Valley. While extensively screened, the film had an unusual review embargo until two days before release. The studio's reticence was warranted - no rave reviews, a complete pan in the New York Times and a lukewarm Los Angeles Times response led to an overall less-than-stellar critical consensus, often harmful for a late-year potential awards contender. A debuting feature film director, Brian Perceval (Emmy-winner for "Downton Abbey") and a cast of young actors (with support from Oscar regulars Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) made the result far from certain.
This is only the second time, unlike Fox Searchlight, that big Fox has gone platform since 2009's "Fantastic Mr. Fox." By the usual platform standards -- upscale interest, strong reviews and awards anticipation -- this wouldn't be a stellar gross. But in context, it is more impressive than the raw figures suggest, indicating that awareness of the book and Fox's advertising managed to pull a decent audience to sample the film. With reports of strongly positive audience response, this still holds potential, backed by continuing Fox support, building on the core interest of the book's readers and word of mouth.
There is one precedent for this sort of child-witness horror story (also based on a novel) overcoming a mixed or worse opening and still finding some interest: "Extremely Loud and Dangerously Close," also hardly a critical favorite, opened up Dec. 23, 2011 in six theaters to a gross of only $72,000, PSA $12,000. The following weekend it managed to climb to $115,000 ($19,000 PSA). And it ended up grossing $31 million (clearly boosted by its Best Picture nomination, as well as a cast that included Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock). That likely is to some degree the model Fox is using in order for this tricky plan to bear fruit.
What comes next: This needs to show stabilization or more quickly, with little room to fall. This will expand similar to what Searchlight and other specialized companies would be doing - 23 new theaters in 7 markets next week, wider still the following Friday and then a substantial expansion on 11/27. This likely gets all the support that Fox can reasonably give it, likely more than what the smaller companies would allocate.
"The Wind Rises" (Buena Vista) - Criticwire: A-; Metacritic: 84; Festivals include: Venice 2013, Toronto 2013, New York 2013, AFI 2013
No gross reported in 4 theaters
Often when distributors qualify a film for Oscars, it plays for one week with no numbers reported. Any opening gross is used as a gauge to judge a film's success and later prospects. Thus, the reticence in publishing these numbers makes sense.