Three new openings showed potential this weekend.
In its exclusive New York date, Shane Carruth's self-distributed "Upstream Color" broke new ground as an alternative to the others' more conventional releases. The other two more expensive films directed by past Oscar director winners, Danny Boyle's "Trance" and Robert Redford's "The Company You Keep," managed to overcome mixed reviews to decent results. Both indicate wider crossover potential even without the boost of awards-related marketing.
Meanwhile, Focus Features' "The Place Beyond the Pines" moved quickly to capitalize on its strong limited opening last week to a gross that would look impressive even if it came later in the year in the prime period for specialized releases. It overperformed thanks to its strong cast appeal beyond what its tepid critical reaction would suggest.
"Upstream Color" (erbp Film) - Criticwire grade: B+; Cinemascore: 78; Festivals include: Sundance 2013, Berlin 2013, South by Southwest 2013, New Directors/New Films 2013
$31,500 in 1 theater; PSA (per screen average): $31,500
The most significant story for this week is the strong performance for offbeat, non-traditional narrative "Upstream Color" and the self-distribution route taken by director Shane Carruth, who announced plans to handle it himself even before its premiere in the U.S. Narrative section at this year's Sundance.
Playing at New York's increasingly adventurous IFC Center, the film grossed more in one theater than Carruth's first film "Primer," which took in $28,000 in four theaters in 2004 when it was more conventionally released by ThinkFilm. With a tiny advertising budget much smaller than most significant specialized releases (there isn't even a display ad in today's New York Times) and limited in seating (only 210 seats compared to the multiple screens that "Trance" and "Company" were allotted in their prime theaters), it still more than held its own in performance.
Carruth was aided by industry veterans Michael Tuckman (in distribution) and Susan Norget (New York publicity), but most of the choices were under his control, unlike the back seat most directors take when selling their films to distributors. He took a big risk (he pays for all releasing costs) but success could reap significant rewards. This is at the high end of at least initial results for this method, which is easier for a lower-budgeted film. "Detropia" went the same route last year on its way to a $390,000 theatrical gross (it did $17,000 for its initial New York exclusive opening).
"Upstream Color" is set to open in multiple markets next Friday, with most major cities to open by the end of the month. Already announced are supplemental availabitilies on Video on Demand and DVD on May 7.
What comes next: For "Upstream Color," the elements involved in initial success such as personal appearances by the director won't be the rule, and transferring this result won't be automatic. But the social media marketing elements involved here are easier to duplicate and could translate well to other cities. And then all this should translate to more interest to upcoming non-theatrical venues. How this model works over the next few weeks could make this one of the most important specialized films of the year, irrespective of the film's aesthetic interest.
"Trance" (Fox Searchlight) - Criticwire grade: B-; Metacritic score: 61
$136,000 in 4 theaters; PSA: $34,000
Danny Boyle's hynosis-centered thriller rivals "Upstream Color" in its detailed and mysterious narrative, albeit with more sleight-of-hand (which is at the center of its methods). Still, for a director whose two most recent films ("Slumdog Millionaire" and "127 Hours") were more conventional and initially audience-friendly, this was a much riskier film. Eschewing festivals to go straight to theaters, it struggled somewhat with reviews (far below his other recent films) and without the help of late-year Oscar interest. The best news for Searchlight was that Saturday's grosses were substantially ahead of Friday's, suggesting initial positive audience reaction.
This opening is far better than the company's similarly unconventional thriller "Stoker" a few weeks ago, though the PSA is only about half of what "127 Hours" attained in a similar release pattern and even further below what Focus' more star-driven "The Place Beyond the Pines" did last week or "Spring Breakers" achieved a few weeks earlier. That places this in a mid-range level for the overall pedigree of the film (director, distributor, theaters playing at and marketing spent), meaning its ultimate domestic success remains an open question. The film, produced by several European companies for an economical $16 million (it looks significantly higher-budgeted) already opened in the U.K. and elsewhere last week to about a $7 million total.
What comes next: This is not following a normal arthouse release, but rather will open in 375+ theaters next week, much faster than either "Slumdog" or "127." That positions it for attention against only two new films with different appeals ("42" and "Scary Movie 5"), and with targeted marketing might manage to make an initial impact ahead of what a slower more conventional rollout might achieve.
"The Company You Keep" (Sony Pictures Classics) - Criticwire grade: B-; Metacritic score: 56; Festivals include: Venice 2012, Toronto 2012
$146,058 in 5 theaters; PSA: $29,212
Burdened with not particularly good reviews overall while backed by strong theaters and significant mainstream marketing, Robert Redford's most recent directorial effort is his first not to have an initial wide release since "Quiz Show" in 1994. Performing close to "Trance" in mainly the same theaters, it is ahead of most other platform films so far this year even if the gross is below the kind of numbers these venues can achieve for breakout films.
With a cast led by Shia LaBoeuf and Redford and including nine previous Oscar acting nominees, this political/media thriller looks to have some potential ongoing appeal among older audiences (the plot revolves around Weather Underground members decades later), potentially more than the edgier, more review-oriented first weekend moviegoers in New York and Los Angeles.
What comes next: SPC adds cities (including some prime suburban locations) next week in a more expedited and wider release pattern than most of their films, in line with the film's broader potential appeal.