Joaquin Phoenix in 'Her'
Joaquin Phoenix in 'Her'

Two significant limited holiday entries opened this pre-holiday weekend, often a tricky time to attract specialized audiences. Spike Jonze's "Her" (Warner Bros.), with somewhat younger appeal, had a weaker limited opening than "American Hustle" last weekend, while Sony Pictures Classics slotted "The Past" as their end-of-year entry. (Neither goes wider until January.) Sony is following a similar strategy for prior Oscar contenders "A Separation" and "Amour," which both went on to significant success and awards. But in this case, "The Past" didn't make the foreign Oscar shortlist on Friday, and looks headed for lesser results.

Berenice Bejo in 'The Past'
Berenice Bejo in 'The Past'

The race will be on for distributors to hold as many of their films as possible through the holidays, where successful films can jump in grosses and find new life. This year offers intense competition from several adult-oriented new studio releases.


"Her" (Warner Bros.) - Criticwire: A; Metacritic: 91; Festivals include: New York 2013, AFI 2013

$257,815 in 6 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $42,969

Spike Jonze' offbeat human/computer relationship rom-com received consensus reviews just below the year's top films, but its appeal is more difficult to define than others ("Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave" both had a clearer path to their intended audiences). And coming in a season top-heavy with awards contenders and other films aimed at sophisticated audiences, Warner Bros. -- normally a wide release company -- faced a challenge in reaching a knockout gross in six New York/Los Angeles theaters during this pre-holiday period.

The result ($361,473 for five days with a Wednesday opening) is less than half what "American Hustle" amassed last weekend. But that film had access to more showings and multiple screens. "Her," for all of its critical acclaim, doesn't offer the star-power or director momentum of David O. Russell's film, despite winning Best Film from the Los Angeles Film Critics (tied with "Gravity") and the National Board of Review, as well as multiple Golden Globe and other nominations. For most of the year, $43,000 would be considered strong.

"Her" is also produced by busy "Hustle" producer Megan Ellison, whose "Zero Dark Thirty" opened at five similar theaters exactly a year ago to better results ($83,000 PSA). But the latter film had less intense competition that weekend than "Her" had to face.

Considering the film's acclaim and Jonze's pedigree ("Where the Wild Things Are" did $77 million in a wide release; "Adaptation" in 2002 with substantially lower ticket prices managed a $55,000 early December PSA in seven theaters), this is not an eye-popping gross. And coming after the Coen Brothers' equally quirky "Inside Llewyn Davis" managed a $101,000 PSA two weekends ago in four theaters, these numbers suggest that more than just a tougher time period is limiting initial response. The movie needs upbeat word-of-mouth and more awards attention to build momentum. The production cost, which hasn't been officially reported, is somewhere in the $20-30 million range. So with foreign potential this could be a success. But the initial take doesn't guarantee that quite yet.

What comes next: Warners' last initially-platformed release was "Extremely Loud and Dangerously Close" two years ago, which opened to a post-Christmas first weekend PSA of $72,000, on its way to a surprise Best Picture nomination and a $32 million domestic total. Unlike that film, which stayed in its original theaters for four weeks until its wide break, this is going to expand gradually to more cities this week, with its wider break paralleling hoped for Oscar nominations.

"The Past" (Sony Pictures Classics) - Criticwire: A-; Metacritic: 84; Festivals include: Cannes 2013, Toronto 2013, New York 2013

$30,942 in 3 theaters; PSA: $10,314

Meant to be SPC's big foreign language awards contender, and positioned similarly to their last two Oscar winners, the new French film from the Iranian director of "A Separation" opened to a much lower gross than either that film or 2012's "Amour." And it comes at the same time as the film received an unexpected blow by not making the list of semi-finalists for the Foreign Language Oscar. That makes the film's chances for coming anywhere close to replicating the $6 million or better grosses both those films achieved unlikely.

The opening gross for "The Past" -- which played at the same three top theaters as those two other films -- is significantly below the $22,755 of "Amour" (which also opened just before Christmas) and the $19,827 "A Separation" reached on New Year's weekend. Both those were excellent grosses for subtitled films these days, and combined with near-sweeps of critics' awards, word of mouth and later Oscar nominations broke into a wider, non-art house market. This looks more likely to replicate the path of "Rust and Bone," which SPC opened a month earlier in 2012 to a $13,577 PSA in two theaters on its way to a $2 million total (without much awards boosting). Like that film, this features a well-known French actress ("The Artist"'s Berenice Bejo, while "Rust" had Marion Cotillard) adding to its appeal.