By Tom Brueggemann | Thompson on Hollywood May 4, 2014 at 4:33PM
Two high-profile festival entries, "Ida" and "Belle," posted solid debuts in their New York/Los Angeles openings. Lacking big-name directors, stars or high-concept story lines, both specialized films' initial success should help them to find a wider audience. They follow several April releases which also had decent starts but are now facing varying levels of wider response, with none coming close to the spectacular success of this year's breakout hit "The Grand Budapest Hotel" (which jumped back into the Top 10 at #9 this weekend).
Among the films struggling to gain traction is the second week expansion of "Locke" (A24), which despite solid critical response, rising star Tom Hardy, and a high concept, had a disappointing result. But over the long haul, Indian low-budget indie "The Lunchbox" (Sony Pictures Classics) passed the $3 million mark, showing that a discerning audience remains for subtitled films that build word-of-mouth over long slow exposure.
"Ida" (Music Box) - Criticwire: A-; Metacritic: 88; Festivals include: Telluride 2013, Toronto 2013, London 2013
$50,000 in 3 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $17,667
The top Metacritic-scored release of 2014 so far (along with "Budapest"), "Ida" (pronounced EE-duh) is among the least likely art house successes of late. A black-and-white, classically-framed (make sure your local theater is showing this in the correct 1.33x1 ratio) 80-minute story set in 1960s Poland, this needed strong reviews (landing raves in the critical New York and Los Angeles Times) to break out initially. Though director Pawel Pawlikowski has had some pan-European success (including "Last Resort," "The Summer of Love" and "Woman in the Fifth," the best of which grossed $1 million domestically), this return to his native land recreates the period of his childhood before leaving for Western Europe. The concise but multi-layered plot brings a young novitiate, just before taking her vows, to meet her sole living relative (a troubled aunt who has been a high-up in the judiciary) and be exposed to the outside world for the first time in her life, as well as an unexpected family history.
Though the feel and story of the film place it firmly within historical art-house territory, and with surface similarities to past greats like Bresson, Bergman an others, the contemporary specialized world no longer gravitates to such films, irrespective of their festival acclaim. Music Box not only took a chance on this film, but also booked the right initial theaters. They were all ideal for the film, even if on average they gross slightly less than the core theaters such as this week's "Belle" usually get, as well as facing capacity issues that can reduce a gross. That they achieved an initial PSA similar or above such other recent foreign language successes as "The Lunchbox," "Gloria," "The Great Beauty" and "Amour" (all with larger ad budgets and, for their own strong attributes, more accessible) is a stand-out achievement in this climate.
This opened in Poland last October, which makes this eligible (and with this opening likely) to be that country's Oscar submission for 2014, as well of course of becoming a leading contender for critics' groups awards, despite its first half of the year opening.
What comes next: Before this opening, any domestic gross of over $1 million would have been considered unlikely. This needs to have audience reaction similar to critics to go beyond that, but Music Box already has this set to open in appropriate theaters in a slow roll-out over upcoming weeks to give it a chance to thrive. This is one of the most encouraging of recent openings.
"Belle" (Fox Searchlight) - Criticwire: B; Metacritic: 63; Festivals include: Toronto 2013, Palm Springs 2014, Newport Beach 2014, San Francisco 2014
$104,493 in 4 theaters; PSA: $26,123
Landing weaker reviews than most of the recent high-profile openings except for "Fading Gigolo" (with its PSA $10,000 better), "Belle" shows how a top-draw studio-based specialized company can still reach an appropriate audience. Sharing a story with slavery-based roots with Fox Searchlight's 2013 success "12 Years a Slave," this different tale falls closer to conventional (and often successful) period English-set stories even as it tells the unusual true story of the half-black daughter of a young aristocrat (Matthew Goode) who lives with her noble upscale family in a sort of limbo that challenges her chances for happiness and any real self-identity. Directed by Amma Asante, a one-time British child actress who directed a previous little-seen feature "A Way of Life," it stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw (already being compared to Lupita Nyong'o) as well as the better known Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson.
Having Searchlight attached to a film hardly guarantees success (though it helps gain access to top theaters) -- their "Dom Hemingway" recently opened, and with only slightly more mixed reviews and with Jude Law in the lead, managed less than a third of this gross. This period British upper-class setting clearly helped (the audience for such films is underserved, with Weinstein's "The Railway Man" the only recent similar release).
What comes next: Expect this to widen out to a fairly extensive national audience, with potential for mid-level success. This won't come close to "12 Years" in gross or acclaim, but should find a receptive response over the upcoming weeks.