Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" opened with the most impressive limited gross of the year, solidifying its status as a rigorous Oscar contender.  Though not the top per screen average of the year, it opened wider - 11 theaters in seven cities, not just NY/LA - than those with higher average numbers.

The bigger surprise of the week was the standout performance among specialized films from Submarine Deluxe's "Chasing Ice," a film that went to a second distributor after its initial buyer backed off. The rest of the field is loaded with disappointments, led by Magnolia's highly anticipated "A Royal Affair."

The next few weeks will see a steady flow of upscale, awards-oriented films including "Anna Karenina," "The Silver Linings Playbook," "Hitchcock," "The Life of Pi" and "Rust and Bone" by Thanksgiving, which will keep the top specialized as well as crossover theaters well booked. This makes things rough for indie distributors who have traditionally depended on the holiday season to make much of their annual revenues. And studio wide releases like adult-oriented "Skyfall," "Argo" and "Flight" make the competition even tougher.


"Lincoln" (Buena Vista) - Metacritic score: 88; Festivals include: New York 12, AFI 12

$900,000 in 11 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $81,818

A strong opening for this presidential biopic, even if superb reviews and the pedigree of its creators boosted its profile. History and politics don't guarantee the appeal that other films that recently have opened at this level hold ("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," "Moonrise Kingdom" and "The Master" among them). But the PSA is even more impressive because it comes from 11 theaters in seven cities, rather than the standard four in NY/LA that usually leads to a much higher average.

This is only the second film in Steven Spielberg's career to open in a platform pattern. The first was his most acclaimed film, "Schindler's List." With ticket prices then only around half as they are now, it premiered to $657,000 in 25 theaters, with a PSA of $26,265. Even taking into account the fewer theaters and the inflation factor, this is a bigger opening. The gross is actually more than 20% of what "Munich" opened to in 532 theaters ($4,152,000). These are awesome numbers to start with.

"Lincoln" expands to 1,500 runs next Friday, in a market full of significant competition for its older audience. It most likely will have decent but more modest numbers at many of these. But the game plan makes sense - open in early November, get ahead of some of the other awards competitors, pick up significant holiday business, then sit back and wait for the accolades and nominations to come along to sustain it in most theaters through Christmas. It is a strategy that could make this the most unlikely $100 million film of the year.

This is only Spielberg's second November release. In the past, he has gone in December with either his expected blockbusters or most of his awards' contenders. This early release as well as some of the others indicate that distributors are reacting to the earlier Oscar deadlines by getting into theaters earlier.

What comes next: Next weekend's wider response will be significant in determining whether this is more than a niche, big city film. But this initial performance shows a depth of interest that exceeds expectations and suggests there is an audience hungry for historical drama - the conventional wisdom sends these stories to cable.

"Chasing Ice" (Submarine Deluxe) - Metacritic score: 78; Festivals include: Sundance 12, South by Southwest 12, San Francisco 12

$21,000 in 1 theater; PSA: $21,000

Acquired by Oscilloscope at Sundance, but now handled by up-and-coming Submarine Deluxe, this documentary about a National Geographic photographer's work did an exceptionally strong gross in its exclusive run at NY's Cinema Village, which hasn't had an opening this good in a very long time. Focusing on capturing the beauty of polar glaciers as climate change transforms them over a period of years, this combines a strong environment message with visual beauty not unlike the recent hit "Samsara."

What comes next: "The Cove" captured the Feature Documentary Oscar a few years ago, and particularly with these numbers, this might have a chance to compete effectively in what looks like one of the strongest lineups in years. Meantime, this starts expanding this week to more cities for what looks like a potentially strong appeal over the next few weeks and beyond.