Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan in "Inside Llewyn Davis"
Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan in "Inside Llewyn Davis"

By opening better than any of the recent spate of acclaimed awards-bound films (including frontrunner "12 Years a Slave") the new film from Joel and Ethan Coen, "Inside Llewyn Davis," served notice that it too deserves attention. With three of the Coens' last four releases winding up as Best Picture contenders, and the reviews for "Davis" ranking slightly below "Gravity" and "12 Years" for best of the year, this result while not surprising was also not in the bag, as the film isn't a surefire crowdpleaser and boasts younger, urban appeal.

The rest of the specialized action came from a variety of other films also being positioned for maximum awards attention in various stages of widening release, with two slower-expanding films -- "Mandela" and "Nebraska" -- holding best among them.


"Inside Llewyn Davis" (CBS Films) - Criticwire: 94; Metacritic: A-; Festivals include Cannes 2013, Telluride 2013, New York 2013, AFI 2013

$401,000 in 4 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $100,500

A spectacularly strong opening for the Coen brothers' offbeat, even by their standards, take on a struggling folk singer in early 1960s Greenwich Village which (based on estimates) falls just short of "Blue Jasmine" as the best limited New York/Los Angeles opening of the year. And this weekend theaters are filled with other strong films offering intense competition for seats. (The Sunday actuals will be the best indication of this).

This is also the biggest limited opening for any Coen film, inflation adjusted or not. In recent years, their films have tended to open wider in big cities. Recently, only "A Serious Man" in 2009 opened this limited. It had a PSA of about $42,000 in 6 theaters (all New York/Los Angeles) before ending up a $9.2 million total (along with a Best Picture nomination). Huge openings alone don't guarantee ultimate crossover success -- "The Master" last year famously had a staggering PSA of $147,000 in five but only reached $16 million (at its widest 846 theaters), but this is a breakout performance.

The total also nearly triples or better several other recent specialized awards contenders openings, including "Nebraska," "Philomena" and "Dallas Buyers Club," up to now the best of the season, all at the same or similar initial theaters. What this suggests, apart from the established appeal of the Coens, is that a younger urban crowd has a more enthusiastic interest in this--partly due to CBS's relentless music-tilted marketing campaign-- than they had for the older-appealing stories and casts of those earlier films. The older crowd nationally tends to be steady and loyal, while it remains to be seen whether "Davis" will have the same draw across the country (as "A Serious Man" showed, their films are sometimes strictly Coastal). ("Blue Jasmine" with its equivalent opening has gotten to over $32 million, all without the benefit of concurrent awards support.)

This is also a huge triumph for CBS Films, which has shown a deft touch in handling mostly wider release films (their biggest success "Last Vegas" is up to $60 million). They have dabbled in more limited films twice earlier -- "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" opened in 18 theaters in 2009 to $225,000 before grossing $9 million, while last summer "The Kings of Summer" did a modest $59,000 in four, only reaching $1.3 million. This initial gross places them among the top distributors for niche releases at a time when some of the studio-owned companies are retrenching somewhat and the majors normally shy away from anything outside a wide release pattern.