'Lone Survivor'
'Lone Survivor'

The long holiday weekend is one of the best periods of the year for specialized, review-oriented films. But given the plethora of high profile art films and quality wide studio releases to catch up with, business is spread out among many films, decreasing the grosses of most to some degree. Three last minute releases opened in New York and Los Angeles to varying results, with Universal's "Lone Survivor" somewhat surprisingly earning the top per screen average in only two theaters. 

With a substantially higher profile and Meryl Streep in the mix, The Weinstein Co.'s "August: Osage County" saw more middling results. Meanwhile, director Ralph Fiennes' "The Invisible Woman" (Sony Pictures Classics) lagged significantly behind. With January full of awards and nominations -- including Oscar noms on January 16 -- many of these films have longer-term prospects that could send their grosses much higher.


"Lone Survivor" (Universal) - Criticwire: B-; Metacritic: 56; Festivals include: AFI 2013

$92,500 in 2 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $46,250

Peter Berg's Afghanistan-war drama starring Mark Wahlberg has received less media attention than other high-profile year-end potential awards contenders (including fellow post-Christmas opener "August: Osage County"), but ended up with the best PSA of new openers over the last two weekends (also including "Her," "The Past" and "The Invisible Woman," all discussed below). Helped of course by playing in only two theaters--the much in demand Lincoln Square in New York and Arclight Hollywood--"Lone Survivor" managed to boast a solid initial response despite mixed reviews.

While the film's awards chances seem remote, this qualifying run helps Universal on at least two levels. First, it serves as a nice way to change the subject from the disastrous opening of their wide-release "47 Ronin." Secondly, and more significantly, this success suggests the film has a bright future ahead when it goes into wide release.

Given the divisive critical response, "Lone Survivor" seemed less likely to attract post-Christmas audiences in these two markets. But its initial response shows, as industry professionals know, that there is an audience for military-themed films that goes beyond specialized audiences even for high-profile releases. This was true back in the time of "The Deer Hunter" and "Apocalypse Now," through "Platoon" and more recently "Black Hawk Down" and "Zero Dark Thirty," which achieved their breakout larger grosses by drawing in a middle American male audience, particularly older, who can relate to these stories.

Universal takes the film wide in two weeks (January 10). Although the per screen average fell short of "Zero Dark Thirty"'s pre-Christmas draw --which had less competition, a slew of great reviews and multiple screens available to play--exhibitors will note this result and be eager to book "Lone Survivor" when it goes wide.

What comes next: In a January without a lot of big titles, this has a real shot of significant success as other films push for attention in a very crowded awards-audience field.

Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones in 'The Invisible Woman'
Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones in 'The Invisible Woman'

"The Invisible Woman" (Sony Pictures Classics) - Criticwire: B-; Metacritic: 78; Festivals include Toronto 2013

$37,100 in 3 theaters; PSA: $12,367

Directed and starring Ralph Fiennes, with Felicity Jones and Kristin Scott-Thomas, this 19th-century English film about Charles Dickens' romance with a younger woman opened on Wednesday. The positive news for SPC is that the five-day total of $58,300 weighs heavily toward the weekend gross, suggesting it could gain strength in its initial days. That said, this is a mixed result for this well-reviewed, robustly marketed film positioned at year's end to maximize awards attention. At this point, prospects look limited.

Last year SPC had a successful year-end launch with eventual Best Picture nominee "Amour." This year, they added "The Past" to their slate for two films. Unfortunately, the opening weekends for both films combined ("The Past" opened last weekend) is about the same as last year's pre-Christmas opening of "Amour." This year's record-level intensity of wide release acclaimed films makes it tough for even a company as good at its job as Sony Pictures Classics to grab its share of the audience.

What comes next: To maximize potential, SPC is anything but hasty in expanding films. But "The Invisible Woman" is going to need great word-of-mouth and for audiences to exhaust other, more competitive prestige films for it to thrive over the next couple of months.