By Tom Brueggemann | Thompson on Hollywood November 17, 2013 at 4:27PM
Going in, "Nebraska," from Alexander Payne, one of the most consistently lauded American directors over the last decade, looked to have limited appeal due to its older rural characters, black and white presentation, and non-marquee names. But its better-than-expected opening, with strong marketing from big-studio Paramount, proved a promising start as the family dramedy heads into the competitive awards season.
Equally impressive at just one theater was the surprising start for "The Great Beauty," the first Italian film to have such a strong opening in many years. Also notable are solid or better expansions for "The Book Thief" and "Dallas Buyers Club," both of which look capable of withstanding the severe upcoming competition from both specialized and wider-released adult-oriented films.
"Nebraska" (Paramount) - Criticwire: B+; Metacritic: 84; Festivals include: Cannes 2013, Telluride 2013, New York 2013, AFI 2013
$140,000 in 4 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $35,000
Backed by strong reviews (equal to "The Descendants" two years ago), Payne's return to his home state scored a decent opening in four prime New York/Los Angeles theaters, with a PSA the best since "12 Years a Slave" opened last month. The numbers are a bit above "Dallas Buyers Club"'s opening (which has since expanded successfully) and more than doubled the initial take for "All Is Lost." All four films are in the Oscar mix, particularly for Best Actor.
These aren't numbers quite at the level of past Payne starts -- "The Descendants" had a PSA of nearly $40,000 in a much wider 29 theaters (boosted by George Clooney and more general audience appeal) and also below the openings for "About Schmidt" pre-Christmas and "Sideways." But still in a very crowded marketplace for adult/review oriented audiences and with initial appeal from the older segment, this is a credible start, with a good jump from Friday's initial $10,000 PSA suggesting strong audience response.
This is Paramount's first attempt at a platform release since Jason Reitman's "Young Adult" two years ago (starring Charlize Theron), which had a PSA of $38,000 in 6 theaters. Produced for $12 million (slightly more than half of the budget for "The Descendants") by respected veterans Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa ("Little Miss Sunshine") for Paramount's Vantage label, the film has been a question mark since the U.S. press at Cannes had a more tepid reaction to the cut shown there, which Payne subsequently revised. But Bruce Dern's Best Actor win proved that taking the film to Cannes was the right decision, and a vigorous festival and screening strategy has generated major interest and enthusiasm for the film and its cast. These numbers alone don't guarantee future success, but they are at the level suggesting Paramount was correct in positioning this as a prime awards candidate and risking a tricky expansion going into the heart of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday seasons.
What comes next: Paramount adds 10 more markets this Friday, more in time for Thanksgiving, with the expectation, backed by significant marketing, of widening this through the end of the year and a hoped for maximum release in January to coincide with anticipated major nominations and wins.