Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in "Philomena"
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in "Philomena"

Weinstein heart-tugger "Philomena," this week's awards-friendly limited opening, scored an initial number comparable to two recent Oscar contenders ("Nebraska" and "Dallas Buyers Club"), just ahead of its rapid expansion this Wednesday. Per usual, the specialty market is getting crowded, with not just new limited films but plenty of wider-releases, including "Catching Fire," grabbing the attention of older audiences. It's a time of high-risk opportunity, as not all releases will achieve their hoped-for maximum attention.


"Philomena" (Weinstein) - Criticwire: B+; Metacritic: 75; Festivals include: Venice 2013, Toronto 2013, Hamptons 2013, AFI 2013

$133,700 in 4 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $33,425

A more than decent initial result for Stephen Frears' British/Irish adoption drama starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, placing it among the better fall releases so far. These grosses fell just short of what "Nebraska" did last weekend (with three of the same New York/Los Angeles theaters), but with greater competition this week these numbers are more than respectable. Frears' last major Oscar contender, "The Queen" had a three-theater PSA of over $40,000 in 2006 (with lower ticket prices widening the gap in comparison) on its way to a successful $56 million domestic take and a Best Actress Oscar for Helen Mirren.

Dench of course has become an art-house staple ("The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" was a crossover hit) in recent years, accompanying her wider familiarity as M in the James Bond films. But this is her first non-ensemble lead role since "Notes of a Scandal" in 2006, which co-starred Cate Blanchett. That film opened wider -- 22 theaters --with a strong PSA for that number of theaters (almost $19,000, on its way to $17.5 million). The Frears/Dench collaboration "Mrs. Henderson Presents," an early Weinstein Company release, opened in 2005 to $55,000 in six theaters on its way to $11 million. 

Showing faith in the elements and spending more in marketing than normal for a second week, Weinstein is quickly expanding this to around 700 theaters next week, far more quickly than any of the other recent awards contenders ("12 Years a Slave," "All Is Lost," "Dallas Buyers Club" and "Nebraska"), clearly showing faith in both Dench's appeal and the company's proven marketing skills. This is a daring move -- two years ago, Weinstein launched "My Week With Marilyn" initially at Thanksgiving in 244 theaters, and for the length of the run never pushed to more than 630. "Best Exotic Marigold" only passed that total in its fourth week.

What comes next: The expansion will create a lot of attention, vital for ensuring Dench a slot in the crowded Best Actress race, and potentially if this does well making it a wider contender. It comes at a cost, but Weinstein has turned the trick in the past. But this is a risky move -- even "Silver Linings Playbook" didn't hit 745 theaters until just after Christmas last year despite also opening pre-Thanksgiving.