By Tom Brueggemann | Thompson on Hollywood January 5, 2014 at 3:57PM
Military-themed films can get initial limited strong openings -- "Zero Dark Thirty" last year, "Black Hawk Down" much earlier -- but both those films boasted strong reviews and cross-over appeal to core upscale audiences. "Lone Survivor" didn't have that heft behind it, yet still head to head seems to be the equal so far of "August." As both films expand wide next weekend, don't be surprised if "Lone Survivor" has the higher gross, at least initially, with heartland American audiences being more attuned to its themes than the complex appeal of "August." The latter still has some chance at some Oscars and other awards, and with the Weinstein Company behind it, expect every marketing tool available to be utilized to enhance its box office chances.
The top grosser among the older limited releases was "Philomena" (also Weinstein), which has had extensive, but not yet maximum, play. This is an example of a Weinstein awards release that hits all the buttons with older audiences and is timed to maximize its Oscar attention. It took in another $1,552,000 this weekend in 607 theaters (-120), with its gross falloff of 12% combined with the loss of theaters meaning its PSA of $2,557 acrually increased. It is already up to $19.7 million, with Weinstein planning an even wider general release later this month after its very likely Best Actress nomination for Judi Dench and hoped-for placement in Best Picture. All of this has come with a higher than level marketing expense for this level of gross, but they are in it for the long haul, with hoped for benefits including a much greater ultimate total. Don't be surprised if this ends up outgrossing "Blue Jasmine," starring frontrunner Cate Blanchett, though this would largely be due to the later release ("Jasmine" released in the summer didn't have the advantage of piggy-backing off awards).
But two more recent contenders playing in far fewer theaters had even more impressive showings. Yesterday's big winner at the National Society of FIlm Critics, "Inside Llewyn Davis" (CBS) in 156 theaters (-5) did $1,175,000 (-6%), PSA $7,532, total of $6,987,000 so far. This is already getting close to the Coen Brothers' previous limited release, "A Serious Man," and irrespective of its Oscar future (CBS is pushing hard, with multiple full page ads running in the LA and NY Times this week while the nomination voting is occurring) this should easily outdistance that film's total.
Outpacing all of these in PSA was "Her" (Warner Bros.), which sticking to 47 theaters grossed $722,000, significantly up 11% from last weekend. The PSA was an outstanding (for this number of theaters) $15,362. Spike Jonze's alternative rom-com is not an automatic sell, despite its great reviews, but this performance shows that word of mouth is catching up to the critics and positions it well for its wide national release this week. It has grossed just under $3 million so far.
"Nebraska" (Paramount) has taken a much slower road to expansion, so far peaking at 310 runs pre-Christmas. It's expected to go much wider post-nominations (where it should be among the leaders). Alexander Payne's film grossed $670,000 in 240 theaters (-10), PSA a more modest $2,792, now at $7,055,000 total. This was down only 10% from last weekend.
Both of Sony Pictures Classics' year-end releases are lagging behind what its awards contenders usually do. The French/Iranian "The Past" added 2 theaters to gross $40,200 in 5, PSA $8,040, significantly behind what director Asghar Farhadi's "The Separation" did two years ago. Ralph Fiennes' "The Invisible Woman" is also struggling, with $30,200 in 4 (+1) for a PSA of $7,550. The positive news for both films is that their grosses held steady, even if below expectations, so both should see some growth ahead as they expand.
Other longer-run films with grosses over $50,000 included "The Book Thief" (20th Century Fox), still showing life with another $543,000 in 329 (-159), total now $19.1 million. "12 Years a Slave" (Fox Searchlight) remains poised to return after the nominations, but added $326,000 in 151 (-3), down only 13%, and already up to $38.5 million. PGA and WGA nominee "Dallas Buyers Club" (Focus) actually grew 10%, with a gross of $306,000 in 128 theaters (+4), now at $16.3 million. "All Is Lost" added another $55,000 and is now at $6,055,000 total.