Arthouse Audit: 'To the Wonder' Opens in Theaters and VOD; Expanding 'Trance' Weakens

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by Tom Brueggemann
April 14, 2013 4:23 PM
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Olga Kurylenko and Ben Affleck in "To The Wonder."
This weekend, three of four openers also premiered on Video on Demand venues. Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder" is the most significant film yet to take that route. Its theatrical component was not close to the levels of "The Tree of Life" (pushed hard by Fox Searchlight) or other top VOD films; less than stellar reviews many have hurt. The other three new films also posted mediocre openings.

With "The Place Beyond the Pines" already in the Top 10 in its third week of still somewhat limited release, the other expansions were less impressive. Danny Boyle's "Trance" is surprisingly lackluster. There's a wide variety of films out there (although there happen to be less docs than have been the case of late).

Opening

"To the Wonder" (Magnolia) - Criticwire grade: B-; Metacritic score: 60; Festivals include: Venice 2012, Toronto 2012; also available on Video on Demand

$130,000 in 17 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $7,647

Parallel releases of films, even significant ones, in theaters and via home media are not uncommon ("Melancholia," "Margin Call," and "Arbitrage" all grossed over $3 million day and date), but few have boasted the pedigree of Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder." The acclaimed director's previous film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes 2011, widespread critical acclaim and significant Oscar nominations as well as a $13-million domestic gross after a huge opening ($373,000 in four theaters its first weekend).

Magnolia took the movie starring recent Oscar-winner Ben Affleck day and date, which is becoming a more common practice.  The Video on Demand figures are not yet available, but the theater grosses are modest, although still enough to suggest there is still an audience even for a high-profile VOD film.

The comparison to "The Tree of Life" (which did almost three times as much initial gross in fewer than a quarter of the theaters) is unfair -- apart from not being VOD, it opened days after its Cannes win, with overwhelming critical support on a holiday weekend. "To the Wonder" received the least enthusiastic reviews of any Malick film, though it had some significant support, including Roger Ebert's final published review. Overall, it actually nabbed the weakest reviews of the films that reported grosses among this week's limited openings, not what would be expected for a Malick film.

However, it also fell short of what Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" grossed when it opened in theaters, in its case after already showing on VOD. In 19 theaters, that film did $257,000, noticeably better. The lesson here could be that reviews trump rival availability for core art house audiences. Though divisive to some extent like "To the Wonder," Von Trier's film received far better critical response than Malick's film.

Both films benefit greatly from being seen on a screen, which combined with Malick's strong fan base looked like a good reason to think that this could repeat "Melancholia"'s $3 million theatrical total. Both films received strong support from Magnolia's sister company Landmark Theaters, but support for both will also will be limited, because of VOD.

What comes next: This played in 12 markets its initial week, and will double that next Friday, after already playing at home. Meantime, Malick supposedly has three other films in post-production, so he'll be back.

"Disconnect" (LD Entertainment) - Criticwire Grade: C; Metacritic score: 65; Festivals include: Toronto 2012

$123,597 in 15 theaters; PSA: $8,240

Like "To the Wonder" this opened in multiple major cities. Unlike that film, it played in more mainstream upscale theaters and with no VOD component. It ended up with a slightly better PSA, although it came with substantially more paid marketing than Malick's film received (including some local spot TV/cable ads) in hopes that this interconnected multi-storied tale of the risks of on-line life in contemporary society could reach a broader audience. The initial results suggest a modest future for the film.

Produced by LD co-founder Mickey Liddell and indie veteran William Horberg ("The Talented Mr. Ripley," "The Quiet American" and the upcoming "Therese" among his many credits), this is the first feature from documentary director from Henry Alex-Rubin ("Murderball"), with Jason Bateman, coming off his lead role in the smash "Identity Thief" as a main actor. Those elements suggested some potential, which these grosses suggest might be more limited than hoped.

What comes next: The initial support for this suggests LD had faith in this, so a further expansion is likely with a chance to see if it can build on its initial figures. After their strong support for William Friedkin's "Killer Joe" last fall, they look poised to back their films, even if they have yet to break through with a big hit.

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