Zero Dark Thirty

The two most awarded and critically-acclaimed films of 2012 both opened last Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles, earning the highest Metacritic scores of the year (among the best of recent years). Their performance through the first five days show that audiences are responding. While faced with major competition for adult audiences as well as the normal pre-holiday slump, both posted numbers that would be considered strong any time of the year.

Four other major specialized films also opened in NY/LA. "The Impossible" starring best actress contender Naomi Watts shows the most promise. Other recent ongoing releases struggled to show sufficient strength to thrive the holidays, with one exception - Weinstein's "Silver Linings Playbook," which had another minor fall just ahead of its Christmas day doubling of theaters as its very slow (but so far successful) rollout continues.

A sign of the time of year is fewer new openings than any week for months, and not a single one of these films available on Video on Demand, which usually has seen two to three new entries a week going that route.


"Zero Dark Thirty" (Sony) - Metacritic score: 95

$410,000 in 5 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $82,000

Kathryn Bigelow's search for Bin Laden film has, for better or worse, dominated the news recently, both in terms of awards received but more significantly with controversy generated. Whatever impact these contributed to audience interest or resistance, the first five days have been very strong, with a total of $639,000 in so far.

This is not a record overall for a December platform opening -- "Dreamgirls" at three theaters six years ago had a PSA of $129,000 at somewhat lower ticket prices. But that film had several advantages -- two weekends before Christmas, always a stronger time, less competition for seats and screens at theaters, much less competition for adult attention and a shorter running time allowing for more shows and better showtimes. Similar advantages helped "Moonrise Kingdom" and "The Master" earlier this year to have better openings (accompanied by nearly as good reviews).

Sony seems to be looking farther back and following the playbook of a very similar movie ripped from Mideast headlines, Ridley Scott's military-themed "Black Hawk Down." The actioner opened in four theaters in 2001, did 44000 PSA, expanded to sixteen two weeks later, then did $28 million in 3000 theaters on the way to $103 million.

"Black Hawk" went on to gross over $100 milliion, with $28 million on its first wide weekend. Unlike "Black Hawk," "ZD30" has an extra advantage - it goes national the day after the Oscar nominations, which should give it an extra boost. Like the earlier film, Sony is emphasizing a commercial more than specialized audience. Though it opened at two theaters normally in high-level platform releases (Lincoln Square in NY, Arclight in LA), its additional three theaters primarily cater to general audiences, and atypically the Landmark Pavillion in LA is not in the mix, as well as either of the key downtown NY venues. Indications are going ahead that Sony is emphasizing conventional, non-specialized theaters as it moves forward.

Nothing guarantees a similar success, though, even if this opening is strong. Both films cover historical events about which the result is known - a failure in "Black Hawk," a success in "ZD30." But the difference are stark - as the massive coverage about the film has emphasized, torture is a central element (likely to scare away a substantial part of the potential audience), and attacks, mainly from some liberal writers and government officials, could increase resistance. Then any film which receives the critical acclaim this has could face heightened expectations ("The Master," already a tricky film for audiences, was badly hurt by this) difficult to be equalled.

For the record, under vastly different circumstances (great reviews, somewhat similar theaters, June - so non-award heightened environment), Bigelow's earlier "The Hurt Locker" opened in 2009 with $145,000 in four theaters (PSA $36,000, far ahead of advance expectations after most distributors passed on the film after its Venice/Toronto showings the previous year). That film - which never went beyond 545 theaters, had a TV campaign or any theatrical boost for late-year award attention, only grossed $17 million total.

But none of that lessens the excellence of this start. It may be indeed be at the level it should, but after the battering the film has taken over the last week or so, it looks battle-ready to advance forward.

What comes next: Sony plans to add some new markets and expand otherwise to about 60 theaters on January 4, allowing at least some additional moviegoers to see this before the nominations.

"Amour" (Sony Pictures Classics) - Metacritic score: 93; Festivals include: Cannes 2012, Telluride 2012, Toronto 2012, New York 2012

$70,700 in 3 theaters; PSA: $23,567

Finally, a foreign language film performs at a strong level, after months of several others (including SPC's own "Rust and Bone") not living up to expectations. Michael Haneke's highly awarded (Palme d'or at Cannes; best film and more from the European Film Awards; best film from the LA Film Critics just a few) "Amour" opened in NY/LA even better than anticipated.

Though the praise and Haneke's past track record gave in a strong base to build on, the story (about an elderly couple facing their mortality, mostly within the claustrophobic confines of a Paris apartment) as well as the pre-Christmas date could have been issues. Instead, it exceeded the performance of Haneke's last two films ("Cache" and "White Ribbon"), both of which were end-of-year releases on their way to grossing $3.6 and $2.2 million respectively. Even more importantly, it is a better opening that what "A Separation" did last year the (better) weekend after Christmas. That later Oscar-winning film had a PSA a little under $20,000 for its opening, on its way to an amazing $7 million gross.

This is not an easy film, and word of mouth is likely to include both praise for the film (particularly its brilliant pair of lead performers) but also mention of its tough subject matter, however masterfully handled. But the initial response has to be gratifying for SPC, and gives it a strong base upon which to expand.

What comes next: This as expected made the Foreign Language short list, and it would be a shock if it is not a nominee, and then a strong contender. The Oscar reaction though could be much stronger, with nominations for Best Picture, Actress, Director and Original Screenplay all possible. How it fares on January 10 (just before it begins to go to more cities) will make a lot of difference on the level of success the film has.