Late year releases, many expanding, dominate the specialized market this weekend. By far the biggest, "Zero Dark Thirty," is mainly playing in upscale multiplexes, providing fierce competition to such already strong wide releases as "Django Unchained" and "Les Miserables."
"Dark Thirty"'s performance was the standout. A range of other films are performing adequately, with many awaiting Thursday's Oscar nominations to determine their future expansion. Among more limited films, "56 Up" opened quite strong in New York, and "Amour"'s numbers went up in its three theaters.
"56 Up" (1st Run Features) - Metacritic Score: 80; Festivals include: Hamptons 2012
$20,500 in 1 theater; PSA (per screen average): $20,500
The eighth edition of Michael Apted's life-long (literally) British TV documentary tracing a group of ordinary English people has been a theatrical perennial every seven years since "28 Up" first hit U.S. theaters in the 1980s (at that point distributed by the Samuel Goldwyn Company). The same kids first seen 49 years ago in the U.K. have been filmed every seven years, then broadcast in Britain, with the last five episodes released to theaters in the U.S. This time around, it looks as strong as ever, with one of the best openings for a documentary in New York in some time.
Playing at the IFC Center, this gross seems stronger than "49 Up," which was released in a different pattern -- 21 theaters did $53,000, for a PSA of around $2,500 spread around the country. "42 Up" opened in five for a PSA of $11,600. Both films ended up at only $300,000 or less, so this initial gross doesn't mean this will be a breakout success.
But the series -- buttressed by consistent DVD and cable availability over the years -- has developed a loyal following, which this initial opening suggests is as strong as ever.
What comes next: More theatrical runs, including Los Angeles' Nuart in a couple weeks, supplemented by heavy home viewing (and new fans catching up with previous episodes.)
"Zero Dark Thirty" (Sony) - Week 3
$2,750,000 in 60 theaters (+55); PSA: $45,833; Cumulative: $3,417,000
A substantial expansion -- limited runs in new cities and additional runs in already-opened New York and Los Angeles -- proved bountiful for Sony in advance of the 2,400 theater wide break next weekend. Showing that the appeal ranges beyond the awards and review-bolstered initial opening (sometimes, like "The Master," not a guarantee of future success), these grosses suggest a bright future for Kathryn Bigelow's Bin Laden-hunt film.
What is critical is that these new runs come after the controversy that has surrounded the film, with a drumbeat of attacks (with various motivations, including political) keeping the film in the news. The net effect so far doesn't seem negative. Playing mainly at top-level multiplexes (Sony for the most part is not going to core specialized theaters), it ranked #1 at 29 of its 30 theaters, and 51 of its 60 overall, despite the strength of several other films in the market this weekend.
Some comparisons "Midnight in Paris" in its expansion to 58 theaters had a PSA of $33,000. "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" at 178 theaters (three times as many) had the same $2.7 million gross. Bigelow's own "The Hurt Locker" also went to 60 theaters, for a PSA a quarter as good: $10,700.
None of these films had what "Zero Dark Thirty" has for its next phase -- a wide release, backed by a nationwide TV campaign, timed to follow immediately after the Oscar nominations. This weekend's great performance doesn't indicate for certain what this will do, but at a minimum it is almost certain to outgross all of the above films ("Midnight in Paris" fared the best at $57 million), and likely by some margin.
What comes next: This has all been strategized to maximize a tricky film for mass, rather than just specialized, audiences. So far it seems to be a major success. But it will take next weekend (and beyond) to tell where this is ultimately headed. A #1 showing next weekend (with major competition) could put this back into the middle of the Best Picture race and more.