The first film to be distributed by Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures opened in select theaters over the weekend in hopes of sparking strong word of mouth.
Launching an indie Hollywood studio is tough business at a time when television has become the favorite medium for the sort of prestige fare from respected directors that once made film companies like Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s Miramax successful.
Over the weekend, Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, now a full-fledged marketing and distribution company, opened the first title it is distributing itself, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. And starting off with a box-office win would be a desirable way to kick-start the operation.
Originally, the critically acclaimed film, recounting the Detroit race riots of 1967, was set to open nationwide on Aug. 4. But in the face of relatively soft tracking, Annapurna revised its release plans and decided to first debut the film in 20 theaters in 10 markets over the weekend in hopes of triggering word of mouth before expanding into more than 2,800 cinemas this Friday.
Detroit earned $365,000 for a solid screen average of $18,273. The real test, however, is yet to come. One of the major tracking services shows the period drama, which cost $40 million, taking in $13 million when it rolls out nationwide. A gross of $15 million or more would certainly be more satisfying for Annapurna.
A big challenge for Detroit is whether its tough subject matter will be a draw during a summer playdate, since the box-office season is known for more commercial fare. The movie’s release was timed to the 50th anniversary of the riots, which began in the early hours of July 23, 1967, and ultimately left seven black men and two white women dead. John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jason Mitchell, John Krasinski and Anthony Mackie star in the drama, which was financed and produced by Annapurna.
“This is a film for everyone. When I look at the job Bigelow did, it isn’t like anything else in the marketplace,” says Annapurna president of distribution Erik Lomis, noting that Detroit played to a diverse audience, as well as skewing female (56 percent). Caucasians made up 42 percent of ticket buyers, followed by African-Americans (32 percent), Hispanics (14 percent) and Asians/other (12 percent).
Comparisons to Detroit‘s limited launch are tough, since in most instances, a limited release opens in four to six theaters in Los Angeles and New York, driving up the average. And generally speaking, a limited release doesn’t expand nationwide so quickly.
Exceptions include the Martin Luther King Jr. drama Selma, from director Ava DuVernay and championed by Oprah Winfrey. Timed to an awards run, Selma debuted in 25 theaters over Christmas weekend in 2014, grossing $571,450 for a screen average of $30,076. But a good average doesn’t always portend success. The next weekend, Selma expanded into a total of 2,179 theaters, earning a disappointing $11.3 million and topping out at $52 million domestically.
Hidden Figures followed a similar plan, opening in 25 theaters on Christmas Day 2014 and collecting $515,499 for a screen average of $20,620. When it expanded nationwide over the Jan. 6-8 weekend, the movie took in $22.8 million on its way to grossing nearly $170 million domestically.
Bigelow’s film — currently sporting a 94 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes — played in 10 cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta, Washington and Baltimore.
The top market was Detroit, where the movie played in three cinemas, while the top-grossing theater was the ArcLight Hollywood. AMC Lincoln Square was also high up on the list, along with Washington and Baltimore.
“It was solid everywhere and the exit polls were spectacular, including 86 percent in the top two boxes and a 71 percent ‘definite recommend,'” says Lomis, who did previous stints at The Weinstein Co. and MGM. “This movie will have longevity. It’s timely, it’s topical and it has a message.”
Detroit‘s total gross for the weekend wasn’t that far behind Bigelow’s last film, Zero Dark Thirty, which earned $417,510 from five theaters on its first weekend in December 2012 for a theater average of $83,840. Zero Dark Thirty expanded nationwide to $24.4 million in its fourth weekend. Additionally, Bigelow’s Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker opened to $145,352 from four theaters in 2009 (it never played in more than 535 cinemas).
Box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of comScore says August is a prime place to launch Detroit, noting previous August releases including Straight Outta Compton and Inglourious Basterds (Lomis released the latter film while at TWC). “Detroit is a work that embodies the spirit of the kind of risks studios have historically taken within the month,” he notes.
Now, it remains to be seen whether that risk will pay off for Annapurna.