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'12 Years a Slave' off to strong start in limited box-office debut

Arts and CultureServices and ShoppingChiwetel Ejiofor

This post has been updated. See bottom for details.

Critics are enamored with "12 Years a Slave," but will moviegoers also embrace the brutal portrayal of slavery?

That has been the question posed by many box-office watchers in recent weeks, as the probable best picture contender has continued to win fans at film festivals despite being hard to watch at times. But judging by early ticket sales for Steve McQueen's historical drama, at least, audiences are eager to see the critical darling.

This weekend, the movie debuted in 19 theaters and collected $960,000, according to an estimate from distributor Fox Searchlight. That amounts to a strong per-location average of about $50,000 — the sixth-highest average this year behind films such as "Blue Jasmine" and "Fruitvale Station."

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Searchlight, which distributed the $22-million production financed by New Regency Pictures, River Road Entertainment and FilmFour, opened the film in a mixture of art-house and urban theaters. The film performed best this weekend at the Regal Union Square Stadium in New York, followed by the ArcLight Cinema in Hollywood.

"In the art houses, we had an older audience — mostly people over 45," said Frank Rodriguez, Searchlight's senior vice president of distribution. "In the African American skewing theaters, it was really mixed — an equal amount of people over 40 and under 40."

Those who saw the film this weekend loved it, assigning it an average grade of A, according to market research firm CinemaScore. The movie stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free man who was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841.

Next weekend, Searchlight will expand "12 Years a Slave" to roughly 100 theaters.

[Update, Oct. 21, 10:15 a.m.: An earlier version of this post said Fox Searchlight was one of the co-financiers of "12 Years a Slave," but the studio did not contribute to the film's budget.]

ALSO:

Steve McQueen films '12 Years a Slave' on familiar territory

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In '12 Years a Slave,' Steve McQueen juxtaposes beauty, brutality

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Arts and CultureServices and ShoppingChiwetel Ejiofor
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