'12 Years a Slave,' in wide release this weekend, faces critical test

How far can “12 Years a Slave” go at the box office? Look no further than this weekend, when Steve McQueen’s acclaimed drama faces another key test as it expands into its broadest national release so far.

Last weekend, the story about a free black man sold into slavery in 1841 generated the second-best per-screen average of any film in theaters, with average receipts of $11,688, topped only by the debut of “Dallas Buyers Club,”  which had a per-screen mark of $28,985 while playing in a tiny fraction of the theaters showing “12 Years a Slave.”  

ON LOCATION: '12 Years a Slave'

The returns for “12 Years a Slave” showed that the film was appealing to its two core constituencies — African American ticket buyers and highbrow art house patrons — in nearly equal numbers, putting “12 Years a Slave” on an early pace that mirrors the results of 2009’s “Precious,” which ultimately grossed more than $47.5 million in domestic theaters.

Now, with distributor Fox Searchlight adding more than 700 theaters to its current screen count of 410 locations, “12 Years a Slave” must widen its appeal to mainstream audiences. For the first time, the sometimes graphic drama based on the memoir of Solomon Northup will be playing in cities such as Boise, Idaho; Provo, Utah; Tulsa, Okla.; and Oklahoma City.

Fox Searchlight says it is encouraged that the film is playing strongly in diverse metropolises such as Dallas, San Diego and  Philadelphia.  But the studio would not speculate how much the film, which so far has generated  $10.3 million in sales in more than three weeks of release, could ultimately gross.

PHOTOS: Scenes from '12 Years a Slave'

“We do not know what the ceiling is,” said Steve Gilula, co-president of Fox Searchlight. Though its release pattern was slower, the studio’s “Slumdog Millionaire” had grossed about $12 million by the time it was playing as widely as “12 Years a Slave” is now. “Slumdog Millionaire,” which won the best picture Oscar, grossed a total of $141.3 million.

Gilula said he was particularly encouraged by how resilient the film has been in theaters where it has played for more than one week. In most instances, a movie would fall as much as 50% in those multiplexes, particularly when more theaters in the area also start playing the film.  But the drops have been only about 30% in many cases, Gilula said.

“That’s telling us that word of mouth is kicking in,” Gilula said. “People who are seeing the film are moved by it and are becoming advocates for it.”


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