Smaller films making inroads with holiday movie audiences

A look at how smaller, award-aimed films like “Philomena” and “Dallas Buyers Club” have fared at the box office
Judi Dench, left, and Steve Coogan star in “Philomena,” which has fared well at the box office.
(Weinstein Co.)

Over the holidays, most moviegoers have opted for big-budget, spectacle-heavy and family-friendly films at the box office. But while “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” and “Frozen” have been packing them in for weeks now, a few smaller, independent pictures have quietly been doing respectable business in far fewer  theaters.

With the Academy Award nominations just over two weeks away, the indie award-season hopeful that has far-and-away grossed the most at the multiplex is “12 Years a Slave.” The 19th century period drama, which follows a man’s journey to escape slavery in the South, has grossed $37.8 million since its limited release on Oct. 18. 

That’s a serious feat for the movie, putting to rest the argument made by some that the film would be too intense for mainstream audiences. The picture has grossed more that double its closest box-office rival among recent indie releases, the British drama “Philomena,” which has collected $16.4 million. 

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Of course, there are some major caveats: “12 Years a Slave” was released more than a month before “Philomena” and most other critical darlings at the arthouse. As a result, “12 Years” has already played in more than 1,400 cinemas, while none of its competitors has yet to play in more than 1,000 locations.

OK, so it’s not a fair fight yet. But even when -- or if -- the fall’s indie favorites expand nationwide, do they stand a chance of grossing more than “12 Years a Slave”? Possibly not. Let’s take a closer look:

“All Is Lost”

From the jump, this film seemed like a hard sell at the box office. It stars Robert Redford as a man stranded in the middle of the ocean, trying to survive on a life raft -- but he barely utters a line of dialogue throughout the entire movie. Since debuting on the same weekend as “12 Years a Slave,” the movie has grossed $5.9 million. That’s not too bad considering the movie is playing in fewer than 500 theaters. But the film’s ticket sales didn’t go up much after Redford earned a Golden Globe nomination earlier this month, indicating the picture’s box-office run is likely running out of steam.


“Dallas Buyers Club”

Since its release about two months ago, this AIDS drama has made $15.7 million -- a respectable figure, particularly for a film that had to battle for more than a decade to make it to the big screen. Like “12 Years a Slave,” some pundits assumed moviegoers would be turned off by the dark themes here: “Dallas Buyers Club” is based on the true story of Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey), an AIDS patient who teams up with a transgender business partner (Jared Leto) to illegally sell anti-viral medication to those afflicted by the disease. The movie got a lot of attention because of how much weight both McConaughey and Leto lost for their roles, and if the actors earn Oscar nods the film could ride another brief wave at the box office. Still, with the movie now out in just 124 theaters -- at its height, it was in 734 locations -- its overall tally probably won’t change much in the coming months.

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Unlike “All is Lost,” “Nebraska” does have dialogue -- but Alexander Payne’s latest has its own hurdle to face: It’s a black-and-white movie. That may be one reason the film starring Bruce Dern hasn’t done too well with filmgoers since opening Nov. 15. The picture, which has collected an underwhelming $5.8 million thus far, stars Dern as an elderly man who convinces his son (Will Forte) to take him on a road trip to cash in what he believes to be a $1-million sweepstakes prize. Dern has already secured a SAG and Golden Globe nomination for his turn in the movie, and if he earns recognition from the Academy next month, perhaps the film will draw in a fresh crowd.


With the exception of “The King’s Speech,” in recent years there haven’t been many intimate British films that have caught on with American moviegoers. And yet “Philomena,” which stars Judi Dench as a woman searching for the son she gave up for adoption, has done surprisingly well at the domestic box office, where it’s currently in roughly 800 theaters. That could be because it’s been a favorite among the 50-plus set, a demographic that is famously underserved at the multiplex. But its star, the 79-year-old Dench, has also been on a hot streak of late: Not only did she appear as James Bond’s supervisor M for the seventh time in last year’s “Skyfall,” but she also helped turn the AARP-aimed “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” into a hit in 2011.

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”


Following the death of Nelson Mandela on Dec. 5, some box-office pundits assumed moviegoers would be eager to pay tribute to the late South African leader by heading to this biopic. Yet when the film went wide last weekend, playing in 975 theaters, it didn’t fare well, averaging just $2,298 per-theater. With a current gross of $4.6 million and middling reviews, it seems unlikely that the film starring Idris Elba will be able to break out.

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“Inside Llewyn Davis”

The Coen brothers’ new film got off to one of the strongest starts of the year for an indie movie, scoring a per-theater average of $101,353. Since opening earlier this month, the folk drama about a struggling singer-songwriter has grossed $4.6 million. Given that the movie is still in fewer than 200 theaters -- and how much buzz its soundtrack has been getting -- it feels like this film has a long way to go at the box office. Will it be one of the Coen brothers’ biggest box-office hits? No. But will it far exceed the $9.2-million their last small film, “A Serious Man,” grossed in 2009? Absolutely. 


Of the films we’re considering here, it seems “Her” could end up being the dark horse at the box office. The movie is only in about 47 theaters right now, and has sold $1.7 million worth of tickets -- but it’s going wide on Jan. 10. By then, many of the popular Christmas releases will be old news, and there aren’t many new films coming out next month that look, uh, promising. Sure, the film’s plot may initially seem too odd for some -- it’s about a man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his phone’s operating system. But even though the film is set slightly in the future, it deals with love in the digital age -- subject matter millennials could end up embracing. 


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