After two years of upheaval and unfamiliarity at the box office, there’s something refreshingly familiar about the theatrical release of “Tár.”
The acclaimed movie, directed by Todd Fields and starring Cate Blanchett as a world-famous conductor embroiled in a controversy of her own making, generated a stellar $160,000 from four theaters (two in New York City and two in Los Angeles) over the weekend, averaging a mighty $40,000 per location. Next weekend, it’s expanding its theater count (ever so slightly), to 30 new venues in 10 domestic markets. That kind of steady and deliberately paced rollout, one that relies almost entirely on positive word-of-mouth, is about as traditional as it gets for an arthouse film. Yet for most of the pandemic, it was rendered obsolete.
“We felt like this movie harkened back to pre-COVID releases, where it demanded to have that kind of attention of New York and Los Angeles openings,” says Lisa Bunnell, the president of distribution at Focus Features, which is releasing “Tár. ” She adds, “Not every specialty movie makes sense to do in this way. All of us are in this test mode.”
Independent film distributors have been in the so-called “test mode” for quite a while now. They were forced to toss aside the tried-and-true release strategy for specialty films during COVID, in part because the target demographic of older audiences were the most hesitant to return to theaters. Plus, it wasn’t even possible to put a new arthouse movie in the traditional quartet of theaters for a while because New York City and Los Angeles — the two hubs of entertainment that serve as launchpads to build awareness and boost buzz — were forced to keep theaters closed longer than most other cities.
Even the most arthouse of arthouse films, like Wes Anderson’s 2021 twee drama “The French Dispatch,” were forced to kick off in many more venues than usual. During that time, specialty releases and Oscar favorites such as the Cannes Film Festival prizewinner “Titane” and Pedro Almodóvar’s melodrama “Parallel Mothers” opened in hundreds of locations and quickly expanded to hundreds more, broadening in two to three weeks to the footprint that would normally take months to reach. In most cases, accelerating too big, too soon comes with big risks and minimal rewards.
In the period since cinemas have started to regain their footing, only one indie has seriously impressed at the box office, and that’s A24’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” The multiversal comedy, starring Michelle Yeoh, is the first (and still only) arthouse movie of the pandemic to cross $100 million at the worldwide box office. To be clear, the majority of arthouse movies (including “Everything Everywhere All at Once”) do not need to clear that threshold to be considered a financial success. But even the superbly reviewed ones, including the likes of “The Worst Person in the World” or director Robert Eggers’ Viking drama “The Northman,” have not gotten close.
So it’s promising that in the same weekend that “Tár” struck a chord at the specialty market, another arthouse film also managed to sell a substantial number of tickets. Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner “Triangle of Sadness,” a ribald and scatological satire about the uber-wealthy, brought in $210,074 from 10 locations, translating to a healthy $21,007 per theater. For “Tár,” its $40,000 per-screen-average — which is the key metric for films playing in select theaters — is easily one of the best of the year. But Neon’s “Triangle of Sadness,” too, holds one of the top per-screen averages of the pandemic.
These days, indie movies require more than just positive reviews to stand a chance in theaters. In the case of “Tár,” its early October release date proved to be beneficial because the movie wasn’t overshadowed by a dominant tentpole from a major studio. Movie theater subscription services, like AMC’s Stubs A-List, also appear to be helping lift attendance for smaller movies that people otherwise might not go out of their way to watch on the big screen.
“It’s taking the old,” Bunnell says, pointing to word-of-mouth screenings, “and mixing with the new,” like smart social media campaigns and loyalty programs with exhibitors. “Theatres are adjusting, and we’re adjusting with them.”
Despite strong starts in limited release, it’s too early to tell if “Tár,” “Triangle of Sadness” and other critical darlings will manage to keep the momentum going as they open in additional venues across the country. But those box office returns are instilling a sense of optimism and relief as awards season looms. And that’s important because festival favorites rely on box office returns to stand out — or stay in — the conversation.
At the box office, the rest of 2022 will be a critical time for potential Oscar contenders like director Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy “The Banshees of Inisherin” (Oct. 21), Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical coming-of-age story “The Fabelmans” ( Nov. 11), Sarah Polley’s drama “Women Talking” (Dec. 2) and filmmaker Sam Mendes’ romantic ode-to-cinema “Empire of Light” (Dec. 9). In order to succeed in a theatrical sense, those films will have to break through among blockbuster-hopefuls like Dwayne Johnson’s antihero adventure “Black Adam” (Oct. 21), “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Nov. 11), and “ Avatar: The Way of Water” (Dec. 16).
“It’s hard to release a specialty movie into a series of huge commercial films. You have to be smart about it,” Bunnell says. “It’s not going to be possible on a weekend where you have the opening of ‘Avatar.'”