‘American Hustle’ and ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ Face Mainstream Box-Office Exams This Weekend

'American Hustle' and 'Saving Mr. Banks' Face Mainstream Box-Office Exams This Weekend

Oscar contenders open wide Friday after strong limited debuts; “Anchorman 2” debuts at No. 1 with $8.1M Wednesday

“American Hustle,” which posted the year’s best limited box-office opening last weekend, makes the great leap into wide release Friday. Its prospects look good — as do those of “Saving Mr. Banks,” which also goes nationwide that day — but huge limited debuts don’t guarantee mainstream success.

Both films, contenders in the best picture awards races, are expanding significantly, “Hustle” into about 2,500 theaters and “Mr. Banks” into roughly 2,200. “Banks” and ‘Hustle” will be sharing the spotlight with “Anchorman: The Legend Continues,”  which opened to $8.1 million Wednesday (including $2.3 million from late Tuesday shows) to take over the top spot from “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” The Will Ferrell comedy is in 3,450 theaters, while the Tolkien tale remains in a market-high 3,903.

David O. Russell’s con man drama, set against the backdrop of the 1970s Abscam scandal, averaged an impressive $123,409 on six screens in New York and Los Angeles. “Saving Mr. Banks,” which stars Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in a tale about the making of “Mary Poppins,” averaged $27,558 in 15 major-market screens.

Also read: ‘Anchorman 2' vs. ‘The Hobbit': Burgundy Battles Bilbo at Box Office

It’s not hard to see why they got off to fast starts. Both have big-name casts – “Hustle” stars Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper – and are well-reviewed and have plenty of Oscar buzz. And both were backed by major marketing campaigns that included nationwide TV spots, so it’s not a surprise that there was significant excitement around their limited debuts.

The Abscam tale is tracking in the mid- to high-teens for its first weekend in wide release, a little ahead of “Mr. Banks” based on the big debut and its slew of recent critics awards and Golden Globes nominations. The projections for their openings may seem a little low, but during the crowded holiday season, movies typically debut to lower numbers and hold more strongly.

See photos:  Best & Worst 2013: Box-Office Blockbusters, Bombs and In-Betweens

The PG-13-rated “Saving Mr. Banks” didn't make the splash that “Hustle” did with its opening, but will target a broader audience than the R-rated “American Hustle” and could prove stronger in the long run. A heart-rending tale starring Hanks as Walt Disney seems more likely to play strongly in the Heartland than a dark comedy about greasy disco-era con men. On the flip side, movies about the film industry often struggle away from the coasts, so we'll see.

“American Hustle” was made for around $40 million by Annapurna, Atlas, and Columbia Pictures.  ”Saving Mr. Banks” was produced by Walt Disney Pictures and BBC Films for roughly $35 million.

Also read: How ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ Overcame Disney's Resistance to a Movie About Disney

Also rolling out Friday is Fox's 3D kids film “Walking With Dinosaurs,” which will be in about 3,200 theaters. John Leguizamo tops the voice cast for the live action-CGI hybrid based on the BBC's miniseries. It should land somewhere over $10 million, analysts believe, and Fox and BBC Films hope it will play steadily over the holidays since Disney's animated hit “Frozen” is going into its fifth week.

It’s worth noting that a huge limited opening rarely translates to huge box office success – unless we’re talking about animated movies from Disney. Last year, for example, the Joaquin Phoenix-Phillip Seymour Hoffman drama “The Master” debuted to an eye-popping $147,252 average on five theaters. It couldn't connect with mainstream audiences, however, and topped out under $20 million.

Nineteen movies has averaged more than $100,000 per screen in limited openings — and of those, only seven have wound up grossing more than $100 million domestically, according to Box Office Mojo. Of those that did, six are Disney titles, the exception being “Dreamgirls,” which topped out at $158 million in 2006 for DreamWorks and Paramount.

Also read: ‘The Master’ May Win Awards, But It's a Box Office Loser So Far

That’s primarily because most platform rollouts are for adult-targeting or indie films, which aren’t chasing blockbuster grosses. Most are lower budget movies, so a $50 million domestic gross can be a financial home run.

Another factor is that Disney often rolls out its major family films with special premiere showings at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, which sends the per-screen through the roof. “Frozen,” for example, took in $243,390 from a single screen last month.

The biggest limited opening ever was the $793,377 that “The Lion King’ averaged when it debuted at the El Capitan and New York’s Radio City Music Hall in 1994.

Also on screens this weekend, is the Oscar hopeful “Her” – written, directed and produced by Spike Jonze — which opened in six theaters on Wednesday for Warner Bros. The fantasy romance stars Joaquin Phillips as a man who develops a relationship with a female voice (Scarlett Johansson) produced by his computer operating system. It took in nearly $60,000 on its first day, for a $9,982 per-screen average.