Can ’12 Years a Slave’ Translate Oscar Buzz Into Box Office?

Fox Searchlight opens the slavery drama in 19 theaters Friday and Roadside rolls out Robert Redford’s sea saga “All Is Lost”

Like fallen leaves and football, Fox Searchlight rolling out an Oscar contender is a fall tradition, and this year it’s the awards front-runner “12 Years a Slave,” which debuts Friday in 19 theaters.

Director Steve McQueen’s slavery drama comes in with glowing reviews (97 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes) and lots of awards buzz after impressing critics and festival audiences earlier this year in Telluride and Toronto.

It seems almost certain to be in the awards discussion for the next several months, and capitalizing on that at the box office will be the challenge for Fox Searchlight.

Also read: Chloe Grace Moretz’ ‘Carrie’ a Wildcard as ‘Gravity’ Goes for Box-Office 3-Peat

What has made the film  popular is what makes marketing it so tricky.

Written by John Ridley, the movie is based on the true story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from New York who in 1841 was abducted and sold into slavery. Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt, who also also produces via his Plan B label, co-star in the film.

It’s a brutal, scorching and unflinching work that is hard to forget – and can be hard to watch.

“This is a powerful film, there’s no doubt about that,” Frank Rodriguez, Senior Vice-President of Distribution at Fox Searchlight, told TheWrap. “It’s actually a very beautiful film. Between the photography and the music, there are a lot of artistic flourishes and the story is incredible, but the filmmakers didn’t sugar-coat it, and we’re fine with audiences knowing that.”

Also read: Toronto: ’12 Years a Slave’ Leaves Another Festival Audience Shaken

Fox Searchlight has been down this road before.

In 2010, it gave Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” an 18-theater start and took in $1.4 million, an $80,000 per-screen average. The dark ballet drama went on to bring in more than $106 million domestically and $329 million worldwide. It garnered five Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Natalie Portman won Best Actress honors.

It was George Clooney in “The Descendants” in 2011, which debuted in 29 theaters and averaged $41,000 per screen on its way to $177 million worldwide and an Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

Rodriguez and Searchlight believe they’ve found a sweet spot in terms of the release date for “12 years.”

“We wanted to go out close enough to Toronto and Telluride to take advantage of that buzz,” he said. “And we also wanted enough time to let the film build not only on Oscar buzz but also with some of the other sectors that we think we’ll connect with, like African-American moviegoers.”

Also read: 5 Reasons ’12 Years a Slave’ Is No Oscar Lock: Backlash, the Unseen and McQueen

This weekend’s openings are heavily weighted toward major urban centers including New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Toronto and Chicago. The plan calls for roughly double the number of theaters next weekend; after that, they’ll assess and make a call on the timing for going wide.

He said Searchlight would be happy with an opening per-screen average of around $40,000. That would be in the range of “”The Descendants” and definitely large enough build on.

“We’ve really drilled down on the commercial aspects of this movie,” Rodriguez said, “and we think we’re set up pretty well.”

Also making its limited debut on Friday is J.C. Chandor’s “All Is Lost,” which features Robert Redford as a stranded sailor. Roadside Attractions has it in three New York theaters and three in Los Angeles for its first weekend. 77-year-old Redford is in the Best Actor discussion, but this could be a tricky sell too, since the one-hour forty-minute drama is takes place entirely on a small boat and is nearly devoid of dialogue. But Roadside co-president Howard Cohen sees plenty of selling points.

Also read: How J.C. Chandor and Robert Redford Pulled Off the Crazy Idea Behind ‘All Is Lost’

“The reviews have been great (94 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes) and many point to this being the cap to Redford’s career, so we’ve focused on his performance,” said Cohen. “The film skews a little bit older, so we’re targeting that demo, but we’ve also tried to play up some of the action elements to broaden the base some”

To that same end, Cohen said Roadside has reached out to parts of the sailing community as well, with screenings and advertising targeting that group.

“All Is Lost” will compete with studio films “Gravity” and “Captain Philips” for older moviegoers, but Cohen believes there’s room for all to succeed.

“I think the success of those films piques interest in quality movies, and people get revved up to see some of these awards contending films,” he said.

For the record, there are a total of 13 films making limited debuts this weekend. Not all of them are prestige projects with Oscar aspirations – some are just intended to be fun.

Exhibit A for that group would be “Big Ass Spider!” which is about exactly that. Epic Pictures has it in about 35 theaters.

For the record: An earlier version of the this story incorrectly referred to Lionsgate’s “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” as a Fox Searchlight film.