The ensemble comedy, starring Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham and a slew of other Anderson regulars, brought in $811,166 between Friday and Sunday on just four screens — the Arclight Cinerama Dome in Hollywood and the Landmark in L.A., and the Regal Union Square and the AMC Lincoln Square in Manhattan.
That’s a $202,792 per-theater average, the best live-action limited debut ever, according to Box Office Mojo.
Fox Searchlight looks to have a hit on its hands and plans to expand “Budapest Hotel” next week, to 65 or 70 theaters in about 40 more cities, then gradually expand it nationwide after that.
But a big specialty opening doesn’t always translate to mainstream box office success.
Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “The Master,” which starred Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams, was the previous record holder. It averaged $147,000 in its debut in five theaters for the Weinstein Company in 2012. The film never really found its footing outside of New York and L.A. and wound up topping out at $16 million.
In December, Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis” made a major splash when it averaged $101,000 on four theaters. But the tale of a struggling folk singer played by Oscar Isaacs never struck a chord with mainstream audiences and took in just over $13 million domestically for CBS Films.
Fox Searchlight had a big limited debut with Terence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” which averaged $93,000 on four theaters in 2011. But the generational drama starring Tye Sheridan, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain lost its momentum and finished with $13 million as well.
For the record, we’re betting that “Grand Budapest Hotel” continues to do very well as it expands.
For one thing, it’s a comedy. The three films cited above were all dramas — and challenging viewing. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s normally not a recipe for broad box office success.
Anderson, who directed “Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” has a devoted and growing following that got a big boost from “Moonrise Kingdom.” That charming and quirky 2012 tale of young summer love on a New England island averaged a glossy $130,000 on four theaters, and then went on to take in $45 million for Focus Features.
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The “Budapest Hotel” cast included Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Jude Law, Jason Schwartzman, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum and Adrien Brody — all faces familiar to mainstream crowds, and that will help, too.
And while there have been misses, most of the live-action films on the list became hits, though none have become true blockbusters.
The Jennifer Hudson musical “Dreamgirls” averaged $126,000, when it debuted on three theaters in 2006 and took in $154 million worldwide for DreamWorks and Paramount. David O. Russell’s con man comedy, “American Hustle,” averaged $123,000 on six theaters in December and has gone on to gross nearly $250 million worldwide for Sony. And Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” debuted with an average of $109,000 on six theaters, went on to bring $178 million for Focus in 2005.
All of those films also earned Best Picture Oscar nominations.
Here are the top ten live-action limited debuts, per Box Office Mojo. The overall list is dominated by animated Disney films, including “The Lion King,” “Toy Story 2” and “Frozen” — most of which benefited from screenings that included special events.