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Can ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ Find Another Gear at the Box Office?

Banking on awards momentum, CBS Films will expand the Coen brothers’ folk tale that’s hit the right notes so far

Executives at CBS Films knew back in February, when they bought the U.S. distribution rights to Ethan and Joel Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis” at Cannes, that they had a critical darling and a potential Oscar contender on their hands.

But whether the tale of a folk singer with a cat — and lots of other problems — in 1961 Greenwich Village would ever be a box office success was an entirely different question.

“Llewyn” was never going to be “True Grit,” which made $250 million worldwide in 2010. But would it be “A Silent Man,” another critically acclaimed “small’ Coens film that topped out under $10 million a year earlier?

Eleven months later, they still don’t have the answer — but it’s coming soon, and there’s reason for optimism.

Also read: Why the Coen Brothers Wanted to Folk It Up on ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

The signs aren’t obvious. This weekend, “Llewyn Davis” finished No. 16, taking in $1.7 million from 158 theaters, about the same number it’s been in since last month. Its debut on Dec. 6 was spectacular, when it averaged more than $101,000 on four theaters, the Coens’ best debut ever. But it’s been relatively quiet since then, with CBS electing not to expand in a traditional platform release pattern and stay limited instead.

This weekend, however, marked the third straight in which “Llewyn” averaged more than $7,000 per screen – better than any of the films above it on the weekend box office list. It’s played steadily and already taken in nearly $7 million, without ever being in more than 161 theaters.

And CBS, which declined comment for this story, plans to expand it into around 500 theaters on Friday, then play it by ear as the next two weeks’ awards roll out.

Also read: ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ Dominates National Society of Film Critics Awards

It didn’t get a Producers Guild nomination or score with the Writers Guild last week, but “Llewyn Davis” dominated the National Society of Film Critics Awards Saturday, winning for best cinematography, director, actor (Oscar Isaac) and picture. If “Llewyn” can make a strong showing at Sunday’s Golden Globes, and follow that up with another when the Oscar nominations are announced on Jan. 16, it will be in prime position to capitalize.

But It’s a not a given — critics and the Oscar voters are different breeds. And there are reasons beyond awards that “Llewyn Davis,” produced by Scott Rudin and the Coens, could connect.

It starts with the music, inspired in part by the late Dave van Ronk and overseen by T Bone Burnett, the man behind the music in another Coens film, 2000’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

Also read: Behind the Music of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis': Fare Thee Well, Greenwich Village (Exclusive Video)

The soundtrack hasn’t taken off the way that film’s did, but it’s bound to help, even if the songs aren’t Oscar-eligible because most are covers of old folk tunes. There’s been a Showtime documentary, and live shows featuring Isaac and Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, who is on the soundtrack, along with Joan Baez and Patti Smith.

The cast, typically well drawn by the Coens, includes Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garett Hedlund and Justin Timberlake. The critics have indeed loved it to the tune of a 93 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The response from the limited audiences has been just as strong; it received an “A” CinemaScore.

“Oh Brother” was a a very slow starter at the box office, but eventually took in $45 million domestically. If “Inside Llewyn Davis” gets the awards love that CBS Films is hoping for, it could wind up with domestic total closer to that than “A Serious Man.”