Independent Box Office: ’12 Years a Slave’ Strong but Not Spectacular in Debut

The Oscar front-runner plays with art-house audiences and African-Americans to average $50K on 19 screens

Much buzzed-about Oscar front-runner “12 Years a Slave” is off to a fast start at the box office. Director Steve McQueen’s brutally powerful slavery drama brought in $960,000 from 19 theaters in its limited debut over the weekend.

That’s an impressive $50,526 per-theater average for the Fox Searchlight release, which stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodward, and Brad Pitt.

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The per-screen number didn’t match the year’s biggest limited debuts of “”Blue Jasmine,” “Spring Breakers,” “The Place Beyond the Pines,” “Enough Said” and “Fruitvale Station, but those all opened in just a handful of theaters.

Nor did it measure up to some previous Oscar hopefuls that were rolled out comparably. “Precious,” another awards hopeful with challenging subject matter, averaged $104,025 on 18 screens in 2009. “Black Swan” averaged $80,212 on 18 screens in 2010.

But Fox Searchlight sr. vice-president of distribution Frank Rodriguez said Sunday that he was happy with the debut.

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“The film has reached an incredibly diverse audience,” he said. “Playing in theaters such as the Lincoln Plaza in New York, and the Showcase Icon in Chicago, we have been attracting both the art and specialty cinephile crowd as well the African- American audience.

“CinemaScores have come in with an overall grade of ‘A’ with a fairly wide spread in terms of age and demographics,” he said. Critics like it too; the film has a 96 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Next weekend, when Searchlight will add an additional six cities and ups the theater count by around 100 locations, will offer a better indication of the degree to which the awards buzz around “12 Years” will translate to box office.

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Another well-reviewed Oscar hopeful, “All is Lost,” opened with $97,350 from six theaters for a solid $16,225 per-theater average for Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate.

Robert Redford has drawn Best Actor buzz for his performance in director J.C. Chandor’s spare and nearly dialogue-free tale of a a man lost at sea. It has a 95 percent Rotten Tomatoes score.

“The grosses jumped 61 percent Friday-to-Saturday in an extremely competitive environment, and our exit polls were very positive,” said Roadside Co-President Howard Cohen Sunday. “We’re confident that audiences will continue to discover it.”

The plan is to add about 15 markets next weekend.

“Kill Your Darlings,” in which Daniel Radcliffe stars as young beat poet Allen Ginsberg, averaged $14,431 after taking in $57,722 from four theaters in its first weekend for Sony Pictures Classics. It has rung up $73,545 since opening Wednesday.