Independent Box Office: ‘The Master’ Top Debut of Year

Paul Thomas Anderson's Scientology-inspired tale "The Master" averages $145,949 for weekend on five screens in NY and LA. With day-and-date VOD, "Arbitrage" take in $2M at box office

Paul Thomas Anderson's Scientology-inspired tale "The Master" posted the year's biggest specialty box office opening, taking in $729,745 from five theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

That’s a $145,949 per-screen average for the Weinstein Company release, and easily tops the year's previous highest, "Moonrise Kingdom." Wes Anderson's quirky 1960s tale of tween love rolled up a per-location average of $130,752 while playing in four theaters over three days on Memorial Day weekend.

“It was a perfect storm,” the Weinstein Company’s president of theatrical distribution Erik Lomis told TheWrap. “The reviews have been great, the buzz from the festivals helped and the date change worked.”

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TWC had planned to go out in mid-October, but moved it up as the heat around the film built. Lomis said the plan is to expand the film broadly and quickly. “The Master” will go into around 135 markets for the film’s second week, in around 800 theaters.

Lomis also said the movie benefited from a series of “pop-up” screening hosted by Anderson. He hosted impromptu showings in L.A., San Francisco and Chicago prior to the Venice fest, then did others recently in Austin, Texas, and New York.

“You combine that kind of effort and guerrilla marketing with the Weinstein Company’s publicity machine and you have something special,” Lomis said.

Members of the Church of Scientology had condemned the movie and e-mailed and sent letters to the Weinstein Company prior to its opening, but last week's premiere was protest-free and the weekend's box office clearly wasn't affected.

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“The Master” was screened at the Venice and Toronto film festivals and is drawing major buzz over its subject matter and the return of Joaquin Phoenix to the big screen. He was last seen in the 2010 mock documentary “I’m Still Here.”

“The Master” tells the tale of a World War II Naval veteran (Phoenix)  who arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future — until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard provided inspiration for the film, Anderson (“There Will Be Blood”) has said in interviews.

Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate had a spectacular opening weekend of their own, with “Arbitrage."  Opening theatrically at the same time as it became available from video service On Demand, it took in $2,069,770 from 197 screens, a $10,505 per-screen average, best ever for a day-and-date VOD bow.

The film got a boost from strong reviews and publicity blitz by the film's stars Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon and Nate Parker. The film is also No. 2 on iTunes movies overall, and No. 1 in the drama and thriller categories.

Other top specialty openings this year include Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love,” which averaged $75,874 on five screens when it bowed in June, and Mike Birbiglia's semi-autobiographical "Sleepwalk With Me," which took in $65,000 at a single New York engagement.