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‘The Master’ May Win Awards, But It’s a Box Office Loser So Far

Despite a record-breaking debut, "The Master" clearly won't make back its $40M budget and marketing costs for Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures at the box office

“The Master” may turn out to be a big winner come awards season, but after five weeks in theaters it’s clear that Paul Thomas Anderson's Scientology-inspired movie is set to lose a lot of money for its billionaire producer, Megan Ellison.

“The Master” was financed by Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures for $40 million last year, a staggering sum for an independent film paid entirely by the daughter of Oracle’s Larry Ellison, who stormed Hollywood with a checkbook and very good taste in film a couple of years ago.

“I couldn’t believe it was not getting made,” 26-year-old Ellison told TheWrap in Cannes earlier this year of the film, noting that Anderson’s landmark opus “Magnolia” was one of the most important movies of her adolescence.

Also read: The Cool Kids in Cannes: A ‘Lawless’ Afterparty With Megan Ellison and Friends

But the film is winding down its initial run in theaters with about $14 million in box office. Even with the marketing clout of The Weinstein Co. behind it, which will spend $20 million in prints and advertising, the film is estimated to lose about $15 million for its producer, one executive close to the film told TheWrap.

Weinstein will recoup its marketing costs from the box office grosses and take a distribution fee.

“The Master” is a very difficult film to sell,” Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations told TheWrap. "It is very obtuse, and in almost every way, a dreary arthouse film. The fact that it went into wide release and made what it has is a triumph in itself, and is a testament to the drawing power of Anderson within the cinephile community.”

Despite Bock’s verdict, the movie has received strong critical reviews, especially for the intense, interior performance of Joaquin Phoenix as drifter Freddie Quell and the powerful, charismatic take of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, the “master” leader of the cult.  It is expected to do well in the acting categories during the awards season.

Also read: 'The Master': What Critics Are Saying About Paul Thomas Anderson's Drama

The Weinstein Co. is planning another national release in January to cash in on hoped-for awards notice, and that could bring in another $5 million to $10 million. And the film has not yet opened internationally.

But even if the film wins nominations and awards for its stars, the box office of “The Master” is unlikely to approach the combined $60 million cost in production and marketing.

That is not terribly surprising for a Paul Thomas Anderson film, which are often strong on awards and weak on profit. His last film, “There Will be Blood” in 2007, was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director and Daniel Day-Lewis won for Best Actor. It took in $40 million domestically and $76 million worldwide.

Anderson's previous films, "Punch Drunk Love," "Magnolia" and "Boogie Nights" have averaged only about half of that, however. With the exception of "Magnolia," they also cost a good deal less. The executive close to the film said "The Master's" original budget was $26 million, but slowly rose.

Also read: 'The Master' Sneak Leaves Chicago Audience Impressed – and Confused

Neither the Weinstein Co. nor Annapurna would speak to TheWrap on the record for this story.

Ellison has made a splash in Hollywood by spreading largesse among talented directors and actors. She co-produced “Lawless” earlier this year and is an executive producer on “Killing Them Softly,” a thriller with Brad Pitt playing an enforcer who investigates a hit at a mob poker game. 

She made an even bigger bet with "Zero Dark Thirty," the Osama bin Laden film directed by Kathryn Bigelow being released by Sony later this year, also expected to be an awards contender. One person close to the producer told TheWrap that she paid $60 million to finance that film, with about half of the budget covered by foreign pre-sales.

Executives at the Weinstein Co. maintain that the box office numbers are where they expected them to be, and will wind up at the high end of what Anderson’s films have done in the past.

Weinstein Co. executives acknowledge that “The Master” isn’t a commercial movie in terms of content and say they would be happy if the film ultimately gets to the $25 million to $30 million-range at the box office. 

But “The Master” started out with a bang at the box office. Two weeks after it won several honors at the Venice Film Festival, TWC debuted it at five theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 14. The plan was to get it out early in awards season and have the film presented to full effect in 70mm. It took in $729,745 for a stunning $145,949 per-screen average, which remains the year’s highest specialty box-office opening.

Also read: Independent Box Office: 'The Master' Top Debut of Year

The next week, TWC aggressively expanded it from five theaters to  788 locations. It made it into the top ten nationally that week, with a $5,572 per-screen average. But the next week, in 856 theaters, that average dropped to 2,155; the following week, in 864 theaters, it fell to $2,155. This past weekend, when the Weinstein Co. dropped it from 864 to 682 theaters, “The Master” took in just $823,000, for a soft $1,207 per-screen average.