Love Is Strange

Love is Strange” rode a boatload of critical raves and a timely subject matter to an impressive debut in less than a half dozen theaters last weekend. The enthusiastic response has Sony Pictures Classics plotting out a major expansion over the coming weeks.

The film about two middle-aged men whose marriage causes one to lose his job as a Catholic music school teacher earned a strong $126,552 from five theaters in its limited opening. That boils down to an encouraging $25,310 per-screen average, tops for the week, and the potential for the film to catch on outside of New York and Los Angeles.

That’s good news for the arthouse world, given that  very few arthouse releases have managed to expand beyond the indie film crowd, with the exceptions of “Boyhood,” “Chef,” and “A Most Wanted Man.” Of those, only “Chef” has topped $20 million domestically.

“People have been seeing blockbusters all summer, so there’s always room for an alternative film to cross over,” said Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker. “There is no more timely film or more human film.”

This week,  the studio plans to broaden its footprint to 30 screens in eight to 10 cities such as San Francisco, Denver, Washington D.C. and Chicago. It will double that screen count the following week and should be in the top 50 markets by its fourth week in theaters, Barker said.

With public support for gay marriage growing and marriage equality in the headlines as more states change their legal codes to allow homosexual couples to wed, “Love is Strange” may benefit from tapping into an issue that’s being hotly debated. Even though some parts of the movie-going public may be opposed to gay marriage, analysts think the film will have a broad enough base of support to prosper as it rolls out.

“There are enough metropolitan areas for them to get the screens they need,” said BoxOffice.com Vice President and Chief Analyst Phil Contrino. “It’s something that’s constantly in the news and people are constantly thinking about it, so it seems very relevant and very timely.”

Critics have singled out stars Alfred Molina and John Lithgow for delivering some of the best performances of their career, so both actors and the film itself could conceivably end up in the awards hunt. Despite the benefits that might be reaped from debuting the picture during Oscar season, Barker said Sony Pictures Classics never wavered from a summer release strategy.

“The competition for high quality films then is so severe that we wanted to get a jump on the fall and go out in the summer,” he said. “People are still in the movie-going habit during the summer, but they’re not inundated with all these choices.”

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