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‘Birdman’ Astounds in Limited Box Office Debut, But How High Can It Fly?

Birdman” soared at the arthouses this weekend with the show business satire enjoying a smashing debut that could help it travel beyond the cinephile crowd.

The quirky comedy from Fox Searchlight picked up $415,000 in just four theaters, making it the year’s second-highest grossing film from a per-screen average standpoint. Its average of $103,750 is behind only “The Grand Budapest Hotel’s” $202,792 number.

“When the numbers started coming in on Friday, we all went ‘wow,'” said Frank Rodriguez, senior vice president of distribution at Searchlight. “We were seeing all the seats fill up. There’s so many films out there. So many holdovers and so many new films, that it’s hard to get the seats you need.”

In order to meet the demand, Searchlight will expand “Birdman” beyond New York and Los Angeles to 18 markets and between 40 and 50 theaters. Within three to four weeks, it hopes to have the film in between 400 and 600 theaters.

The question is how far can “Birdman” ultimately fly? Will the story of a former comicbook movie star (Michael Keaton) making a desperate play for Broadway greatness resonate outside the indie set?

“Can we cross over? I don’t know, but I think we can,” said Rodriguez. “That’s the big question. The film is a masterpiece on a lot of levels that resonate with cinephiles and arthouse types, but there are themes of rebirth and change that I think people everywhere will respond to.”

There may be some universal elements to the picture, but “Birdman” could still be a tough sell. There are a number of films that have done gangbusters with cineastes only to collapse on the shoals of the general public. In 2012, for instance, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” enjoyed an impressive per-screen average of $147,262 in its opening weekend, but the picture was too dark for mainstream audiences, and was a commercial flop.

One thing in “Birdman’s” favor is that critics love the film, with Variety‘s Peter Debruge hailing it as a triumph on every level and calling Keaton’s performance “the comeback of the century.” Those notices don’t come around too often.

“In the specialized world, reviews are king,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak.

In addition to a trunkload of raves, Fox Searchlight has recent history on its side. The studio had one of the year’s few indie hits when “The Grand Budapest Hotel” picked up $60 million domestically. But that Wes Anderson comedy with its stop motion animation and nostalgic look at a grand hotel from a bygone era was pure confectionery sugar. With its long takes, hallucinatory atmosphere and portrait of an egomaniacal star’s descent into madness, “Birdman” is a cookie full of arsenic.

“It’s a quirky, off-beat movie and they have to be released into the wild very carefully,” said Dergarabedian. “Fox Searchlight knows what they’re doing. They’re not trying to break box office records. They’re trying to make sure key audiences and key tastemakers see the film.”

The word-of-mouth the picture inspires could be the difference between a film that does $15 million to $25 million and one that does $40 million to $50 million. The high end of that range would be an extraordinary accomplishment. With the exception of “Babel,” which made $34.3 million, “Birdman” director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s films have never topped $20 million domestically. He’s undeniably brilliant but not for all tastes. Awards recognition will be key.

Awards nominations are months away, but so far, targeted marketing has done the trick. The Fox Searchlight team was judicious with its television promotions, buying spots on “Saturday Night Live” and “CBS This Morning” that had crossover appeal with its core demographic of film lovers.

The studio has also deployed its cast, snagging an Entertainment Weekly cover for Keaton and sending the actor and co-stars Emma Stone and Edward Norton on late night talk shows to hawk the picture.

Ultimately, Keaton may be the picture’s best sale’s pitch. The actor, so memorable in “Beetlejuice” and “Night Shift,” suffered a career decline in the Aughts. There’s also the art imitating life element. In a nice piece of meta-moviemaking, it helps that like his character in “Birdman,” Keaton ushered in the era of comic book blockbusters with “Batman.” Those kind of headlines write themselves.

“They’re going to get a lot of mileage out of the Michael Keaton/’Batman’ connection and a lot of publicity for it,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “People pay a lot of attention to Oscar buzz and there’s no shortage of Oscar buzz around it. That matters.”

Like Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler” or John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction,” Keaton is ripe for rediscovery and audiences always love a comeback.

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