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‘Imitation Game’ Scores Huge Debut Thanks to Oscar Buzz, Benedict Cumberbatch

By mimicking the release strategy of “The King’s Speech” and “The Artist,” “The Imitation Game” is poised to become one of the year’s few indie success stories.

The best picture contender is receiving the full Harvey Weinstein treatment, with the Weinstein Company chief clearly viewing the biopic about Alan Turing’s code-breaking prowess as his ticket to the Oscars this time around.

All that care paid off during Thanksgiving weekend, as “The Imitation Game” picked up the year’s second-highest per-screen average, behind only that of “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

“We’ll follow the pattern laid out with ‘The King’s Speech,’ ‘The Artist’ and pictures like that and move slowly and deliberately,” said Erik Lomis, distribution chief for the Weinstein Company.

The film earned $482,000 in just four New York and Los Angeles theaters for a per-screen average of $120,518. That’s actually better than the $72,590 that “The Artist” averaged and the $88,863 that “The King’s Speech” averaged when they debuted on the same number of screens.

“Few distributors are better at nurturing Oscar contenders than the Weinstein Company,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “They’re masters at starting slow and making sure they build momentum.”

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Of course, films including “The Master” also put up big per-screen averages at first only to be met with indifference when they expanded beyond urban areas. It’s a strategy that can backfire.

With “The Imitation Game,” there will be time available to let word of mouth intensify. The slow but steady expansion will see “The Imitation Game” add six markets and between 25 and 30 theaters on Dec. 12. It will go nationwide in between 600 and 800 theaters on Christmas Day.

“The Imitation Game” has benefited from glossy magazine spreads in New York and the New York Times Magazine, as well as a cover story in Time tied to its “genius issue.”

The presence of Benedict Cumberbatch, the star of the BBC’s “Sherlock” who has bloomed into an unlikely sex symbol, has also helped broaden the film’s appeal. The English actor hasn’t had a bigscreen hit to call his own after last year’s Julian Assange examination, “The Fifth Estate,” crumbled at multiplexes, but he’s got an avid fanbase of women and gay men, who may find Cumberbatch’s latest prickly genius more to their liking.

“Benedict brings a lot to the table,” said Lomis. “This isn’t just a movie that plays old. I’m not saying it plays young, but it plays younger, and that will increase as word of mouth builds.”

Twelve percent of the “Imitation Game’s” opening crowd was under 25 years old, 32% was between 25 and 44 and 56% was 45 and up. It was a group that was 52% female and highly educated, with 84% boasting a college diploma.

Its success is notable, because with the exceptions of “Boyhood,” “Birdman,” “St. Vincent” and “Grand Budapest Hotel,” the year has lacked arthouse hits. The change of seasons could help.

“This is the time of year when adults want to see Oscar contenders, and this movie has got plenty of buzz,” said Contrino.

Turing’s role in breaking the Nazis’ Enigma code and seminal contributions to computer science are helping the film draw in gadget lovers and Silicon Valley types. The tragic end of his life, which saw him endure a court-ordered chemical castration after he was arrested for homosexual acts, has made him a gay rights martyr — a status that brings in a different audience.

“This is a picture that appeals on many levels,” said Lomis. “It brings in older, sophisticated audiences, and because of the nature of the film, it appeals to tech heads and gay audiences. It has a lot going for it.”

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