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Box Office: Can ‘Steve Jobs’ Be a Critical and Commercial Hit?

Steve Jobs,” a controversial new look at the Apple co-founder, is an unapologetically talky and brainy examination of the nature of genius. Those are attributes that don’t always spell box office smash.

However, the biopic is off to a strong start in limited release, racking up $521,000 for a per-screen average of $130,250. That ranks as the 15th highest per-theater figure in history, something that could presage a healthy commercial run when “Steve Jobs” begins playing nationally.

Universal, the studio behind the $30 million production, opted to roll out the picture slowly as a way to generate buzz. Next weekend, the film will move to 25 markets and 60 theaters. It will go wide in more than 2,000 theaters on Oct. 23.

That patience is critical given the intense competition at the multiplexes. Pictures like “Sicario,” “Black Mass” and “The Walk” are all busy trying to leverage strong reviews into healthy ticket sales by going after the same adult crowds. It’s hard to stand out from the pack.

“By holding back and platforming it in this way, we let the public know what this movie is all about and we generate a hotter ‘want to see’ among audiences,” said Nick Carpou, head of Universal’s domestic distribution operation.

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That strategy carries risks even if the initial response is positive. The reality is that some films can do blockbuster business in a few New York and Los Angeles theaters only to falter when they hit middle America. “The Master,” for instance, scored a robust per-screen average of $147,262 when it debuted in five theaters in 2012. But that look at a religious huckster proved too remote and cerebral for broader audiences, tapping out at a meagre $16.4 million when it finished up its domestic run.

With a three-act structure that finds Jobs navigating a series of personal and professional crises while trying to orchestrate Apple product launches, “Steve Jobs” is more like a play than a conventional biopic. That could limit its commercial potential, something that scared off its original studio home, Sony, which put the film into turnaround, fearing it would lose money. Yet, box office analysts and Universal executives think that the film has a higher ceiling than many prestige films. The ubiquity of iPhones, iPads and other Apple devices mean that the prickly innovator at the center of “Steve Jobs” has touched the lives of people around the world in meaningful ways, having revolutionized the way society communicates.

“Everybody who has a phone or a computer knows who Steve Jobs is,” said Carpou.

Blessed with a cast that includes Michael Fassbender as Jobs and Kate Winslet as his long-suffering confidant Joanna Hoffman, contributions from Oscar-winners like director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network), and a bevy of good reviews, “Steve Jobs” will likely factor into the awards race. If it does get love from Oscar voters, it could stick around in theaters for months. Some box office watchers are predicting it could have a similar trajectory to “The Social Network,” Sorkin’s look at Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, which ended its run with a $97 million domestic haul and a slew of Oscar nominations. They are predicting the picture will do as much as $20 million when it expands nationally.

“This is the time of year when people are looking for prestige movies,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “It has great marketing materials and a distinct energy. I expect it to hang around.”

Not that everything has gone smoothly. Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, reportedly tried to kill the film before it ever went into production, and contemporaries like  Apple chief Tim Cook have slammed the picture as inaccurate.

“These corporations, and they’re so vast now, will be unhappy, because they’re all about total control,” Boyle told Variety at the film’s premiere last weekend. “It’s not been the easiest passage.”

Before audiences had seen a frame of film, “Steve Jobs” was making headlines. Exchanges between then Sony chief Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin over casting options like Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as leaked messages about director David Fincher’s departure from the project, found their way into the public square thanks to the Sony hack. The picture could have gotten a reputation as troubled, given its difficult birth, but analysts counter that while the collateral damage from the security breach may have captivated Hollywood, it was less intensely felt by the general public.

“It’s important to realize that not everybody was following those stories on a daily basis,” said Contrino. “It was barely a blip on the radar of the paying public.”

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