Manchester by the Sea” debuted to rave reviews and a standing ovation last January at the Sundance Film Festival. The beautifully wrought story of a janitor (Casey Affleck) grappling with a family tragedy sparked an all-night bidding war that ended with a $10 million sale to Amazon.

But there are plenty of films that are embraced as modern masterpieces in the mountains of Utah only to collapse at the box office when audiences at lower altitudes get a look. Take “The Birth of a Nation,” which enjoyed a record-setting $17.5 million sale to Fox Searchlight, but flopped after word got out that Nate Parker, its director, writer, and star, had been accused of rape while a college student. It didn’t matter that Parker was ultimately acquitted; after news broke that his accuser had committed suicide, the film was rejected by audiences.

Nor is “The Birth of a Nation” alone. There are plenty of other Sundance breakouts — from “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” to “Happy Texas” — that aren’t able to translate festival buzz into mainstream appeal.

“Manchester by the Sea” looks like it will avoid that fate. Based on its opening weekend, the film is shaping up to be an indie breakout and the biggest hit of writer and director Kenneth Lonergan’s career. Of course, that’s not saying much given that Lonergan is more critically adored than commercially successful. His two previous films, “Margaret” and “You Can Count on Me,” made less than $10 million combined.

Amazon is distributing the drama in conjunction with Roadside Attractions. The film made an estimated $241,230 this weekend from just four New York and Los Angeles theaters. That amounts to the fourth-highest per-screen average for any film released in 2016, with $60,308. The healthy reception could help confirm “Manchester by the Sea’s” status as an awards-season front-runner.

“It’s an emotional movie,” said Howard Cohen, Roadside Attractions’ co-president. “It’s a very satisfying movie. It doesn’t provide uplift in the traditional sense, but it’s not depressing. There’s great humor to it.”

“Manchester by the Sea’s” nearly two hour and 20 minute running time may have cut into its opening weekend results, limiting the number of screenings that could be fit into a day. “Moonlight,” which scored the year’s highest per-screen average and is seen as a key Oscar competitor to “Manchester by the Sea,” runs for less than two hours. The film’s length also meant that most of the business took place before 9 p.m., according to Roadside Attractions.

“We were playing almost to capacity,” said Cohen, who notes that the film played well in theaters like the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in Manhattan, which skews older, and the ArcLight in Hollywood, which draws younger crowds. That signals the film has broad appeal, he argued.

“Manchester by the Sea” will add 39 screens and eight markets to its footprint, debuting in cities such as San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, D.C. It plans to hit its widest saturation of between 800 and 900 theaters on the week of Dec. 16, a date that coincides with Screen Actors Guild Award and Golden Globes nominations.
“Manchester by the Sea” has been hailed by critics for the intensity of its acting, its rough-hewn dialogue, and its meticulous portrait of small-town life in New England. The reception is validation for Lonergan, whose career was derailed when “Margaret” became entangled in lawsuits and production delays. That film’s tortured history left his reputation in tatters. In order to get backing for “Manchester by the Sea,” producer Matt Damon had to assume final cut for the film.
“I was the compromise,” Damon said at an industry conference last month. “It was just a way of keeping everybody calm.”
Now, Lonergan is widely expected to pick up Oscar nominations for his writing and directing work. After shutting its doors, Hollywood will likely come calling.
“This is an amazing comeback for him,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “This puts him back on the A-list.”