“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.