A24’s “The Farewell” lit up the specialty box office with a stellar limited debut, making its performance the one bright spot in an otherwise lackluster weekend for the movie business.
“This is the blockbuster of the indie world this weekend,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore.
The studio opted for a platform release, bringing the comedic drama directed by Lulu Wang to a handful of theaters before slowly expanding it across the country in an effort to drum up enthusiasm and let buzz build. It’s the kind of deliberately paced rollout that the company previously deployed successfully with the likes of “Moonlight” and “Lady Bird.” “The Farewell” collected $351,330 from four locations in New York and Los Angeles. Those ticket sales translate to a mighty $87,832 per theater — the best per-screen average of the year to date.
A24’s decision to bring “The Farewell” to a handful of theaters before opening it nationwide on Aug. 2 could bode well as the movie attempts to find its footing at multiplexes. This summer has been downright hostile to comedies and dramas that have crumbled in the wake of big-budget blockbusters. North American audiences have largely ignored independent or smaller fare like “Long Shot,” “Booksmart” and “Late Night,” but analysts are optimistic that “The Farewell” could cross over to a broader audience at a time when the indie box office is seriously struggling.
“Given the reviews and huge location average, it’s poised for a huge breakout,” Dergarabedian said. “All the signs certainly point to a much-needed summer hit.”
Beyond a smart release strategy, “The Farewell” has the benefit of critical support. It generated massive acclaim at Sundance and holds a rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That doesn’t always guarantee commercial riches. Earlier this summer, rave reviews didn’t help “Booksmart,” and Olivia Wilde’s raunchy high school comedy failed to enjoy the same kind of success as other festival hits like “The Big Sick” and “Eighth Grade.” However, box office watchers suggest that “Booksmart” suffered from launching nationwide rather than opting to opening in a handful of venues to raise awareness before gradually opening across North America.
To avoid a fate similar to “Booksmart,” Amazon revisited its rollout strategy with “Late Night,” a Sundance favorite from Mindy Kaling. However, the studio only allotted one week to gain traction before taking the film nationwide where it fizzled against “Men in Black: International” and “Shaft.” Giving “The Farewell” extra time to simmer between blockbusters could benefit in the long run.
Based on Wang’s real-life experiences, “The Farewell” stars Awkwafina as a woman who travels to the China upon learning her grandmother has terminal cancer. Against her wishes, the family opts not to tell their matriarch she is dying. The unique premise could help draw audiences to theaters when they could otherwise watch a rom-com on Netflix. While “Booksmart” drew positive comparisons to “Superbad,” some moviegoers got the sense that particular coming-of-age storyline had been played out.
Moreover, Asian audiences reliably shows up to theaters. Last year, hits such as “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Searching” with John Cho proved that Asian Americans will turn out in force for movies that tell stories starring Asian American actors. That could help “The Farewell” as it tries to find a box office foothold. It also benefitted from the #GoldOpen movement, a campaign in which Asian American communities host screenings and spread word on social media.
When “The Farewell” does debut nationwide, it will attempt to serve as counter-programming against “Hobbs & Shaw,” Universal’s high-octane “Fast & Furious” spinoff with Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham.
“It’s a really smart strategy,” Dergarabedian said. “The longterm buildup could transcend this seemingly tough road that most counter-programming has had this summer.”