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A24’s “The Whale” scored at the box office in limited release, landing the biggest opening weekend of the year for an arthouse movie.

The film, starring Brendan Fraser as an obese recluse who attempts to reconnect with his daughter, grossed $360,000 from just six theaters — translating to $60,000 per screen. Those ticket sales stand as the highest per-theater average of 2022, as well as the second-largest for a limited release since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other top-screen averages of the year belong to A24’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once ($50,000) and Searchlight’s “The Banshees of Inisherin” ($46,000).

It’s also director Darren Aronofsky’s best per-theater-average debut since 2010’s “Black Swan,” besting 2014’s “Noah” and 2017’s “Mother!” However, those movies opened nationwide rather than limited release.

Initial ticket sales for “The Whale” are impressive because, in COVID times, it’s been a tough market for indies. By comparison, another specialty release, Searchlight’s “Empire of Light,” a touching drama from director Sam Mendes, collapsed with $160,000 from 110 venues over the weekend — averaging a dismal $1,477 per location.

Next weekend, “The Whale” will stay on six screens in New York and Los Angeles. For A24, the true test will be whether “The Whale” is able to sustain momentum as the film expands nationwide on Dec. 21. In pandemic times, it’s been a struggle across the board for arthouse films to parlay critical plaudits into mainstream success.

In terms of 2022 releases, only one indie, A24’s timeline-bending dark comedy “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” has managed to find commercial glory, generating a stellar $100 million globally. Other acclaimed movies that’ll likely find themselves in the Oscars race, like “Tár” ($5.3 million) “Triangle of Sadness” ($4 million) and “Armageddon Time” ($1.8 million), failed to resonate with the larger ticket buying public, despite promising starts in limited release. Searchlight’s “The Banshees of Inisherin” ($8.5 million to date), Universal and Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” ($7.3 million to date) and “Till” ($8.9 million), are a few of this year’s arthouse titles that managed to achieve modest returns.

“There is still a long way to go, but so far this season, audiences are mostly staying home for the year-end awards films,” says David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. 

So far, “The Whale” has stayed in the conversation since making a strong debut at the Venice Film Festival, where an emotional Fraser began his charm offensive tour. Fraser, who stars in the film with Sadie Sink and Hong Chau, looks to find himself in the best actor race at the Oscars.

In Variety‘s review, chief film critic Owen Gleiberman praised Fraser’s performance, calling him “a better actor — slyer, subtler, more haunting — than he has ever been.” Reviews, however, have been polarizing, with others criticizing the film’s portrayal of fat people. Vanity Fair’s critic Richard Lawson says the film missed its mark, writing that “director Darren Aronofsky and his star, Brendan Fraser, aim for empathy but come up short.”