In pre-COVID times, those ticket sales wouldn’t be particularly impressive. But the arthouse sector has struggled to rebound as adult audiences remain selective as ever about movie choices.
Turnout for prestige dramas, like “Tár” ($5.7 million), “She Said” ($5.8 million), “Triangle of Sadness” ($4.1 million), and Women Talking” ($393,985), range from disappointing to downright dismal. “The Fabelmans,” the latest from Steven Spielberg, isn’t outpacing “The Whale” by much, with $13 million to date, while director Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy “The Banshees of Inisherin” has been trucking along with $9.1 million so far. But when it comes to 2022 releases, only one indie, A24’s timeline-bending “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” became an undisputed commercial hit, generating $100 million globally.
“The Whale,” starring Brendan Fraser as a college professor who suffers from severe obesity, opened in limited release in early December. It grossed $360,000 from six theaters (translating to $60,000 per screen), ranking 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.
“The Whale” had a staggered rollout in the following weeks, remaining on six screens in its second weekend, expanding to 600 screens in its third, 625 in its fourth, 800 screens in its fifth weekend. By week six, it cracked 1,500 venues and, pending awards nominations, it’ll continue to add to its theater count in the new year.
Unlike “Tár,” “Triangle of Sadness” and other acclaimed indies, “The Whale” has managed to sustain momentum as it expanded its theater count. In terms of ticket buyers, “The Whale” is appealing beyond the traditional arthouse film, according to insiders. The top-grossing theaters, as expected, are arthouses in New York City and Los Angeles, but sources say it’s also successfully selling tickets in commercial chains in markets like Albuquerque, San Antonio, El Paso, Winnipeg and Pharr, Texas.
A24 is hoping the Oscars will provide “The Whale,” which was produced for less than $10 million, with a boost at the box office. Fraser is widely expected to land a lead actor nomination, but its prospects beyond that remain a question. In the lead-up to Academy Award nominations, “The Whale” received a PGA nod alongside blockbusters like “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Top Gun: Maverick.” At the SAG Awards, Fraser was singled out in the lead actor category and his co-star Hong Chau was recognized in the supporting actress category.
Darren Aronofsky directed “The Whale,” which has received polarizing reviews and holds a 65% Rotten Tomatoes average. The movie — adapted from the play by Samuel D. Hunter — has been more embraced by ticket buyers, with a 91% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. It has impressively been able to stay in the conversation since its buzzy debut at the Venice Film Festival, where an emotional Fraser took in the audience’s six-minute-long standing ovation.