Audiences turned out in record numbers this past weekend to greet A24’s The Farewell, setting it up as the kind of specialty box-office success story that's been in demonstrably short supply this summer.
"The Farewell could be the breakout we've been looking for," said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore. "It's massive."
Opening in four theaters last Friday as part of a platform rollout that will see the film gradually expand into wide release, The Farewell netted the biggest per-theater box-office average so far this year. A24's family dramedy, written and directed by Lulu Wang, grossed $351,330 at those locations, in New York and Los Angeles, meaning it averaged a magnificent $87,833 per theater.
Platform releases are nothing new to A24, which employed similar rollouts to great success with films like 2016's Moonlight and 2017's Lady Bird (both of which, notably, became major awards players at their year's Academy Awards with Moonlight snagging Best Picture). Lady Bird, which also started in four theaters, grossed $364,437 in its first weekend for a per-theater average of $91,109, the best for a limited-release title its year. That film gradually went wide after expanding throughout November, finishing with a jaw-dropping $78.9 million box-office total.
A24's Farewell strategy, which will see the film steadily add more locations throughout July before going wide Aug. 2, may prove especially key to its success this summer, given the ignominious fates of comparison-point comedies like Booksmart and Late Night. Despite critical raves coming out of festival debuts and very strong social-media marketing campaigns, both of those smaller-scale titles disappointed at the box office.
Those with eyes on Booksmart—director's Olivia Wilde's instant-classic high school comedy—noted that distributor Annapurna's decision to immediately launch the SXSW hit nationwide in over 2,500 theaters, rather than taking a slow-grow approach and letting buzz build organically, contributed to its disappointing $6.9 million bow. Not helping matters was audience-dollar sponge Aladdin, opening the same weekend to the tune of $116.8 million over the four-day Memorial Day frame.
Amazon, watching Booksmart flame out, quickly recalibrated its rollout for Late Night but still only allotted a single week before taking the movie from limited to wide release; that decision, pitting the movie directly against the Shaft remake and Men In Black International, was seen as too-little-too-late to save Late Night from a Booksmart-esque underperformance. Amazon also never shed the perception its theatrical campaign for the Mindy Kaling workplace comedy was a somewhat nominal gesture, intended to offer the title a little visibility before giving it a splashier debut via streaming.
"We’ve seen a lot of smaller movies burst upon the scene in over 2,000 theaters and just not find their audience," said Degarabedian. "Within all the noise of blockbusters in the marketplace, it’s hard to rise above that."
Helping to distinguish The Farewell was A24, an indie distributor that's earned an unusually avid fan following through branding itself as Hollywood's premier tastemaker. As the studio that's launched Ari Aster and Robert Eggers, popularized Barry Jenkins and Greta Gerwig, and pioneered its own quirky '90s-retro aesthetic, A24 enjoys its status as Hollywood's coolest name.
The Farewell, which stars Crazy Rich Asians breakout Awkwafina, focuses on a Chinese-American family's unusual decision to withhold their beloved grandmother's terminal cancer diagnosis from the matriarch, instead saying goodbye to her under the guise of a hastily thrown together family wedding. Critics have rapturously received the film, with some suggesting it could become a major awards player this fall.
Farewell director Lulu Wang famously turned down a $15 million streaming deal in order to work with A24, believing the boutique distributor would truly invest its time and energy into giving her movie the best possible rollout. It's turned out to be a prescient decision.
"A24 knew what they had and learned lessons from movies earlier this year," said Degarbedian.
"In the specialty and indie worlds, fans are much savvier about who’s releasing what," he added, praising A24 as a brand. "It’s highly unusual for a company to have an identity that’s synonymous with a certain level of quality or edge. But even A24’s logo is cool. They’ve got the vibe going that any time you watch an A24 movie, you’ll never be bored."
Degarabedian cautions that not all limited-release titles find greater success through expansion; some, either by virtue of niche subject matter or excessive box-office competition, hit their ceilings earlier than others. But he believes "we have a lot to be optimistic about" in terms of The Farewell, despite incoming competition from The Lion King and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (both of which, notably, will open before The Farewell goes wide).
"I think people are really hungry for a movie like this," he said. "Awkwafina has a huge following, and Lulu Wang did a brilliant job of directing and getting the message out about the movie... Hopefully, this will be one of those cultural phenomenon movies that just catches on, because it's so universal in its themes.
"We’ll find out what happens come Aug. 2," he concluded. "No matter what, it’s already a winner."
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