When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences named Moonlight best picture on Sunday, the organization made cultural history, and not just for the bonkers way the victory was announced. For the first time, Hollywood backed a gay-themed film — one with an all-black cast — as its finest cinematic work.
A24 said Tuesday that it had booked Moonlight into at least 1,500 theatres in the United States for the coming weekend. That would be the film’s widest release by far. While Moonlight has been chugging along in theatres for 20 weeks now — a feat unto itself that speaks to A24’s nurturing — it has so far played in a maximum of 1,104 locations, a relatively small footprint. By comparison, La La Land played 3,236 theatres at its widest point.
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The question is whether the best picture designation and the enormous media attention generated by the Oscars ceremony will convince mainstream ticket buyers who have not yet supported Moonlight to take a gander. Despite its long run, Moonlight, which also won Oscars for its screenplay and for Mahershala Ali’s acting, has taken in only $ 22.1 million (U.S.) at domestic theatres, held back by its subject matter, lack of star power and novelistic structure.
Ticket sales so far for Moonlight are the second lowest on record for a best picture winner, according to comScore, which compiles ticketing data. The Hurt Locker, which took in $ 17 million in 2009, or $ 19 million after adjusting for inflation, is the lowest. (Moonlight only cost $ 1.5 million to make. The Hurt Locker cost $ 15 million.)
The so-called Oscar Bump at the box office varies widely. Some films have already concluded their theatrical runs and receive nothing. In other instances, the effect can be substantial. According to comScore, the previous three best-picture winners — Spotlight,Birdman, 12 Years a Slave — each generated 10 per cent or more of their total domestic grosses after their victories.
For winners that are seen as especially arty, the boost can be even bigger. The Artist, a black-and-white, largely silent film that was named best picture in 2012, collected 29 per cent of its total gross after that year’s Oscar ceremony.
A24, which was founded in 2012 and focuses on high-quality, hard-to-market movies, has gained a reputation as one of the savvier specialty film distributors in Hollywood. In the case of Moonlight, directed and co-written by Barry Jenkins, A24 first released the film in mid-October in only four theatres in New York and Los Angeles to begin building word-of-mouth.
The company then began testing demand in theatres in cities like Atlanta and Washington that drew a cross-section of mainstream and specialty film ticket buyers, many of them African-American. In the film’s 13th weekend — using the Golden Globes as a peg — A24 pushed Moonlight from 135 theatres to 582. But demand was soft in spots: In most areas of the country, the multiplex crowd was not yet on board.
“A24 has done a fantastic job of nurturing and protecting this film,” said Daniel Loria, editorial director of Box Office Media. “To pay sustained attention to single-screen runs over the course of months, that takes real commitment.”