Aretha Franklin documentary “Amazing Grace” will set a one-week record for New York’s Film Forum, where it opened December 7 — the same day that Neon announced that the company acquired it for distribution.
The box-office calculation is based on sold-out shows and advance sales through December 13, when it’s on track to make at least $75,000. The previous best at the lower Manhattan location was “I Am Not a Negro” two years ago, which took in $73,000 for its first seven days. That film went on to a Best Documentary Oscar nomination and to an extraordinary over $7 million nationwide. This looks potentially to be even bigger: The estimated gross for Friday is $12,000, which projects to an opening weekend of at least $40,000.
Film Forum’s one-week locked-in “Amazing Grace” booking is playing for the awards qualifying process, and seeking strong reviews ahead of Tuesday’s deadline for Academy members to vote on potential nominees for Best Feature Documentary. It played in two Los Angeles theaters last week, also with very strong reviews. At this point, it ranks behind only “Roma” for highest Metacritic for any film released this year.
Qualifying runs usually leave their grosses unreported, but with a deal in place and incredible reaction, Neon reported the results to us. They were not involved in setting up the booking, or any of the advertising or publicity. That makes these initial results even more, well, amazing and suggests a massive interest in this film as a major event, and beyond just specialized venues.
The film is playing on only one screen, with around 135 seats, and the reported biggest presale in the theater’s history. Shows are sold out all weekend, with additional early ones added. Per Neon sources, the attendees are not the typical cinephile Village crowd, but includes families, older people, and many African-Americans. Neon reports that people in line waiting to get in have been breaking out in song. That suggests an event-like response rarely seen for a movie, much less a documentary.
Last night, a Spike Lee hosted an Academy-member screening (part of the campaign to get the film on the 15-title documentary short list) saw a similarly enthusiastic reaction. This is a very competitive year in the category with four acclaimed films, including Neon’s own “Three Identical Strangers,” which grossed over $10 million.
That a top specialized distributor like Neon is releasing this as a traditional theatrical run is not only a coup for them, but for the mainstream business. Netflix had been rumored as a strong suitor, which would have meant little subsequent theatrical play. It’s well suited for seeing with an enthusiastic audience to enhance the experience, and a smart release pattern could see this become popular with a wide audience that includes some who rarely see documentaries.
Of course, details for Neon’s release are still in early stages. Neon has shown the ability to turn acquisitions into releases in jsut three months (“I, Tonya” last year, “Vox Lux” this weekend; both came after September Toronto Film Festival acquisitions). If it’s nominated, it could have optimal play time around the Oscars.
Elissa Federoff, Neon’s head of distribution, said they are aiming for initial dates between February and April. The expectation is an initial release that combines core specialized theaters, but the distributor will also reach out to a broader audience, particularly African-Americans, from the early stages. Detroit, Franklin’s home base, will receive elevated importance.
The delay is normal; Neon must find the best date both for competitive purposes and getting the right theaters, creatw marketing and social media awareness, turn out trailers, and other vital preparation. The social media part should be easy; Twitter traffic about the film has been skyrocketing since yesterday. The grosses also should guarantee that top theaters will clamor for it.
Tom Quinn, president of Neon, confirmed reports of a seven-figure acquisition cost (sources tell IndieWire the figure is $1.5 million). “Seeing this at its DOC NYC premiere, I honestly don’t know that I’ve ever had such a transformative or spiritual experience in a theater. It defies categorization on all levels,” he said. “Even its storied 46-year journey to the screen, thanks to the efforts of Alan Elliott, is its own divine miracle. Its a precious gift from Aretha that will inspire and fill audiences with hope and joy everywhere.”
The film has one of the longest gestations in the history of movie releases, rivaling Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind.” Sydney Pollack headed a team of filmmakers who shot the film on 16mm. But Franklin prevented its showing for decades, including a scheduled premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2015 that was stopped by a restraining order.
The situation apparently changed after Franklin’s death last August. The impact of tributes to her, combined with the high level of awareness, have now been joined by extraordinary reviews, and now proof of huge interest by paying customers.