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Why the successes of “The Debt” and “Our Idiot Brother” matter Normally I would not spend a column championing a small $5 million comedy that is on track to gross over $30 million as anything other than a ‘gee, I like when that happens’. And while there are many reasons to praise the $14 million six-day opening of The Debt, the most surprising thing about it is that Focus Features debuted the film wide enough to achieve that kind of opening in the first place.

In a movie-going world where any number of seemingly mainstream pictures die in the art-house, peaking at 500 screens and unable to capitalize on mainstream buzz or word of mouth, kudos to the Weinstein Company and Focus Features for just opening these movies the old fashioned way. They may have sensibilities that differ from the most popular versions of their respective genre. Our Idiot Brother is (allegedly) a bit more painful and quirky than a Judd Apatow film, while The Debt is closer to John le Carré than Jason Bourne. But they are both damn-well mainstream entertainments, and both films will be quite profitable because their respective studios treated them as such.

If you’ve read this site for the last year or so, you’ve probably heard me complain a number of times about what one might call the ‘mainstream art-house film’. In the last several years, we’ve noticed a disturbing trend of seemingly mainstream pictures, with big movie stars, mainstream production values, and more-or-less mainstream stories, being dumped into art-houses hoping for a successful expansion that never really comes. We all crowed last year about the limited-release successes of Solitary Man, Cyrus, and/or Winter’s Bone.

But none of those films topped $8 million at the domestic box office. More importantly, all three of those films (along with several others in any given year) were the kind of seemingly mainstream vehicles (a Michael Douglas mid-life crisis dramedy, a dark comedy with John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, and Marisa Tomei, and an intense rural thriller about family loyalty in the face of crippling poverty) that likely would have received a mainstream release just a few years ago. The same goes this year, where the well-liked (by myself and others) Cedar Rapids failed to reach $7 million despite weeks of successful art-house expansion last Spring. And Everything Must Go (out today on DVD – go rent it!) was not the usual Will Ferrell comedy, it was not so off-putting that it could not have survived with a semi-wide release. Even if it ‘tanked’ in wide release, the film as is grossed just $2.7 million. Does anyone think a somewhat well-marketed Will Ferrell comedy couldn’t open to at least three times that much, if not substantially more?

Photo by Focus Features and Laurie Sparham

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