Few were surprised when crowds packed into theaters in New York and Los Angeles this past weekend to see "The Tree of Life." Terrence Malick's movie about morality and mortality had an insanely high level of buzz coming in, and culture-vultures were invariably going to rush out on opening weekend. As my colleague Amy Kaufman reports, they did --about 35,000 of them, according to our informal calculation.
But successful niche openings can spell disappointment as much as it can spell mainstream success. In the coming weeks, the Brad Pitt-Jessica Chastain drama will roll out to hundreds of theaters, and in places with far less of a cinema-going tradition than the country's two largest cities. How will it fare? Here are five movies the "Tree" release could emulate, and the likelihood that it will follow a difficult or a hospitable path (or, yes, the way of nature and the way of grace).
"Black Swan": A film that defies categorization goes on to become a cultural phenomenon, spoofed on late-night television and discussed at seemingly every cocktail party. The film also improbably tops $100 million at the U.S. box office.
Likelihood: The Natalie Portman ballet drama had sexiness and horror elements. "Tree"? Not so much.
"127 Hours:" Strong performances and striking natural imagery generate a lot of ink and awards talk. But after the hard-core film fans turn up, the mainstream is daunted by it, and the movie never really breaks out of the art-house ghetto.
Likelihood: "Tree" seems to stand on this precipice; a few shots in the film even evoke "127." But
for all the goodwill Danny Boyle generates, Malick exists on a different plane with many filmgoers, which should help.
"Midnight in Paris:" Woody Allen's recent hits ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona," "Match Point') have taken between $20 and $25 million -- a number that lies somewhere between art-house specificity and mainstream commerciality. His new one seems to be heading in that direction. Could "Tree" too?
Likelihood: It's curious that two films so different -- one a whimsical entertainment and the other a heavy meditation -- are becoming the two independent hits of the season. In fact, so far their per-theater averages are almost identical. "Tree" could yet be seen as the more serious piece of art and lap "Midnight" -- or be seen as the darker of the two and fall short.
"Elephant:" A movie from an acclaimed American auteur with an impressionistic vibe wins the Palme d'Or and has the press breathless, but goes on to attract only the most hard-core cinemagoers.
Likelihood: The big limited-opening suggests that "Tree" is at least over this hump. (It's reached nearly half of the "Elephant" box-office total already.)
"The Thin Red Line": Malick's most successful release to date generated scads of Oscar nominations and a very solid $36 million in domestic box office.
Likelihood: "Tree" is garnering stronger reviews and is arguably more of a conversation piece -- but a film combining midcentury angst and the beginning of earthly life is not quite as digestible a genre as a World War II movie.
Photo: "The Tree of Life." Credit: Fox Searchlight