‘Steve Jobs’ makes its mark in limited release: Is Oscar next?

Can the Boyle-Sorkin combo pull off what "The Social Network" could not?
Michael Fassbender in 'Steve Jobs'

It was a pretty great weekend for Universal Pictures, but considering the studio’s 2015 box office run so far that’s not saying much.  The studio has dominated their peers this calendar year earning $2.2 billion domestically already and by Dec. 31 will likely end up doubling their 2013 tally of $1.3 billion (and once again people are saying the movie business is dying).  It may sound silly, but nothing would cap Universal’s fantastic 2015 than to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards next February.  Their key player in achieving that goal?  Aaron Sorkin, er, Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs.”

The Scott Rudin production (Hi Scott!) had a fantastic debut over the weekend earning $521,000 or $130,250 per screen.  That ranks 19th All-Time in per screens, but it’s actually a much more impressive mark than it sounds.  Eleven of the films ahead of “Jobs” were actually Walt Disney Animated releases between 1994 and 2004 when the Mouse House was debuting classics such as “The Lion King” and “Toy Story 2” in their El Capitan Theater with higher ticket prices as a special “road show” event.  The film “Steve Jobs” knocked out of 19th place, “Dreamgirls,” did the same sort of road show in 2006.  The movies that should really be compared against “Jobs” are the following:

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” – $202,792 per screen – 4 theaters – March 7, 2014
“American Sniper” – $169,227 per screen – 4 theaters – Dec. 26, 2014
“The Master” – $147,262 per screen – 4 theaters – Sept. 14, 2012
“Moonrise Kingdom” – $130,749 per screen – 4 theaters – May 25, 2012

“Steve Jobs” – $130,381 per screen – 4 theaters – Oct. 9, 2015

Incredibly, Rudin produced four of those five films (“Sniper” is the exception).  For comparison’s sake, let’s just look at the remaining limited releases that earned a per screen over $100,000.

“American Hustle”- $123,409 per screen – 6 theaters – Dec. 13, 2013
“The Imitation Game” – $119,838 per screen – 4 theaters – Nov. 28, 2014
“Brokeback Mountain”- $109,485 – 5 theaters – Dec. 9, 2005
“Birdman” – $106,099 – 4 theaters – Oct. 17, 2014
“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” – $104,025 per screen – 18 theaters – Nov. 6, 2009
“Blue Jasmine” – $102,011 per screen – 6 theaters – July 26, 2013
“Inside Llewyn Davis” – $101,353 per screen – 4 theaters – Dec. 6, 2013
“Midnight in Paris” – $99,834 per screen – 6 – May 20, 2011

Note: We’ve omitted 20th Century Fox ‘s 1997 animated feature “Anastasia” which was released in the same Disney road show style with a per screen of $120,541.  We’ve also included Woody Allen’s “Paris because it barely missed out on the arbitrary mark and it helps prove a larger point.

There are a number of fascinating takeaways from this list of art house and megaplex hits.  Let’s look at the non-Oscar revelations first.

*What ”Precious pulled off in 18 theaters is still jaw dropping.  Most of the other films on this list fell by 50% per screen when they expanded to 20 or so theaters (overall cume obviously went up).  Lee Daniels’ flick was an “Empire”-esque phenomenon on 18 screens that still doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

*The addition of two additional theaters probably knocked ”American Hustle” out of a final tally somewhere between “Budapest” and “Sniper.”  Truthfully, there is a big difference between four and six theaters in driving per screen.  “Blue Jasmine” and “Midnight” also would have scored much higher per screens in just four venues.

*Like “Precious,” “Brokeback” was a cultural event.  It held the modern-day non-animated per screen record for almost seven years.

As for Oscar, let’s state the obvious.  “Birdman” is the only film to win Best Picture on this list (more on that later).  Only eight of the 12 releases (not including “Jobs”) were even nominated for Best Picture.  What does it mean?  Well, trends do play a part in awards season, but not enough that Nate Silver and his crew can do a true statistical analysis without making the pundit core role their eyes after the results.

Bluntly, “Jobs” is going to get nominated for Best Picture.  The reviews overall are super strong with an 83 on Metacritic and an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes (full disclosure, this pundit’s review was a B-).   Whether it can win the big prize is another matter. “Jobs” actually has quite a bit in common with last year’s champ, “Birdman.”  Both films screened at the Telluride Film Festival and skipped Toronto only to reappear at the New York Film Festival.  The significant difference is “Birdman” premiered first at Venice.   The “Jobs” team will tell you they barely made Telluride and, in fact, the film screened as a “work in progress” (although it appears only minor cuts were made afterward, if at all).  Still, Venice is a red herring.  The difference between the two films is that while “Jobs” was well respected by the Telluride faithful the movies they consistently brought up first as favorites were “Spotlight” and “Room” (the later ended up winning the People’s Choice Award at Toronto).   In general, critics adore “Jobs” but will The Academy itself?

One thing that will help the film’s chances is its wide release performance. Right now, “Jobs” is looking at an $18-20 million three-day when it expands nationwide on Friday, Oct. 23 (it’s increasing its theater count to 60 on the 16th).  With enough word of mouth and critical kudos for Universal to hype that estimate may actually be slightly conservative.  In any case, “Jobs” should, at worst, eventually match “The Imitation Game’s” $91 million U.S. gross and could potentially earn much more.  And scoff if you want, but that financial performance will matter to some Academy members.

At this point, “Jobs” should earn a minimum of five nominations including Picture, Adapted Screenplay (Aaron Sorkin), Best Actor (Michael Fassbender), Best Supporting Actress (Kate Winslet) and Editing (Elliott Graham, first nomination).  The next set of expected nods in very competitive categories include Director (Danny Boyle), Cinematography (Alwin H. Küchler, would be first nod), Original Score (Daniel Pemberton, would be first nod), Production Design (Guy Hendrix Dyas, should have won for “Inception”) and, potentially, some sound and sound editing nominations (maybe).  We’re not buying Costumes or Hair and Make-Up nominations at the moment, but hey, it’s not out of the question.

All of this data and speculation brings us back to Universal’s dream: a Best Picture win.  As of Oct. 12th it would be smart to go to Las Vegas and bet against it.  “Spotlight” has more outright adulation, “Room” has more emotion and Fox Searchlight’s “Brooklyn” is the biggest tearjerker of them all.  And while no December release has won Best Pic since 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby,” you can’t discount the possibility of “The Revenant,” “Joy” or “Hateful Eight” winning over the Academy electorate in the final leg of phase one.

Moreover, the counterpoint (we’re specifically not using the word backlash) is already seeping out of Silicon Valley (example no. 1, example no. 2).  The studio, Sorkin and Boyle have worked hard to position “Jobs” as an “inspired by” story that captures the essence of the man even if some of the events in the movie itself are not 100% accurate (that’s being kind).  This narrative also flows from criticism of Walter Isaacson’s biography from which the film is based.  Again, team “Jobs” knows this is coming and have already attempted to deflect it, but how it affects the Best Picture race as time goes on is unclear.*

*It should also be noted that films in the Oscar race such as “The Danish Girl” and “Truth” have their own issues historical issues to deal with.

For the moment, Team “Jobs” can revel in the fact Fassbender is the Best Actor front runner and the film’s box office is proving that daring, adult dramas can make even Hollywood’s bean counters smile.

Do you think “Jobs” is now the Best Picture front runner? Share your thoughts below.

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With over a decade of experience in the movie industry, Ellwood survived working for two major studios, has written for Variety, MSN and the LA Times and co-founded HitFix, Inc. serving as its first Editor-in-Chief and President. Ellwood spends his time relaxing hitting 3’s on the basketball court and following his beloved Clippers.

Awards Campaign provides commentary and insight on the movie industry. It's also the current online home of Gregory Ellwood, an industry veteran who has covered the movie business and Oscar campaigns for over a decade. For more information including partnerships and advertising opportunities please E-mail info@awardscampaign.com.