Features and Columns · Movies

‘Uncut Gems’ Had One of the Best Openings of the Year

Can the movie’s success translate to an Oscar nomination for Best Picture?
Uncut Gems
By  · Published on December 16th, 2019

Sequelitis took a break over the weekend as Jumanji: The Next Level dominated the box office with a franchise-best opening (attendance for the movies’ debuts, in order: 2.5 million, 4 million, and 6.7 million). But the narrative on the Jumanji series has always been about its staying power (the 1995 original’s debut was just 11 percent of its domestic total, while Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle‘s was just 9 percent), so we’ll have to wait and see where the latest entry falls in the long run.

The more interesting box office achievement over the weekend came with the debut of Uncut Gems. The Safdie Brothers drama drew more than half a million dollars from just five locations. That gave the movie the best per-screen average of the weekend at $105,099. It’s only the second-best average of the year, behind Parasite‘s $131,072 per screen back in October. That movie kicked off on just three screens, and typically averages go down as screen count increases. Uncut Gems is now in the record books as having the fifth-best average ever from five or more screens, excluding animated features.

In most years, the (live-action) movies with the best per-screen averages are awards-buzz prestige pictures that open at just a handful of locations as the hype is valued with metropolitan audiences. This past weekend also saw Bombshell make its mark with a $78,025 average from three screens but Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life did relatively poor with an average of just $10,400 from each of its five screens. That was less than Jumanji: The Next Level‘s figure. Still, not all per-screen-average successes translate to Oscar glory. Malick may have made his most critically lauded narrative feature since The Tree of Life, but he’s still not so popular as he was then even with the arthouse crowd.

Since Uncut Gems didn’t receive any Golden Globes nominations, whether due to its last-minute categorization change or the Hollywood Foreign Press Association not appreciating Adam Sandler (he’s only been nominated once, for Punch-Drunk Love), the question of its Oscar chances aren’t looking so good. But if it’s one of the few live-action per-screen champs to go ignored by the HFPA and the Academy, that may only increase its value as a cinematic work in the company of such modern classics as The Master, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Steve Jobs (I’m still waiting for the last one to have the esteem it deserves).

Below is a chart of the live-action movies with the best per-screen average debuts in each of the previous 10 years (and which were nominated for Best Picture at the Golden Globes and/or Oscars — winners are designated by a “w”):

2009: Precious (GG, O); Up in the Air (GG, O); Fantastic Mr. Fox; Nine (GG); Defiance

2010: The King’s Speech (GG, O-w); Black Swan (GG, O), The Fighter (GG, O), The Kids Are All Right (GG, O); 127 Hours (O)

2011: Red State; Midnight in Paris (GG, O); The Tree of Life (O); Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; The Artist (GG-w, O-w)

2012: The Master; Moonrise Kingdom (GG); Lincoln (GG, O); Zero Dark Thirty (GG, O); To Rome with Love

2013: American Hustle (GG-w, O); Blue Jasmine; Inside Llewyn Davis (GG); Spring Breakers; The Place Beyond the Pines

2014: The Grand Budapest Hotel (GG-w, O); American Sniper (O); The Imitation Game (GG, O); Birdman (GG, O-w); Boyhood (GG-w, O)

2015: Steve Jobs; The Revenant (GG-w, O); The Big Short (GG, O); Sicario; Carol (GG)

2016: La La Land (GG-w, O); Moonlight (GG-w, O-w), Don’t Think Twice; Cafe Society; Manchester by the Sea (GG, O)

2017: Call Me By Your Name (GG, O); Lady Bird (GG-w, O); The Big Sick; The Shape of Water (GG, O-w); Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (GG-w, O)

2018: The Favourite (GG, O); Suspiria; Free Solo; Mary and the Witch’s Flower; Eighth Grade

Last year was pretty bad for correlating between successful mini-release openings and awards recognition (though Free Solo was the Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature). The years 2010, 2014, and 2017 were all great for equating buzz with strong debuts and then actual accolades. Every one of the years has at least one hit-turned-nominee and almost all of the years had their top per-screen earner nominated for the Oscar. That’s a good sign for Parasite this year, but not necessarily a given for Uncut Gems, The Farewell, or Bombshell, which are the next three prestige films on the list for 2019.

Jay and Silent Bob Reboot is in there, too, in third place for this year, but there are a few consistent exceptions to the parallels between box office and awards. They include movies by Kevin Smith, Woody Allen (usually), Mike Birbiglia (not shown: Sleepwalk with Me also had a high average debut), and Paul Thomas Anderson (not shown: Inherent Vice also had a high average debut), with Wes Anderson being a long shot as well. Perhaps the Safdie brothers will join those auteurs who do better with a niche crowd of diehard fans than with the Academy, but it’s not like they have the prior track records of fandom that the others do.

If Uncut Gems is snubbed by the Oscars as well as the Golden Globes, the film will be one of only four titles from the per-screen-average chart to be up for a Critics’ Choice Award for Best Picture and not also be nominated for the Golden Globe or Oscar for Best Picture — the others are The Master, Sicario, and The Big Sick. But those three films were recognized by the Academy in at least one other category. That’s a positive sign that Uncut Gems should be honored for something. If not Best Picture, then Best Actor for Sandler is its best bet.

As a huge fan of Uncut Gems (it’s probably my favorite narrative feature of the year), I hope it continues to perform well at the box office. Not unlike Parasite, which has grossed more than $20 million domestically and barely ever had a wide release (its highest screen count was 620). With the star power of Adam Sandler and curiosity about him supposedly giving the best dramatic performance of his career, Uncut Gems could go the distance when it goes wide on Christmas Day. And then maybe that continued success will help boost its Oscar chances.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.