Alexander Payne’s dramedy starring George Clooney has good momentum heading into its opening weekend expansion today into a total 29 locations in 11 additional markets (including Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington DC, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, San Diego, Denver, Minneapolis, and Toronto). So far Fox Searchlight’s The Descendants has made $79K from Wednesday and Thursday grosses at 5 theaters (2 in NY and 3 in LA). The production budget was $20 million with tax rebates and the Academy Awards talk should help the film perform through March. “This comedy/drama is attracting the over-30 upscale audience who is aware of the terrific reviews we have received,” a Fox Searchlight exec tells me. “And exhibition is very excited about the film after seeing it at the Show East Convention in late October.” On Wednesday before Thanksgiving, The Descendants increases to over 60 markets and about 425 theaters. “We feel the Thanksgiving Holiday is an excellent time to be playing wider as it is counter programming to the 3 wide kids films opening on this date. At Searchlight, we fell it really is a marathon and not a race with our releases.”

The initial marketing campaign was launched virally in early May with a web teaser called “Who is he?” which consisted only of a scene from the film with George Clooney goofily running to his neighbor’s house to ask – you guessed it – “Who is he?” Then, at the end of May, Searchlight launched The Descendants trailer on The Tree Of Life linking auteur filmmakers Alexander Payne and Terrence Malick and continued through the summer and into the fall. The film was an audience and critical favorite when it premiered at the 2011 Telluride Film Festival, and the buzz carried over into The Toronto Film Festival. The film went on to play over 15 more festivals including New York and London. Searchlight is now working with various museums and film societies across the county to set Alexander Payne retrospectives and to target urban art house cinefiles initially and eventually upscale suburbanites over Thanksgiving and through December. The project was developed with Ad Hominem, which is Payne’s and writer/producer Jim Taylor’s and producer Jim Burke’s production company. Stephen Frears was initially attached to direct. When Frears departed, Payne went back to the original book written by Kaui Hart Hemmings and began writing his own adaptation of the screenplay after original drafts were penned by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon. Payne flew to 2009’s Toronto Film Festival to meet with Clooney who was there with Up In The Air. Shooting in Hawaii began in March 2010 less than six months later. The Oscar buzz began with the sellouts of the special screenings and tribute to George Clooney at the Telluride Film Festival, and continued to the Toronto Fest as well as the closing night at the New York Film Festival and the London Film Festival and the recent Gotham Award nominations.