In a cutthroat marketplace littered with mega tentpoles such as Spectre, The Martian and Friday’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 — which is set to crush the box office with a $120M debut — how do smart, critically acclaimed, awards-contending films stay alive?

Open Road’s Spotlight and A24’s Room have some of the best reviews this season with Rotten Tomato scores of 97% and 96%, respectively, and as word of mouth explodes for each film, the challenge for both distributors is making sure their titles don’t become causalities at the November-December box office like Steve Jobs did. For both Open Road and A24, it’s a steady-as-she goes platform release pattern, geared at hitting boosts during key points on the awards calendar, i.e. SAG/Globe noms and the Golden Globe awards.

roomIn its fifth weekend, A24’s Room upticked its theaters from 87 to 133, making $564K, +19% over the previous frame for a current cume to date of $2.3M. Based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, Room is an emotional drama about a mother and her 5-year-old son’s kidnapping. A24 opted to forgo a world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival so that it could launch the film at Telluride — thus building word of mouth on the festival circuit. Such maneuvering turned out to be brilliant stroke, with Room winning the Oscar bellwether People’s Choice Award at TIFF where previous winners include such Oscar Best Pictures as 12 Years A Slave, Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech. Women in the audience at one TIFF screening left the theater in tears, moved by the mother-son story. On Friday, Room‘s approximate theater count moves to 150.

“Coming out of Telluride and winning the Toronto International Film Festival, we decided to go deliberately slow and let word of mouth percolate for some time as awards season heats up,” said A24’s distribution chief Heath Shapiro.

spotlight 2Meanwhile, Spotlight grossed a phenomenal $1.35M at 60 locations in its second frame for a theater average of $23K with plans of expanding to 400-500 venues by Friday for an estimated weekend of $3M. Open Road has been reaping sell-out situations with some theater averages such as the 86th Street East in NYC and the University Town Centre in Irvine, CA racking up respective weekend hauls of $30K and $25K per. Those are big figures for a newsroom drama about the Boston Globe investigative team who took on the city’s Archdiocese over its cover-up of priests sexually abusing minors.

Film Title: Steve JobsAs Steve Jobs director Danny Boyle recently acknowledged in the press, Universal went “too wide too soon” with its platform release of the Apple Computer co-founder biopic, which busted to nearly 2,500 locations making a less-than-notable $7.1M (current cume: $17.4M). In a business where studios are adamant about managing perceptions, the B.O. longevity for the $30M-budgeted Steve Jobs was killed in that instance and promptly deemed a B.O. failure — thus possibly losing its awards prospects as collateral damage. If Universal avoided a wide break on Steve Jobs, and kept the film in limited release, all conversations regarding the pic’s bombing would be dashed.

patrick o'malleyUnlike Steve Jobs, Spotlight‘s prospect of playing big in the flyover states are excellent. In appealing to the masses, TV spots have advertised the film as an All The President’s Men-type setup with the Globe‘s Spotlight team dogging down a conspiracy. Various segments of the Catholic Church including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have encouraged parishioners to go watch the Tom McCarthy-directed film, particularly as the church looks to evolve past the scandal. Open Road made a point to make sure that key influencers in the church had access to screeners. Boston Archdiocese Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley praised Spotlight in the local Catholic newspaper The Pilot saying the pic illustrates how the Boston Globe’s reports prompted the church “to deal with what was shameful and hidden.” That’s like Richard Nixon giving a thumbs up to All The President’s Men.

“An important part of exit polls show that Catholics are very interested in it. The film is talking about their church,” says Open Road chief marketing officer Jason Cassidy, who also points out that exit polls for the film are at 90% definite recommend.

SpotlightHeading into Thanksgiving, Open Road looks to capitalize on the heat of Spotlight, but will decide after this weekend how wide — whether it’s an 800-1,000 theater break. This past weekend, Spotlight was in the top 17 markets and will move into the top 75 on Friday. Since Open Road is taking advantage of Thanksgiving turnstiles now, the distributor anticipates being in a lower number of theaters at the end of December before hopefully increasing at the Globes, depending on nominations.

room tiffA24 will keep a pulled-back limited release on Room in place so as to to capitalize on key nomination dates in regards to a wider break.

“For Room it is a grower and a builder,” says Shapiro about its platform rollout. “The results of the exit polls we conduct every weekend are rarefied. People rate this movie incredibly high. The word of mouth isn’t only about them liking it, but it becomes a passion film for most people who see it and talk about it. As it makes its distance in the marketplace, it’s a special experience for the moviegoers.”

Neither Open Road or A24 are making final projections on their final cumes yet until they see what SAG and Globe noms yield, which will be another opportunity to uptick screen counts.

In regard as to whether the big films like Mockingjay – Part 2 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens spoil the party for specialty films such as Room and Spotlight, there’s a belief by some distribution heads that it’s possible to rise with these tides rather than being drowned.

Says Cassidy, “If you look at the adult movies that have played during this time period, there’s definitely room in the market for broader upscale films.”

Below are the top 20 film from Rentrak theatrical for the weekend of November 13-15, plus notables:

1). Spectre (SONY), 3,929 theaters (0)/ 3-day cume: $33.7M (-52%)/Per screen avg: $8,572 / Total cume: $129M /Wk 2

2). The Peanuts Movie (FOX), 3,902 theaters (+5)/3-day cume: $24M (-46%)/Per screen: $6,154 /Total cume: $82.2M /Wk 2

3). Love The Coopers (LGF), 2,603 theaters / 3-day cume: $8.3M / Per screen: $3,195 /Wk 1

4). The Martian (FOX), 2,788 theaters (-67) 3-day cume: $6.7M (-26%)/ Per screen: $2,408 / Total cume: $207.4M / Wk 7

5). The 33 (WB), 2,452 theaters / 3-day cume: $5.8M / Per screen: $2,360 /Wk 1

6). Goosebumps (SONY), 2,805 theaters (-246) /3-day cume: $4.6M (-32%)/ Per screen: $1,652 /Total cume: $73.5M /Wk 5

7). Bridge Of Spies (DIS), 2,688 theaters (-79) /3-day cume: $4.3M (-27%)/ Per screen: $1,588 /Total cume: $61.7M /Wk 5

8). Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (FIP), 287 theaters /3-day cume: $2.4M / Per screen: $8,452 /Total cume: $2.8M /Wk 1

9). Hotel Transylvania 2 (SONY), 1,834 theaters (-440) /3-day cume: $2.3M (-36%) / Per screen: $1,262 /Total cume: $165.2M /Wk 8

10). The Last Witch Hunter (LGF), 1,479 theaters (-807) /3-day cume: $1.5M (-43%) / Per screen: $1,002 /Total cume: $26.1M /Wk 4

11). My All American (AVI), 1,565 theaters /3-day cume: $1.4M / Per screen: $872 /Wk 1

12). Spotlight (OPRD), 60 theaters (+55) /3-day cume: $1.35M (+359%) / Per screen: $22,560 /Total cume: 1.8M /Wk 2

13). The Intern (WB), 855 theaters (-216) /3-day cume: $1.2M (-31%)/ Per screen: $1,397 /Total cume: $73.3M/ Wk 8

14). Burnt (TWC), 1,614 theaters (-1,389) /3-day cume: $1.1M (-61%)/ Per screen: $698 / Total cume: $12.7M /Wk 3

15). Suffragette (FOC), 496 theaters (+274)/3-day cume: $1M (+34%)/ Per screen: $2,067 /Total cume: $2.6M /Wk 3

16). Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (PAR), 785 theaters (-302) /3-day cume: $892K (-45%)/ Per screen: $1,136 / Total cume: $17.8M / Wk 4

17). Sicario (LGF), 529 theaters (-193)/ 3-day cume: $761K (-28%) / Per screen: $1,438 /Total cume: $45.2M /Wk 9

18). La Guerre Des Tuques 3D (eOne), 76 theaters /3-day cume: $673K / Per screen: $8,857 /Wk 1

19). Woodlawn (PURE), 808 theaters (-114)/ 3-day cume: $625K  (-45%) / Per screen: $774 /Total cume: $13.6M /Wk 5

20). Room (A24), 133 theaters (+46)/ 3-day cume: $564K  (+19%) / Per screen: $4,238 /Total cume: $2.3M /Wk 5

Notables:

Brooklyn (FSL), 23 theaters (+18)/3-day cume: $480K (+156%) / Per screen: $20,868/ Total cume: $828K /Wk 2

Miss You Already (RSA), 311 theaters (-73%) /3-day cume: $198K (-64%) / Per screen: $635 / Total cume: $1.05M / Wk 2

Trumbo (BST), 20 theaters (+15%) /3-day cume: $157K (+111%)/ Per screen: $7,832 /Total cume: $263K /Wk 2

By The Sea (UNI), 10 theaters /3-day cume: $96K / Per screen: $9,625 /Wk 1

Last Women Standing (CHINA), 17 theaters (-3) /3-day cume: $73K / Per screen: $4,314 /Total cume: $118K /Wk 1

Heist (LGP), 24 theaters /3-day cume: $29K / Per screen: $1,195 /Wk 1

James White (TFA), 1 theaters /3-day cume: $12K /Wk 1

Entertainment (MAG), 2 theaters /3-day cume: $5,132 / Per screen: $2,566 /Wk 1

Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans (MAG), 2 theaters /3-day cume: $4,079 / Per screen: $2,040/Wk 1