Oscar win pushes Moonlight into more GTA cinemas

Initially a tough sell outside big cities, Barry Jenkins's drama is expanding to 50 screens across Canada thanks to the Academy Awards

Moonlight is coming to the suburbs.

Barry Jenkins’s acclaimed drama has been playing in and around Toronto for 20 weeks, but it’s getting a big push outside the city in the wake of its historic best picture Oscar win on February 26.

Canadian distributor Elevation Pictures is showing the film on 30 more screens across Canada to take advantage of the box-office bump best picture winners have traditionally enjoyed post-awards.

The film has screened at the Varsity and TIFF Bell Lightbox since opening on October 28, and is also playing at Canada Square, Winston Churchill 24, the Fox Theatre and Hamilton’s Westdale Theatre.

This weekend it expands to six more in the Greater Toronto Area: Elgin Mills 10 Cinemas, Orion Gate, Encore Oakville Mews, SilverCity Newmarket and Whitby 24. In all, it will be playing on 50 screens nationwide.

Meanwhile, Moonlight’s American distributor, A24, plans to screen the film in 1,500 theatres this weekend. Its largest U.S. release to date was 1,104 cinemas.

A quiet and lyrical art house drama with a gay storyline and an all-Black cast, Moonlight has been a tough sell for mainstream audiences in Canadian markets outside Toronto, such as Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Maritimes.

“Wherever you’d think African-American gay-themed films aren’t going to work, Moonlight didn’t,” explains Olivier Gauthier-Mercier, Elevation’s director of distribution sales. “It took a while for audiences to wake up and realize, ‘This is a film I must see.’”

Moonlight is divided into three chapters, chronicling the coming-of-age of Chiron, a Black boy living in Miami, as he comes to terms with his identity and sexuality at different stages of his life.

In addition to the film’s best picture win – after a now-infamous envelope mix up – Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay, and Mahershala Ali, who plays a kind-hearted drug dealer who takes the young Chiron under his wing, picked up best supporting actor. The film was nominated for eight awards.

Moonlight had also been cleaning up on the awards circuit in the lead-up to the Oscars.

Gauthier-Mercier says Elevation has “fought tooth and nail to hold on through 19 weeks of theatrical play.”

The distributor opened it in Toronto at the Varsity and Lightbox on October 28 and gradually expanded to other theatres over the Christmas season.

When Moonlight earned six Golden Globe nominations in mid-December, Elevation started booking it in suburban centres. However, audiences were slow to show up in some theatres, including the Eglinton Town Centre in Scarborough.

“It played there for two weeks and came off. Then another two weeks and came off,” he says. “Shows were selling out on Saturday nights. I’m a Scarborough boy myself, so I know Eglinton Town Centre is gonna have a hard time drawing art house audiences.”

Financially, Moonlight is already a hit. It had a budget of $1.5 million and has grossed $22.3 million in North America.

On average, theatrical movies earn 10 per cent of their overall North American box office take from Canadian ticket sales.

The Canadian portion of that for Moonlight is at 8.7 per cent according to comScore, a data firm that tracks ticket sales. That’s impressive for an African-American film, much less a gay African-American art house film.

“African-American films tend to not skew as high in Canada in terms of percentage because of the makeup of the audience,” says Gauthier-Mercier.

In comparison, Denzel Washington’s Fences has earned 2 per cent of its North American grosses in Canada, while box-office champ Hidden Figures pulled in 4.54 per cent, and Raoul Peck’s James Baldwin doc, I Am Not Your Negro, which opened last week, is at 1 per cent.

After less than a week, Jordan Peele’s horror smash, Get Out, has raked in 4 per cent of its $37.5 million North American box-office take in Canada, though that percentage is expected to increase.

Even though Moonlight became available on DVD and video-on-demand platforms like iTunes on February 28, it’s on track to hit the $2 million mark at the Canadian box office this weekend.

“Yesterday we had our best Tuesday ever,” says Gauthier-Mercier. “The movie crushed it at the Varsity. It was a really big night for us.

“Canadian audiences are discerning,” he adds. “Well-reviewed films tend to do better. People pay attention to reviews here. Sixty per cent of our box office is from Toronto, and Toronto audiences are smart.”

kevinr@nowtoronto.com | @kevinritchie

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