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'Spring Breakers' Scores Top Limited Opening of 2013, But Big Challenge Lies Ahead

"Spring Breakers"

Harmony Korine's dark, hedonistic comedy expands nationwide March 22; the indie film stars James Franco, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens.

When upstart distribution outfit A24 decided to open the R-rated Spring Breakers in only three theaters in New York and Los Angeles -- the standard practice for an arthouse title -- it knew it was taking a risk.

From renegade filmmaker and artist Harmony Korine, the dark, hedonistic comedy is far from being a typical specialty title, considering its younger-skewing subject matter and commercially appealing cast, led by James Franco and Disney-raised stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, as well as Ashley Benson (Pretty Little Liars). Rachel Korine, the director's wife, rounds out the cast.

PHOTOS: 'Spring Breakers' L.A. Premiere: Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens Celebrate in Hollywood

But the maneuver worked. Spring Breakers grossed $270,000 from three theaters in New York and Los Angeles to land the top location average of 2013 ($90,000), as well as one of the best of all time for the first three months of the year. It was the No. 1 film at ArcLight Hollywood in Los Angeles and Regal Union Square Stadium 14 in New York and the No. 2 title at AMC Empire 25, likewise in Manhattan and the busiest theater in the country.

"What this weekend proved is that Harmony's film has definitely hit a nerve. The audiences loved it," says A24's Nicolette Aizenberg.

But the bigger test comes March 22, when Spring Breakers, costing a modest $2 million to produce, expands nationwide into more than 1,000 theaters. While not the average arthouse title, it's also not the average spring-break party flick. Korine, whose previous directing credits include Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy and Mister Lonely, is far from being mainstream.

Spring Breakers follows four college girlfriends who rob a convenience store in order to make the sojourn to Florida and join in the partying. When they are later arrested on drug charges, they're bailed out by a gangster rapper named Alien (Franco), and their crime spree continues. The movie is rife with nudity and sex, including a threesome.

VIDEO: 'Spring Breakers' Trailer: Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, Teeny Boppers Gone Bad

A24, mindful of keeping marketing costs in check, used the limited opening to boost the film's awareness through favorable headlines and word-of-mouth (in rare instances, Hollywood studios will employ the same practice the week before a movie's nationwide debut).

But some box-office observers are questioning whether Spring Breakers will work on a larger basis, pointing out that the movie did notably less business at the Empire than at ArcLight or Union Square. The Empire is the most commercial of the three venues.

Aizenberg said the decision to add the Empire was made at the last minute; hence, the trailer didn't play there, nor were there any advertising materials in the lobby.

While no official exit polls were conducted, Aizenberg said many of those flocking to see the film were under the age of 30, indicating that Spring Breakers can indeed cast a wider net.

A24 relied heavily on timing in formulating its plan for the rollout, which coincides with real-life spring break. Also, Spring Breakers debuted one week after Franco's Oz the Great and Powerful hit theaters, allowing A24 to piggyback on Disney's extensive marketing campaign for Oz, which prominently featured Franco.

STORY: Inside the 'Electric' 'Spring Breakers' L.A. Premiere With Selena Gomez, James Franco

And on the eve of its launch, Spring Breakers screened at the SXSW Film Festival to the youthful audience it's courting. Gomez and Hudgens, in particular, generated tons of publicity for the film around SXSW because of their Disney background.

A24 acquired domestic rights to Spring Breakers from Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures. Love Streams Agnes B. Productions and Muse Productions financed and produced the film.

Spring Breakers marks only the third release for A24, after A Glimpse Into the Mind of Charles Swan III and Sally Potter's coming-of-age drama Ginger & Rosa. Starring Elle Fanning, Ginger & Rosa also debuted over the weekend, grossing $45,000 from three theaters for an average of $15,000.

A24 Pictures is backed by Guggenheim Partners, an investment group that also owns Dick Clark Productions and Guggenheim Digital Media, parent company of The Hollywood Reporter.