Marvel continues to rule the Hollywood roost. Origin myth "Guardians of the Galaxy" yet again shows the power of Marvel’s unified vision of a comic-book universe whose characters inhabit a clearly defined and immersive world. Like "Iron Man," these Guardians are less widely known than Thor, the Hulk or Captain America. Even so, "Guardians" performed at the same level as Marvel’s other summer films, and in August! That marks Marvel’s most impressive achievement this year. Clearly, audiences are searching for something different than the pablum the studios are feeding them. And "Guardians" wound up with critical raves far above the norm for a tentpole/international-appeal movie. (See Top Ten Chart below.)
Coming in at $94 million, "Guardians of the Galaxy" is the sixth film of the year to open at over $90 million, four of which were Marvel properties. Marvel’s brand domination and product cred are rare in Hollywood. The studios envy Disney-owned Marvel but can’t replicate its success because it’s based on one powerful obsessed producer– Kevin Feige– controlling the movies, growing them organically and making sure they fit inside the Marvel universe. Note Edgar Wright’s departure on "Ant Man." Compare and contrast Marvel with studio efforts on "X-Men," "Spider-Man" and most notably, Warners uneven output with movies based on DC’s Batman, Green Lantern and Superman.
Feige seems able to land on a dime just about every time–and is starting to rival John Lasseter’s blockbuster record at another Disney label, Pixar. Marvel seeks to please audiences without abandoning their properties’ rich DNA. And Feige has the knack for picking fresher, edgier directors–in the case of "The Avengers"’ Joss Whedon and "Guardians"’ James Gunn, also entrusted with writing chores. (Gunn took over from co-writer Nicole Perlman, who chose to develop this comic during her two-year stint at Marvel’s in-house writing program.) Gunn jumps on the A-list along with "Jurassic Park" star Chris Pratt ("Star Trek" and "Avatar" star Zoe Saldana was already there) and is already prepping a sequel.
Digging into the numbers, on paper "Guardians" marks the new record holder for an August opening. But although the previous best gross in raw numbers was "The Bourne Ultimatum," if you adjust for increased ticket prices, "Rush Hour 2" in 2001 was better at $97 million. And 3D surcharges bolstered the "Guardian" take. Thus both "Bourne" and "Signs"actually sold more tickets.
August is low on the list for distributors to release high-expectation films. The potential for long-run success playing to the out-of-school crowd is better earlier in the summer (many students return by mid-August), and the month is considered dead in Europe.
But with Marvel’s multiple other entries demanding space and competition from other tentpole actioners as well the World Cup, this was a sharp distribution decision. And as an extra bonus, more typical August competition from the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" reboot next week and "Expendables 3" allows "Guardians" to place #1 for multiple weeks with a stronger hold, better than the summer’s previous top openers. It’s also likely to pull repeat viewers–weak repeat business and steep falloffs have plagued the summer’s listless box office which until now had been down 20%.
With the best of the year’s films yet to reach $260 million, the door is open for "Guardians" to end up the top release so far at least domestically (this weekend "Transformers: Age of Extinction" became the first 2014 blockbuster to hit $1 billion worldwide), which is not too high a bar to overcome. And it would be the first ever for an August release! With "Guardians" the last shot at a huge opening for this summer, note that even with unadjusted numbers or inflation, nothing this year so far ranks in the top 25 of all time (with adjusting not even top 40). That makes it the first summer without a new entry into the all time bests since the 1990s.
"Guardians" boosted the weekend Top Ten total which for the first first time in weeks marks an improvement over last year, $177 million, way above $118 million in 2013. Last year the weekend was led by "2 Guns" at $27 million at #1. The rest of the positions this weekend across the board though grossed less than last year. The other opener, "Get On Up" (Universal) came in at an OK $14 million to take third place (behind last weekend’s #1 "Lucy," also Universal). Last week’s #2 "Hercules" dropped a big 64% ("Lucy" fell 58% from a better than expected opening figure). Better news is found though from the remaining films all dropping under 50%, improved from what has become the norm in recent weeks. #10 "A Most Wanted Man" actually grew as it doubled its theater count.
With the improved results, the year to date lag is reduced to 6%. This is the first weekend since 2/28-3/2 that none of the top four films is a sequel. Most weekends have had at least two since then.
Can "Get On Up" Cross Over? Can Chadwick Boseman Land an Oscar?
The weekend’s other opening, the James Brown biopic "Get On Up," opened in about 60% as many screens as "Guardians" (Universal had over 6,000 more theaters for two other Top 10 films) to an OK $14 million. With a reported pre-marketing budget of $30 million (but also with most of its potential box office coming from domestic, not international), this will turn out to be a success only with strong word of mouth and improved crossover appeal in the weeks ahead. Which helps to explain why Universal chose an August date.
Compared to similar biopics of African-American icons, "Get On Up" opened a bit short. "Ray" opened in October 2004 to $20 million (which would be higher today) on its way to $75 million and an Oscar for Jamie Foxx. "42," a biopic about racial barrier breaker Jackie Robinson (also portrayed by Chadwick Boseman) opened in April 2013 to $27 million and ultimately $95 million. And similar music biopic "Walk the Line" about Johnny Cash and June Carter (Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon) was released in November 2005 to $22 million, and rode the awards wave for months to reach $119 million.
What’s the difference here? Universal exit polls showed that the initial attendance was 70% African-American. Presumably, "Ray" and "42" boasted more initial appeal to wider audiences. Robinson was a major historical figure, whose memory was still vivid for older audiences. Ray Charles was a much bigger star than James Brown — the former had three #1 singles and far more Top 10 hits than Brown. Both Robinson and Charles can be regarded as beloved, which is not something the edgier and more challenging Brown aspired to.
Boseman’s performance is earning a reaction not dissimilar to those of Foxx and Phoenix. Both films won Best Acting Oscars (the latter for Witherspoon). Both films were elevated by a Toronto Film Festival showcase, the point at which serious Oscar talk began.
So why August for "Get On Up"? Again, the lack of competitive product makes it easier for the film to reach a wider audience over the next few weeks and cross over. Director Tate Taylor’s Oscar-winning first film "The Help" also opened in August, without festival support. (So did Weinstein Co.’s "The Butler.") And looking at the past multiples of "Ray" and "42," this could use playtime without immediate competition from its main initial audience.
"Get On Up" needs greater interest from younger audiences. Exit polls show audiences are a staggering 90% over 25. Older audiences are probably the key for this film’s future success, since they are often slower to show up (depending more on word of mouth). And senior Academy voters have previously shown appreciation for acclaimed musical biopics performances. The movie played well at the Academy this weekend, and on Thursday the PGA gave actor Boseman a rousing standing ovation.
Other than "Get On Up," older audiences are also boosting two other Top 10 films: "And So It Goes" and "A Most Wanted Man" are virtually tied at #9 and #10, and "Boyhood" at only 302 theaters is at #11. Woody Allen’s "Magic in the Moonlight" will expand rapidly though out August, while "Chef" steadily now in its fourth month in the market is nearing $30 million.
The Top Ten Gross Chart
1. Guardians of the Galaxy (Buena Vista) NEW – Cinemascore: A; Criticwire: A-; Metacritic: 76; estimated budget $170 million
$94,000,000 in 4,080 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $23,039; Cumulative: $94,000,000
2. Lucy (Universal) Week 2 – Last weekend #1
$18,283,000 (-58%) in 3,202 theaters (+29); PSA: $5,710; Cumulative: $79,591,000
3. Get On Up (Universal) NEW – Cinemascore: A; Criticwire: B; Metacritic: 70; estimated budget $30 million
$14,031,000 in 2,468 theaters; PSA: $5,685; Cumulative: $14,031,000
4. Hercules (Paramount) Week 2 – Last weekend #2
$10,700,000 (-64%) in 3,595 theaters (unchanged); PSA: $2,976; Cumulative: $52,348,000
5. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (20th Century Fox) Week 4 – Last weekend #3
$8,700,000 (-48%) in 3,283 theaters (-385); PSA: $2,650; Cumulative: $189,330,000
6. Planes: Fire and Rescue (Buena Vista) Week 3 – Last weekend #5
$6,424,000 (-33%) in 3,241 theaters (-598); PSA: $1,982; Cumulative: $47,596,000
7. The Purge: Anarchy (Universal) Week 3 – Last weekend #4
$5,551,000 (-47%) in 2,656 theaters (-200); PSA: $2,090; Cumulative: $62,962,000
8. Sex Tape (Sony) Week 3 – Last weekend #6
$3,550,000 (-41%) in 2,500 theaters (-262); PSA: $1,420; Cumulative: $33,908,000
9. And So It Goes (Clarius) Week 2 – Last weekend #8
$3,344,000 (-28%) in 1,816 theaters (+34); PSA: $1,841; Cumulative: $10,473,000
10. A Most Wanted Man (Roadside Attractions) Week 2 – Last weekend #10
$3,324,000 (+24%) in 729 theaters (+368); PSA: $4,560; Cumulative: $7,059,000