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Top Ten Box Office Takeaways: Why ‘Ouija’ and Keanu Reeves’ ‘John Wick’ Hit Big, Whither ‘St. Vincent’?

Top Ten Box Office Takeaways: Why 'Ouija' and Keanu Reeves' 'John Wick' Hit Big, Whither 'St. Vincent'?

Halloween is scary in more ways than one for the Hollywood studios, who get skittish about losing audiences to trick-or-treats and parties. Even though it’s a week away, the studios took a hiatus from opening any star-driven, high-end films. Per usual, a pre-Halloween horror flick– “Ouija” from Universal–topped the weekend, while “John Wick,” a new film from one-time powerhouse action star Keanu Reeves, added some wattage.

Still, the Top Ten continued to improve over last year, generating $96 million compared to $93 in 2013.  At this juncture the year to date is down 3.7%, nearly half the highest level of drop earlier in the year. 

While the weekend before Halloween is often host to a new horror film, “Ouija” is nonetheless a rarity. In recent years, we’ve seen more horror franchises (“Paranormal Activity,” “Saw,” “Scary Movie”) or remakes (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre”), often opening with weekends of $30 million or more. 

No sequels fit the bill this year. The latest “Paranormal” entry was delayed until early January, often a default horror slot to fit the post-holiday mood. So Universal jumped in with another offering from efficient/profitable genre producer Jason Blum (“Paranormal,” “The Purge,” “Insidious” and “Sinister,” as well as “Whiplash”). It is a sign of his standing at the studio that despite having a $70 million horror film also ready to go — “Dracula Untold” — they favored Blum’s low ($5 million) budget film for what should have been the optimal date.

In a year when horror films have underperformed, horror came back this month via Warner Bros.’ “Annabelle” ($37 million opening) as well as “Dracula Untold” ($23 million). The logic to Universal’s strategy was to sell “Dracula” as an international play (before this weekend’s reports, already at $117 million foreign). “Ouija,” with its low budget, had a strong chance for maximizing its grosses (and possibly establishing a new franchise) with a date closer to Halloween. But what if “Ouija” had gone first and beaten “Annabelle” as the first entry of the season? Would it have done more?

 The Top Ten

1) Ouija (Universal) NEW – Cinemascore: C; Criticwire: C-; Metacritic: 38; Est. budget: $5 million
$20,006,000 in 2,858 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $7,000; Cumulative: $20,006,000
2) John Wick (Lionsgate) NEW – Cinemascore: B; Criticwire: B+; Metacritic: 67; Est. budget (unreported)
$14,150,000 in 2,589 theaters; PSA: $5,465; Cumulative: $14,150,000
3) Fury (Sony) Week 2 – Last weekend #1
$13,000,000 (-45%) in 3,173 theaters (unchanged); PSA: $4,097; Cumulative: $46,050,000
4) Gone Girl (20th Century Fox) Week 4 – Last weekend #2
$11,100,000 (-37%) in 3,106 theaters (-143); PSA: $3,574; Cumulative: $124,093,000
5) The Book of Life (Warner Bros.) Week 2 – Last weekend #3
$9,800,000 (-42%) in 3,133 theaters (+42); PSA: $3,148; Cumulative: $29,913,000
6) St. Vincent (Weinstein) Week 3 – Last weekend #15
$8,058,000 (+1,111%) in 2,282 theaters (+2,214); PSA: $3,531; Cumulative: $9,189,000
7) Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (Buena Vista) Week 3 – Last weekend #4
$7,023,000 (-39%) in 3,117 theaters (+29); PSA: $2,253 Cumulative: $45,544,000
8) The Best of Me (Relativity) Week 2 – Last weekend #5
$4,736,000 (-53%) in 2,936 theaters (unchanged); PSA: $1,613; Cumulative: $17,663,000
9) The Judge (Buena Vista) Week 3 – Last weekend #7
$4,345,000 (-45%) in 2,610 theaters (-393); PSA: $1,665; Cumulative: $34,377,000
10) Dracula Untold (Universal) Week 3 – Last weekend #6
$4,302,000 (-57%) in 2,364 theaters (-536); PSA: $1,820; Cumulative: $48,328,000

The Takeaways

The Curious Route of “John Wick”

According to IMDb, the countries listed as the source for “John wick” are China, Canada and the U.S. It’s creatively an American film (filmed in the New York area, its first time director Chad Stahelski was Reeves’ “Matrix” stuntman) and one of its producers is Eva Longoria. But it was financed with international money, including China’s major Huayi Brothers Media Corp. (also a partner in “Fury,” branching out more from local production).

Lionsgate picked up the movie for a minimum guarantee: marketing a wide opening. But if the film manages to do a 2.5 multiple of the opening (a low-end guess), it would gross $35 million. With later revenues (an action film with a proven star should get decent later multi-venue viewing to add to its take), this will bring decent profit for both distributor and producers. And its decent U.S. launch will boost other ancillary markets (domestic marketing impacts overseas).

Like everyone else, Lionsgate is in the franchise business (“Hunger Games,” the now completed “Twilight” series, “Divergent,” “The Expendables”). The major studios fill in their slates with some outside productions as they focus on in-house tentpoles to supply their international networks –and keep more in-house profit. Lionsgate’s had an off year, but their potentially biggest film, the next “Hunger Games” entry, should make up for much of the gap. “John Wick” also marks something of a comeback for Reeves, whose colossal flop “The 47 Ronin” over a year ago opened to under $10 million (managing only $150 million worldwide against an initial $175 million expense).

Why “St. Vincent” is a ‘Tweener

The Weinstein Company is known for aggressive releases of their initially limited opening films, but “St. Vincent” seemed to be something different. Opening two weeks ago to decent but hardly spectacular grosses (PSA $27,500 — barely more than a quarter of “Birdman” last weekend) and then expanding to 68 its second week, it leaped to over 2,000 in its third. Typically, the next wave would have been in the mid-hundreds. So what does this jump mean, and how well did it do?

Several factors were likely involved. Any smart distributor will shape a release pattern to what each film needs, including the play period. As stated, distributors often opt to skip Halloween with high-end releases. Also, “Birdman” is just beginning to roll out (which will continue for several weeks) and provide competition for some of the “St. Vincent” target audience. So jumping into a quicker wide release could mean finding the maximum number of potential viewers in the near-term.

A “tweener” is a film that is neither automatically wide release nor core specialized. “St. Vincent”‘s reviews are only modestly favorable. The story and cast — including Melissa McCarthy — have more mainstream appeal. It feels similar to “Chef,” which Open Road took from a better limited opening to total $31 million (via a much slower roll out), maxing out at some 1,200 theaters.

“St. Vincent” also seems in its early stages to appeal to both older and younger audiences, making a wider break logical. Also, this being Weinstein, Bill Murray has earned some raves, though overall reviews are not as strong as they need to be for a bonafide Oscar contender. So increasing the visibility — which a wider release does — increases his chances in a crowded Best Actor field.

So how did it do? This remains a work in progress with an unclear prognosis. The company tried something similar with “August: Osage County” early this year. Its third week expanded to 1,377 fewer theaters (905) and grossed $7,158,000, only about $850,000 less, on its way to an ultimate $37.7 million. But that film suffered from erratic audience response. A repolled Cinemascore showed A- again this weekend, and the gross popped 31% yesterday from Friday (not great for a mainly adult drawing film, but if this means it is getting a broader audience, a positive sign).

Tweeners are tough to market. Even with a star like Keira Knightley, the well-received “Begin Again” (also Weinstein) only got to $16 million, 939 theaters at its widest. Sources at TWC indicate some modest further expansion – likely below 300 – will take place this week. But whether this turns out to be successful (it is quite possible that other strategies would have been riskier and produced less revenue) is still undetermined. It will require a good hold — $5 million or more next weekend, then less drops in the weeks just after — to work. We’ll see how it stands up against Open Road’s wide release of their anticipated well-reviewed “Nightcrawler” as well as “Birdman”‘s expansion. 

“Gone Girl” is holding strong 

There’s “Gone Girl” and then there’s the rest. Last year’s “Gravity” was also one of the best holding films of recent years. “Gone Girl” is tops so far in total gross (and now looks to get to around $160 million, a best by far for David Fincher) in no small part because it continues to keep each weekly drop under 40%.

“Alexander” also fell just under that, and now looks headed to a $60 million+ domestic total for Disney, which with its low budget should be enough to give it a chance at profit eventually. “Fury,” “The Book of Life” and “The Judge” all were in the 40-50% range. For “Fury” this is more than the wide second week drops of recent war film successes “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Lone Survivor” and comes after an OK but not sensational opening. “Book” was just an ordinary animated film opening figure– most of them hold better. “The Judge” is coming off a weaker start and needed a much better hold.

For “The Best of Me” and “Dracula Untold” (down 53 and 57% respectively) the news is less good, with both now likely to lose many theaters this week.

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