For the second time during the usually slow early months of the year, a highly anticipated movie generated inflated expectations for its opening weekend gross. After another R-rated release “American Sniper” debuted to $89 million last month ($107 million for the four-day Martin Luther King holiday weekend), the movie version of erotic bestseller “Fifty Shades of Grey” could soar close to $100 million.
The media did Universal’s marketing for them, boosting awareness to the maximum level (higher, outside of Fox News environs, than “American Sniper”).
Here’s why the gross passed $85 million for three days and will go to an estimated $94.4 million, per Universal, over the four-day President Day’s weekend:
1. Valentine’s Day Weekend Is the Best Possible Date
Universal opened “Shades” on Thursday night to nab those who want to see it first, followed by Friday, then Valentine’s Day fell on Saturday for maximum impact, then Sunday is the only February Sunday with no competing Super Bowl, Grammys or Oscars, and is the eve of a holiday for many workers, and then President’s Day. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Amazingly, the obvious appeal of Valentine’s Day hasn’t always been exploited by male audience-driven studios; the last time Feb. 14 fell on Saturday, the “Friday the 13th” reboot was the main new film, taking in $40 million. Last year, Valentine’s Day was Friday, with the rom-coms “About Last Night” ($25 million) and “Endless Love” ($13 million) opening, “Robocop” between them, and “A Winter’s Tale” lagging (the second weekend of “The LEGO Movie” scored $50 million). “50 First Dates” in a similar 2004 Saturday position grossed $40 million for three days. Eleven years later (with ticket prices now more than 25% higher), adding Monday alone should get “Fifty Shades” to above $60 million before even factoring in all of its extra appeal.
2. Studios Always Low-Ball Opening Weekend Estimates
Spin is not just a game for political campaigns. Studios are experts at providing an estimated gross one step above laughable so that when they end up higher, it makes a better story. People reporting on grosses tend not to question these in advance, then dutifully report the “surprise” result. Opposing distribs often make closer guesses, but want to keep their credibility as sources and also don’t care to be hyping the competition too much, so they are known to come in under rather than over for many non-sequel successes.
3. Presales Were Huge
Fandango reported that “Fifty Shades” was the fourth biggest pre-seller before the weekend. The others in the top five all ended up grossing over $130 million for their first three days. “Shades” benefits as pre-purchases are more common. Pre-sales feed on themselves: as people hear about intensity of interest, they plan and commit to attending, thus skipping the potential for bad word of mouth depressing further sales.
4. It’s Nationwide
“American Sniper” stunned by having huge numbers in all locations, but record-setting in some cases in Southern, military-community and smaller city markers rather than the urban centers that often set the pace. Those expecting “Shades” to be more coastal/sophisticated might be in for a shock. Presales are disproportionately big in some Bible Belt states such as Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama (where many are reeling from newly legal gay marriage). Flyover play will make this even bigger.
5. Women Flocked to it Even More Than “Sex in the City“
The initial movie version of the HBO series took in $57 million with a May 30 opening in 2008 (facing the thriller “The Strangers”), equating to $65 million, plus “Shades” has the Valentine’s Day and four-day holiday boost. “Sex” had a huge built in audience from the hit TV series–many of whom attended in large groups opening weekend, as they did “Shades”–but not the novel zeitgeist factor. The media were more surprised by the “Sex in the City” gross (as well as later femme raunchfest “Bridesmaids”) than they should have been. “Shades” has entered new territory as a singularly female-driven blockbuster.
6. Theaters Are Maximizing Seat Availability
Exhibitors have been anticipating “Shades” (even though some were concerned that leather-equipped patrons would keep parents from bringing kids to see “SpongeBob”) and most multiplexes that have the screens are maximizing their seating to keep sell-outs to a minimum in order to accommodate front-end audiences. Los Angeles’ Arclight Hollywood has seven screens including the 900-seat Dome playing “Shades” opening night, and an unusual four full screens through the weekend. Manhattan’s Regal Union Square has five on tap for tomorrow. Chances are moviegoers will be able to get into most theaters this weekend. And that adds millions to a gross.
7. Reviews Are Good Enough
“Shades” sits at a mediocre 47 at Metacritic, but that’s not so bad. Most of its reviews are provocative (the core appeal) and many say the film marks an improvement on the book (which has sold 100 million copies worldwide). This is hardly an Oscar contender, but it scored only a C+ on Cinemascore despite closely hewing to the book’s story, characters and romance– perhaps due to its sanitized edgier elements.
Some (especially male) moviegoers resisted seeing the film in crowded auditoriums. Many may wait to see it in the privacy of their own home which could make it a huge later VOD title. It could be an interesting test. The general wisdom is that sexually provocative films have traditionally not been seen as optimal theatrical experiences (hence the explosion of the porn industry, both hard or soft, from the early days of VHS through the internet). Are some potential female viewers going to be reluctant? It’s more likely that “Shades” works as a romantic character-driven drama that happens to include some mildly explicit sex scenes.
Another bestseller “Gone Girl,” with good reviews, stronger creative elements and a similar edgy appeal to women had a healthy $37 million opening (it initially skewed older and more upscale than “Shades”).
Still, “Fifty Shades of Grey” will gross some $95 million for its first four days, if not exceeding “American Sniper”‘s $109 holiday haul. Competing with Clint Eastwood’s likely $330-360 million take (higher if it wins Best Picture and/or Actor) is less likely. In any case, the first six weeks of 2015 will already have two huge hits that would be great at any time of the year, with neither fitting the profile of a typical smash. And that is the best news of all for the domestic movie industry.