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Top 10 Box Office Takeaways: Studios Avoid ‘Ultron,’ What Went Wrong with ‘Hot Pursuit’?

Top 10 Box Office Takeaways: Studios Avoid 'Ultron,' What Went Wrong with 'Hot Pursuit'?

It’s the Marvel show again this weekend, though ongoing sensation “Avengers: Age of Ultron” has likely had its last weekend at number one. “Pitch Perfect 2” and possibly the new “Mad Max” could challenge next week. While “Ultron” continues to do just a little less than anticipated, the rest of the Top Ten overall wasn’t strong enough to raise the totals above last year despite a few good holdovers and films increasing their gross. The biggest problem? The weak “Hot Pursuit” seems to suggest women have higher standards than men for what they want in comedies.

Top Ten

1. Avengers: Age of Ultron (Buena Vista) Week 2 – Last weekend #1
$77,203,000 (-60%) in 4,276 theaters (unchanged); PSA (per screen average): $18,055; Cumulative: $312,589,000
2. Hot Pursuit (20th Century Fox) NEW – Cinemascore: C-; Criticwire: D+; Metacritic: 30
$13,300,000 in 3,003 theaters; PSA: $4,429; Cumulative: $13,300,000
3. The Age of Adaline (Lionsgate) Week 3 – Last weekend #2
$5,600,000 (-10%) in 3,070 theaters (+79); PSA: $1,824; Cumulative: $31,529,000
4. Furious 7 (Universal) Week 6 – Last weekend #3
$5,272,000 (-21%) in 3,004 theaters (-301); PSA: $1,755; Cumulative: $338,420,000
5. Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (Sony) Week 4 – Last weekend #4
$5,190,000 (-12%) in 3,201 theaters (-347); PSA: $1,621; Cumulative: $58,075,000
6. Ex Machina (A24) Week 5 – Last weekend #7
$3,470,000 (+52%) in 2,004 theaters (+725); PSA: $1,732; Cumulative: $15,722,000
7. Home (20th Century Fox) Week 7 – Last weekend #5
$3,000,000 (-14%) in 2,495 theaters (-357); PSA: $1,202; Cumulative: $162,116,000
8. Woman in Gold (Weinstein) Week 6 – Last weekend #9
$1,652,000 (+3%) in 1,080 theaters (-80); PSA: $1,530; Cumulative: $26,978,000
9. Unfriended (Universal) Week 4 – Last weekend #6     
$1,412,000 (-36%) in 1,701 theaters (-520); PSA: $830; Cumulative: $30,943,000
10. The Longest Ride (20th Century Fox) Week 5 – Last weekend #8
$1,300,000 (-24%) in 1,465 theaters (-651); PSA: $888; Cumulative: $35,211,000

Again, “Cinderella,” listed ninth elsewhere, is excluded since a majority of its reported gross comes from playing drive-in double bills with “Ultron.” This is standard industry practice, but doesn’t usually affect the Top Ten. These bogus numbers are going to allow Disney to claim that the very successful “Cinderella” will reach $200 million.

With Grosses in Full Rebound Mode, “Ultron”‘s Success Is Less Clear

As the industry and related media ignore the reality of declining domestic theater patronage, the very strong performance of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” has fallen short of predictions. This happened once again this week, when expectations for its gross ranged from $80-90 million. The film’s performance affirms why lowballing any box office bet is the best policy these days, and that predictions for this weekend likely overestimated the damage last Saturday’s boxing match did in order to keep the drop lower.

All of this noise distracts from the reality that $77 million for a second weekend is huge. Until “Star Wars” at least, “Ultron” looks like a strong contender for this year’s best domestic grosser. Its $735 million take so far is massive, even with potential top grosser China ahead and Japan in July. No confusion at all: this is a major smash.

But still, as last week’s opening showed, there is reason for concern. At the risk of making too much of the entrails, it remains significant that despite opening lower than expected, and theoretically with a bigger pool of potential ticket buyers, “Ultron” dropped 59%. Compared that to 50% for the first “Avengers.” Unlike three years ago, when “Avengers” had to compete with another strong opener “Dark Shadows” ($30 million), “Ultron” faced less threats to its draw. Without readjusting for inflation and 3D/IMAX surcharges, “Ultron” had the second-best second weekend ever, just below its predecessor (though if we adjusted for inflation and 3D/IMAX surcharge, “Ultron” would fall out of the top five). The achieved this in part with maximum screens and available seats compared to other, more crowded release periods. Anything much less would have been a real shock.

Again, it remains in question how healthy this is for theaters and the overall domestic industry. The Top Ten dropped a bit from last year ($118 million compared to $124). Year-to-date is up 5.6%, which is clearly positive. But despite the successes of “Ultron,” “Furious 7” and “American Sniper,” 2015 so far lags slightly behind two of the past five years. With strong titles yet to come, from huge Australian opener “Pitch Perfect 2” to sure-to-soar “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the year will likely top any other in unadjusted numbers. But this isn’t the time of year when one film should be doing nearly two-thirds of the Top Ten business, which has happened. The rest of the year isn’t going to let a single film have a clear field like “Ultron” had.

What Went Wrong with “Hot Pursuit”

“Hot Pursuit” is the sixth studio release to be directed by a woman in six months. A big, but still minuscule uptick, but this is a big disappointment. Its lackluster $13.3 million take fell under the low end of expectations, despite offering solid Mother’s Day-adjacent counter-programming with less-than-usual competition in a period where comedies of all sorts have been performing will. Though we are in a major resurgence for female-driven films, “Hot Pursuit” will sadly be used as a rationalization by some to discount women directors. (Try telling that to Universal after “Unbroken” and “Fifty Shades of Grey.”)

Director Anne Fletcher has had several hits, including “The Proposal” at $163 million. So the failure of “Hot Pursuit” is likely rooted elsewhere. The bad reviews hurt, but that hasn’t ever done much harm to, for example, Adam Sandler or Kevin James. Perhaps female ticket buyers are a bit more critic-influenced (again, though, see critically repellant “Fifty Shades”).

Female-centric comedies, including those with two actresses in the lead, have been a strong growth area since “Bridesmaids,” “Tammy” and “The Heat.” But that’s in part because each had Melissa McCarthy and R-rating front-and-center. Did audiences perceive the PG-13 “Hot Pursuit” to be too nice or safe? While Reese Witherspoon can carry a box office hit, even in comedies, the talented actress — who won her Oscar for a successful drama — isn’t associated with the edgy, R-rated, over-the-line comedy draw of someone like McCarthy. Co-star Sofia Vergara, known for TV’s “Modern Family,” meanwhile has yet to break out on the big screen.

Had this film been marketed as something more extreme, like McCarthy’s hits, “Hot Pursuit” might have done better. The female audience is out there. The lesson here is not to throw up hands in frustration and avoid taking a risk, which is greater for a film without strong international appeal. Instead, why not try to figure out how to tap the very real potential for actresses other than McCarthy to thrive in vehicles of their own?

Holdovers

Once again, later week films benefited more from the vacuum created by “Ultron.” Other than that film, only one of the other eight films already in release dropped more than 25% despite losing theaters. In the Marvel juggernaut’s shadow, several titles may end up much better than they initially expected.

Among the big winners was “The Age of Adaline,” down less than 10% its third weekend. This ultimately wasn’t as damaged by “Hot Pursuit” as expected. It should suffer more from “Pitch Perfect 2,” but should reach at least $40 million or up, more than tripling its opening weekend.

Weinstein’s perfectly timed “Woman in Gold” actually seems to have gone up this weekend and should surpass $30 million. Being the one older-audience release in a period with little competition has been a key. It will exceed $30 million, placing the film close to similarly targeted, Oscar-bait films that were much more expensive to market.

“Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 is never going to come close to equaling the earlier film, but also should easily treble its opening and reach $75 million. Bad reviews didn’t matter. Not so in the case of “Hot Pursuit.”

The stellar hold in the Top Ten is “Ex-Machina,” now A24’s biggest success, besting “Spring Breakers” and likely headed for more. Adding 725 new theaters usually means lower individual grosses, but the reported estimate comes to a PSA that is about equal to last week. That suggests the gamble of expanding in the face of “Ultron” is paying off and good word of mouth is kicking in. Last week, a struggle to top $20 million seemed possible. Now, an excellent $30 million or more isn’t out of the question.

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