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Top 10 Takeaways: ‘Maze Runner’ and ‘Black Mass’ Lead Box Office

Top 10 Takeaways: 'Maze Runner' and 'Black Mass' Lead Box Office

September continues to rebound nicely after late summer’s modest slump. This weekend, despite some uneven performances among the Top Ten, was about 9% better than the same one in 2014, coming in at $97 million vs. $89 million. A range of disparate movies with differing distribution patterns drew varied audiences. This healthy pattern bodes well, as we anticipate even bigger hits over the next several weeks. Clearly, pursuing less cookie-cutter strategies works. Diverse entries helped, even though one key group (families/young audiences) remains missing. “Hotel Transylvania 2” will take care of that next week.

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” (20th Century Fox) grabbed increasingly elusive young adult ticket buyers. “Scorch Trials” fell a bit short of the $32.5 million for its initial entry (only a year ago, so this was an efficient turnaround). This continues a trend — contrary to what used to be the norm among popular franchises — of the second one at least improving on the opening weekend, and often topping the total take. Its audience demo reports –53% female, 37% African American and Latino — were a bit lower than often makes up successful mass audience films these days, but the 63% under 25– again, particularly among young males who are increasingly a challenge — shows Fox was mostly successful in its marketing. The shortfall comes a bit from Saturday not jumping as much as last year (11%, down from 19%; the Fridays for both were about the same). Still, a younger appeal sequel going up its second day is a positive sign, especially with audiences increasingly aware of the familiar. Meantime, worldwide totals (this opened last week in much of the world) have already crossed the $100 million mark, although this may fall short of the $340 million for the original.

After its festival showings, high-profile “Black Mass” (Warner Bros.), marking a return to popular Boston gangster territory, was credible. But its mixed performance demands a sharper look. 

And a limited IMAX only initial week of “Everest” (Universal) showed strength. That plus a range of decent holdovers managed to push grosses higher. And most of the highly touted fall releases have yet to arrive.

The Top Ten

1. The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials (20th Century Fox) NEW – Cinemascore: B+; Criticwire: C+; Metacritic: 41; Est. budget: $60 million
$30,300,000 in 3,791 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $7.993; Cumulative: $30,300,000
2. Black Mass (Warner Bros.) NEW – Cinemascore: B; Criticwire: B; Metacritic: 68; Est. budget: $53 million
$23,360,000 in 3,188 theaters; PTA: $7,327; Cumulative: $23,360,000
3. The Visit (Universal) Week 2 – Last weekend #2
$11,350,000 (-55%) in 3,148 theaters (+79); PTA: $3,605; Cumulative: $42,348,000
4. The Perfect Guy (Paramount) Week 2 – Last weekend #1
$9,640,000 (-63%) in 2,230 theaters (+9); PTA: $4,323; Cumulative: $41,350,000
5. Everest (Universal) NEW – Criticwire: B-; Metacritic: 64; Est. budget: $55 million
$7,560,000 in 545 theaters; PTA: $13,867; Cumulative: $7,560,000
6. War Room (Sony) Week 3 – Last weekend #3
$6,250,000 (-20%) in 1,945 theaters (+298); PTA: $3,213; Cumulative: $49,088,000
7. A Walk in the Woods (Broad Green) Week 3 – Last weekend #4
$2,733,000 (-42%) in 2,158 theaters (+19); PTA: $1,266; Cumulative: $24,972,000
8. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (Paramount) Week 8 – Last weekend #5
$2,250,000 (-45%) in 2,202 theaters (-447); PTA: $1,022; Cumulative: $191,732,000
9. Straight Outta Compton (Universal) Week 6 – Last weekend #6
$1,970,000 (-50%) in 1,938 theaters (-874); PTA: $1,017; Cumulative: $158,921,000
10. Grandma (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 5 – Last weekend #22
$1,596,000 (+ 147%) in 1,061 theaters (+931); PTA: $1,504; Cumulative: $3,790,000

The Takeaways

Risky release strategies – did they pay off?

Fall sometimes, particularly for awards oriented films, often means studio releases veer from the normal 2,500-3,500 wide release formula, even for high profile/expense films. This week shows multiple strategies at work that involved some care and decisions that might be considered risky. “Scorch Trials” is the obvious exception, but of the three other new releases, only one went initially wide.

Warner Bros.’ “Black Mass” was driven by the fall festival trifecta of Venice, Telluride, and Toronto and a star turn by Johnny Depp, earning his best reviews in years. Its $23-million gross was at the lower end of expectations, as an older audience appeal film that does not improve from Friday to Saturday is considered a disappointment. (This suggests negative word of mouth.)

Warners may have made the right choice. The reviews, though positive, fell far short of the more limited release “Sicario” (though that opened only in New York and Los Angeles, awareness of its stronger reviews likely resonated), so it might not have gotten the same limited boost. It also got out ahead of other older-audience films (intense competition already in play will only grow — an incredible 89% of the “Mass” audience is over 25). And with so much chatter about strong actors coming out of recent fest films, having Depp and his possibly contending performance out with less competition among other new releases could elevate him more than rolling this out at a slower pace might have.

“Everest,” though given the same opening night position at Venice that “Gravity” and “Birdman” had, took an unusual course that so far looks like it could pay off. With its appeal tied in with its spectacular visuals recreating a tumultuous Everest climb, Universal advanced the opening date to IMAX/3D locations a week. The jump start seems to have worked – the film landed the #5 spot with only 545 theaters. Its “A” Cinemascore, if reliable seems to be reflected in the 30% jump from Friday, the best of the new releases, and that word of mouth should help its much wider release (both 3D and 2D) next week. And since those who have seen it only have the enhanced experience, this should help get a bigger per cent of the upcoming business into higher-priced venues. So this also looks so far as another offbeat choice that is paying off (the most recent of many for high-flying Universal)

Going a different route entirely was Lionsgate’s “Sicario.” Denis Villeneuve, despite his French-Canadian art house roots, established his commercial bona fides with “Prisoners” two years ago. That film world premiered at the early September fests, then right away had a wide release (Warner Bros). Its reviews weren’t quite as strong as “Sicario”‘s so far. It had two big names — Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal — front and center driving attention. Its family imperiled by a kidnapping story had more immediate appeal than a drug cartel thriller. The hordes of media at Toronto and elsewhere were waiting to be the first to report on awards potential for new films, so the Cannes premiere was not going to get the immediate wide boost others (like “Black Mass”) did. So going limited and then waiting two weeks to expand was logical. And it worked, as we reported in Arthouse Audit, the six runs turned into the biggest platform per theater average this year so far.

It remains risky. With a budget of $30 million, though economical by wide-release standards, a wrong move at the start would have crippled the release. Instead, they likely continue to thrive with new city expansions this week, then a wide Oct. 2 break where they hope it all comes together. Meantime, their audience overlaps with “Black Mass,” and this delay, whether part of the thinking or coincidental, means the two films give each other some space.

Is “Black Mass” Falling Short?

At a budget of $53 million, this was a somewhat risky film for any studio, though with Johnny Depp in tow, particularly enhancing foreign appeal, along with its alluring gangster genre both here and abroad, it was a reasonable risk. More so if one looks at similar releases.

It seems a little disappointing given the disconcerting lack of increase on Saturday, and the film fell short of several similar releases, mostly fall (“The Departed,” “Gone Girl,” “The Town,” “Public Enemies,” “American Gangster”) all of which opened to between $26-53 million (adjusted for inflation, “The Departed” was nearly 50% better). Most of those had great multiples far above the usually hoped for 3.5 from opening weekend. But they also showed strength on the initial Saturday.

And “Black Mass” had the field to themselves this weekend. They were granted the shot at adult audiences, Johnny Depp fans, those who previously had flocked to tough edgy dramas. It’s way too early to paint this as a failure. The second weekend will tell us more, and the rest of the world for the most part is ahead. But is this a case where Depp just is not the draw he once was (“Mortdecai” and “The Lone Ranger” may have done damage)? Have we had one too many gritty Boston-set high-end films (add “The Fighter” and “Mystic River” as other earlier successes)? Whatever the case, the bottom line: this opened lower than the top two new films last weekend (“The Perfect Guy” and “The Visit,” both far less expensive and with much lower expectations). Again, if this manages to perform more like a normal older-audience film, it could still have substantial life. But it had a strong shot at success this weekend, and fell short.

Holdovers

Here’s an oddity – the four best holdovers this week all added runs, two of them already in their third weeks. Only one (“The Visit”) started over 3,000, so they had room to grow. The results are uneven, but some are showing consistent success.

Last week’s #1 and 2 reversed the order between each other. “The Visit” dropped 55%, less than usual for a horror film, and outgrossed “The Perfect Guy,” not so good at 63% down. Both had production budgets below their marketing costs, so both should still come out OK (though “Perfect” has to rely almost entirely on domestic returns).

“War Room” (Sony) is stellar — down a minor 20% on week three, and already nearing $50 million on a $3 million initial cost. One of three wider faith-based movies, it seems to have hurt two newer ones in the past two weeks. Goldwyn’s “90 Minutes in Heaven” won’t reach $5 million (it placed 12th the weekend, off more than 50%). Paramount’s foray into the area, “Captive,” managed only $1.4 million and didn’t even reach the Top Ten in 806 theaters.

“A Walk in the Woods,” “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” and “Straight Outta Compton” all took standard 40-50% drops to stay among the leaders. 

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