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Top 10 Takeaways: There’s Still Life on Mars as Sandra Bullock and Bradley Cooper Vehicles Tank

Top 10 Takeaways: There's Still Life on Mars as Sandra Bullock and Bradley Cooper Vehicles Tank

As three new films with major stars opened on a weekend with Halloween falling on Saturday, the already weak box office took a nosedive. The grim truth: other than a handful of post-Labor Day results (usually the annual abyss), the Top Ten take is the lowest since 2001. It is, counting actual tickets sold (under eight million), one of the worst results ever for any non-September date, and close to the lowest attended likely ever.

Yes, still coming up are behemoth franchises James Bond, the “Hunger Games” finale, “Creed” and JJ Abrams’ “Star Wars,” but that doesn’t change the fact that this ailing market total is pathetic. It’s not happening in a vacuum. We’ll assess the carnage and try to figure out why.

The Top 10 (+2)

1. The Martian (20th Century Fox) Week 5 – Last weekend #1
$11,400,000 (-27%) in 3,218 theaters (-286); PTA (per theater average): $3,543; Cumulative: $182,807,000
2. Goosebumps (Sony) Week 3 – Last weekend #2
$10,210,000 (-34%) in 3,618 theaters (+117); PTA: $2,822; Cumulative: $57,104,000
3. Bridge of Spies (Buena Vista) Week 3 – Last weekend #3
$8,060,000 (-29%) in 2,873 theaters (+62); PTA: $; Cumulative: $45,203,000
4. Hotel Transylvania 2 (Sony) Week 6 – Last weekend #5
$5,830,000 (-34%) in 2,962 theaters (-192); PTA: $1,968; Cumulative: $156,004,000
5. Burnt (Weinstein) NEW – Cinemascore: B-; Criticwire: C; Metacritic: 42; Est. budget: $20 million
$5,038,000 in 3,003 theater; PTA: $1,678; Cumulative: $5,038,000
6. The Last Witch Hunter (Lionsgate) Week 2 – Last weekend #4
$4,750,000 (-56%) in 3,082 theaters (no change); PTA: $1,541; Cumulative: $18,613,000

7. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (Paramount) Week 2 – Last weekend #6
$3,450,000 (-57%) in 1,530 theaters (-126); PTA: $2,225; Cumulative: $13,570,000

8. Our Brand Is Crisis (Warner Bros.)  NEW – Cinemascore: C+; Criticwire: B-; Metacritic: 51; Est. budget: $28 million

$3,430,000 in 2,202 theater; PTA: $1,558; Cumulative: $3,430,00

9. Crimson Peak (Warner Bros.) Week 3 – Last weekend #8
$3,110,000 (-45%) in 2,112 theaters (-879); PTA: $1,473,000; Cumulative: $27,746,000
10. Steve Jobs (Universal) Week 4 – Last weekend #7
$2,580,000 (-64%) in 2,493 theaters (no change); PTA: $; Cumulative: $
12. Scouts to the Zombie Apocalypse (Paramount)  NEW – Cinemascore: B-; Criticwire: C-; Metacritic: 62; Est. budget: $15 million
$1,770,000 in 1,509 theater; PTA: $1,173; Cumulative: $1,770,000
16. Truth (Sony Pictures Classics)  Week 3 – Last weekend #32
$900,914 (+729%) in 1,122 theaters (+1,104); PTA: $803; Cumulative: $1,151,000

The Takeaways

It’s Not Just Halloween

The easy culprit to blame for the terrible numbers is Halloween coming on Saturday. Sure, that’s a factor. But only partly, and that hardly explains these grosses.

October 31 falls on Saturday every six years (on leap years it skips a cycle). The last occurrence in 2009 led to a top ten total of $77 million ($86 million in 2015 prices). This year’s $57 million is down a full third from that total. It was led by “Michael Jackson – This Is It” (a Wednesday opening to avoid the date) with $23 million, with Saturday only slightly down from Friday. In second place was the long-running first film in the “Paranormal Activity” series, which kept adding runs until its maximum point that weekend with $16.4  million. That alone is $5 million better than this weekend’s three top horror releases did. All the similar ones in 2009 did over $30 million.

And sticking with 2009, that year, grosses were down 22% from the preceding weekend. This year, they’re down 34%. Something is different this year.

So the first major difference is that horror films continue to be in free fall at theaters with rare exceptions. (Until a good one comes along.) So studios no longer target this date with the level of prime, top-end releases aimed at this audience. “The Last Witch Hunter,” as much a Vin Diesel vehicle as a horror film, is the best of the weak lot, and with a reported budget approaching $70 million, hardly a typical swoop-in-and-make-a-quick-profit release.

Here’s the figure that really leaps out from the 2009 list: the lightweight adult-oriented PG-13 comedy “Couples Retreat” in its fourth(!) weekend grossed $6.5 million. That’s better than all but the three best films this year, ahead of all four new or wide expansion films. So the audience for the similar “Burnt” fell short of that. (That precedent likely made opening this date on paper at least seem logical.)

“This Is It” and the horror films in 2009 scored because despite the Saturday competition, the under 25 audience, either on the other two days, or even on Saturday, considered going out to the movies during the weekend part of the plan. That may be the biggest sea change since 2009, and this weekend more than any other time this year shows how what once was the prime demo for American movies audiences is falling away, ever more rapidly. Sure, Halloween is getting bigger all the time. But these results show the increased vulnerability of the tried-and-true models to box office success. (App designers are looking at responsive new ways to reach the younger audience, and theaters are interested.)

The Stars Don’t Align

This weekend’s “big name” failures didn’t approach last week’s high-end list of usual winners having rare flops. Bradley Cooper has a much lower worst-case level than expected, with his film’s director, John Wells, a major force in the television world, delivering his third movie disappointment (including “August Osage County”) after huge success as a producer and other roles with “ER,” “The West Wing” and “Shameless.” He may want to go back to TV. 

“Our Brand Is Crisis” has the appearance of a film based on Sandra Bullock’s appeal and her personal passion for the project (including playing a lead written as a man). Her first live action film since global Oscar-winning blockbuster “Gravity” (which along with her other two most recent lead role films grossed between $160-260 million domestically), was developed by George Clooney as a directing gig it. As directed by David Gordon Green (“Pineapple Express,” “Joe”), the Toronto Fest movie is a ‘tweener, neither glossy escapist studio fare nor gritty naturalistic indie. Thus it needed to be a critics’ film in this overheated environment to get attention: it required far more than two-star consensus reviews to lure audiences to a movie that deviated from the formulas Bullock’s core fans expect.
“Burnt” and Cooper barely scored better. And his pedigree when working away from David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle,”) or Clint Eastwood (“American Sniper”) was challenged by “Serena” (which went VOD) and “Aloha,” which opened to just $9 million. Still, the foodie theme propelled both “Chef” and “The Hundred Foot Journey” (a fall release that was not propelled by critics) to reasonable success last year. A similar movie starring the likable Cooper should have grossed, even with mediocre reviews, around $10 million.
The problem comes down to iffy, badly-received high-concept films aimed at a finite number of adults in a crowded marketplace with plenty of A movies to choose from. Even Meryl Streep, catnip to the crowd these films were chasing, couldn’t get “Ricki and the Flash” in a less competitive time frame to open to more than $6.6 million. Stars get attention, but the older audience demands more than that.

Limited Interest in Awards Expansions – Too Much True to Handle?

The convergence of specialized/awards/older audience films with wider releases is hardly a new trend, but this year as been much more problematic than other seasons. “The Walk,” “Steve Jobs,” and “Truth” along with the much more successful “Sicario” have combined prime festival showcasing, favorable reviews, top directors and/or stars with pushes of 1,000 or more theaters by the third week of their runs. And the results are troubling, more so when waiting in the wings are other films touted as potential awards contenders and robust wide releases in the more competitive Thanksgiving and Christmas periods.

“The Walk” is gone after only four weeks, taking in under $10 million, a standalone failure in Robert Zemeckis’ great career.

“Steve Jobs” opened like it could be the platform film of the year, but started showing signs of weakness in its limited expansion, then disappointing grosses last week. But nothing is as devastating as its 64% drop this weekend. How bad was this? Don’t blame Halloween. Go back again to 2009, Saturday Halloween. The second wide week of “Amelia” with Hilary Swank in about 40% as many theaters at “Jobs” grossed $3 million, about $400,000 more, with worse reviews and less awards hype. And it fell only 22% from the previous weekend (it did add 250 theatres; “Jobs” stayed the same.)

“Truth” is faring even worse. Adding runs quickly in its third week against their usual strategy, SPC saw their decently reviewed and star-driven title gross only $900,000 in over 1,000 theaters. And that will be by far its best weekend. That’s compared to the $1.5 million their “Grandma” managed in its fifth weekend when they jumped from 130 to 1,061 screens. When Cate Blanchett’s “Blue Jasmine” went to over 1,000 theaters (1,283) in its fifth weekend, it grossed four times as much (nearly $4 million).

The three underperforming films share a “based on a true story”/recent events starting point, with two of them (“The Walk” and “Our Brand Is Crisis”) being preceded by well-received documentaries (as was the case with another recent weak player “The Pawn Sacrifice”). “Truth” is also recent history brought back to life. Could familiarity with a story lessen the interest? Fact-based films, bio- or otherwise, have scored well in recent years (“The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Wild,” “12 Years a Slave”among them). But all those were less familiar than this current crop, and that also could be a factor.

But the scariest thought —it’s not too soon to raise this, with more grist for this to come with major new contenders opening this week—is there an Oscar backlash? Add the decent but less than expected results for “Room,” “The Suffragette” doing barely better than “Truth ” so far, and the trend is there. Going to fall festivals, getting mentioned in all the awards-touting sites, positioning a film as a platform/slow roll out opener — all part of the Oscar attention package — isn’t working close to the way the formula has in the past.

Too many at once? Hardly. There may be a small uptick this year, but mostly it’s business as usual. Perhaps the specialty companies, having achieved the dominance in the awards world, picked some contenders that did not earn the strong core audience enthusiasm they should have. So when this year with “The Martian” and “Bridge of Spies” leading the way (that $20 million worth of business this weekend right there, most of it adult, much of it from the pool these other films count on), films that seem to be entertaining, as well as important or worthy or noble or good for you, became the preferred choices. “The Martian” has been #1 for four of its five weeks. The last Best Picture winner to achieve that was “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.”

And these two titles could end up, with neither initially projected as sure-bet awards contenders, doing better particularly with Oscar voters than their platform opening highly touted cousins.

The best result could be a shift of the fall limited releases to other times of the year, a healthy development all around.

Holdovers

The successful films, even though it only took $11.4 million to be #1, or just under $6 million to make the top four (all holdover this week) fell only 35%, Halloween or not. “The Martian” and “Bridge of Spies” kept it under 30%, with “Goosebumps” and “Hotel Transylvania 2” both still drawing families, 34% off.

Last weekend’s two horror releases still in the Top 10 took typical 50-60% second weekend horror film drops. But both still held better than the unfortunate “Steve Jobs.”

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