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Top 10 Takeaways: ‘Hail, Caesar!’ Leads Three New Releases—Which Barely Total $20 Million

Top 10 Takeaways: 'Hail, Caesar!' Leads Three New Releases—Which Barely Total $20 Million

As much a distraction as the Super Bowl is, the two biggest days of the weekend fall before. Studios tend to avoid the date, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t business. While this weekend’s numbers are average for the time period, the results are unsettling because the three new releases all fell short of what similar films usually do. 

Kung Fu Panda 3” repeated at the top and helped stabilize an otherwise uneven period. But if 2016 is going to continue its early year pickup from a respectable 2015, it needs to improve quickly. Through Sunday, year to date totals are flagging slightly behind the same date last year.

The Top Ten

1. Kung Fu Panda 3 (20th Century Fox) Week 2; Last weekend #1
$21,000,000 (-49%) in 3,987 theaters (+32); PTA (per theater average): $5,267; Cumulative: $69,051,000
2. Hail, Caesar! (Universal) NEW – Cinemascore: C-; Criticwire: B; Metacritic: 72; Est. budget: $22 million
$11,440,000 in 2,232 theaters; PTA: $5,125; Cumulative: $11,440,000
3. The Revenant (20th Century Fox) Week 7; Last weekend #2
$7,100,000 (-44%) in 3,018 theaters (-312); PTA: $2,353; Cumulative: $149,703,000
4. Star Wars – The Force Awakens (Buena Vista)  Week 8; Last weekend #3
$6,890,000 (-38%) in 2,262 theaters (-294); PTA: $3,046; Cumulative: $905,961,000
5. The Choice (Lionsgate) NEW – Cinemascore: B+; Metacritic: 27; Est. budget: $10 million
$6,085,000 in 2,631 theaters; PTA: $2,313; Cumulative: $6,085,000
6. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Sony) NEW – Cinemascore: B-; Criticwire: C-; Metacritic: 46; Est. budget: $28 million
$5,200,000 in 2,931 theaters; PTA: $1,774; Cumulative: $5,200,000
7. The Finest Hours (Buena Vista)  Week 2; Last weekend #4
$4,715,000 (-54%) in 3,143 theaters (no change); PTA: $1,500; Cumulative: $18,361,000
8. Ride Along 2 (Universal)  Week 4; Last weekend #5
$4,520,000 (-46%) in 2,172 theaters (-240); PTA: $2,081; Cumulative: $77,207,000
9. The Boy (STX)  Week 3; Last weekend #7
$4,098,000 (-46%) in 2,214 theaters (-457); PTA: $1,851; Cumulative: $26,896,000
10. Dirty Grandpa (Lionsgate)  Week 3; Last weekend #6
$4,050,000 (-47%) in 2,567 theaters (-345); PTA: $1,578; Cumulative: $29,390,000

The Takeaways

A Mixed Superbowl Weekend

The $75 million estimated total actually puts the box office ahead of four of the last five (though down from $81 million last year, propelled by “American Sniper,” which contributed nearly $31 million of the total). This weekend’s weakness is usually a self-fulfilling prophecy, as most studios usually avoid it (and often its predecessor) as an opening date. Then with Presidents’ and Valentines Day holidays ahead (as well as the possibility of wintry weather), the logical course is to try to counter-program with movies not in direct competition and/or take advantage of a slot where a lesser release can prosper. 

Given the improved quality of the offerings this year, at least on paper, they should have performed better. The three new wide releases grossed a little less than $23 million (about what one new film alone on an average winter weekend does, though with a large range among results seasonally). That’s up from the $18 million of last year’s three debuts (“Project Almanac,” “Black or White” and “The Loft”). But this year’s entries were both higher profile but more expensive, with production budgets totaling $60 million compared to $35 million among the 2015 entries. So the uptick looks less impressive.

“Hail, Caesar!”: The Plight of the Not-Quite-Good-Enough Wide Release

The Coen Brothers have gone back and forth between platform and initial wide releases, more often than not to successful results. “Hail, Caesar!,” with its older appeal, was screened last minute to mainly positive reviews, skipped any festivals and falls outside the normal awards cycle release pattern (since their breakout success with “Fargo,” out of 11 films to follow, 8 opened after Labor Day, mostly hoping for late-year attention).

How did this work out? The Golden Age of Hollywood comedy seems to have topped modest expectations. And its timing for older audiences tired of nominations entries plus “The Lady in the Van” (still in limited release) seemed a logical alternative for upscale ticket buyers. This could have been a platform release through Focus Features, which likely would have soared to strong, even record-breaking initial numbers this early in a year, and then quickly expanded. Focus in the past has handled some Coens’ releases. As Focus has struggled under new management (and recently restructured, returning to a specialty mission with more international oversight), Universal chose the broader studio approach.

The release comes a few months after Universal, in a rare stumble last year, went from massive initial numbers for “Steve Jobs” to an inability to connect with wider audiences. The Coens’ most recent film, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” had a similar fate, opening to an over $100,000 per theater average, then despite an aggressive wider push, stalled at $13 million. (“Jobs” had almost the same ratio: initial PTA of $130,000 leading to a $17.7 million total). And in the past their initially wider release films have shown some success. “True Grit” vastly outdid the rest, but “Burn After Reading,” “No Country for Old Men” and “Intolerable Cruelty” had varying success going this route.

And that’s where “Caesar” falls short. Of their five most recent films. it had the lowest result even before adjusting grosses. Compared to these, it runs about a third less earlier Coens in its initial results.

Reviews were decent (though not universally great, with the net result below most of their recent efforts). So this marks a big falloff from the similar “Burn After Reading.” That film scored reviews better than mixed, was released in a normally weak period (early September) and also starred George Clooney, Tilda Swinton and Frances McDormand (plus marquee draw Brad Pitt). But “Burn” opened in adjusted figures more than twice as strongly, and then managed a three-time multiple to end up to be a clear success (with even stronger international results putting it into the black). So “Caesar” isn’t at all impressive, though it does seem to justify some caution on the studio’s part to push it toward the more expensive marketing of a platform route.

Opening day audience surveys paint poor prospects for its future, with a miserable C- Cinemascore. But more indicative is the actual second-day performance. Saturday was 22% better than Friday, compared to a 23% uptick for “Burn After Reading” (though Thursday previews slightly lower the improvement). It also had a better Saturday increase than either of the other two openers. So hope is by no means lost for its future.

The Sparks Has Gone Out

There is no way to spin the performance of “The Choice” other than to say the long, successful run of Nicholas Sparks’ novel adaptations is history. Going back to “Message in the Bottle” in 1999, and not adjusting for inflation, this is by far the weakest opening (in raw numbers none of the previous ten opened under $10 million). The two most recent—”The Longest Ride” and “The Best of Me” —were the two lowest-grossers of the bunch, so the fire has burned out.

But is something else going on? One of the most recent strengths in box office stability has been younger females remaining more loyal than their male counterparts. But the $6 million result (not affected by the Super Bowl) pales compared to the usual default minimum seen by similar films, whether Sparks adaptations or not. This is something to watch going forward. The decline of this audience would be damaging.

High Concept Can Miss Widely

Stylish, smartly conceived revamps of horror stories mixed in with other genres can work still. Most recently “Krampus” had a modest success with a strong (for early December) $16 million opening. “The World’s End” in late summer 2013 managed almost $9 million in only 1,551 theaters. Even “A Haunted House 2” in 2014 got to almost $9 million to start.

Maybe a concept can be too high, or period pieces related to 19th century England aren’t a good match for the genre, no matter how good they sounded on paper. But what is clear is that after a solid late summer and fall where troubled Sony seemed to be righting its ship, they now have had three straight disappointments (“Concussion” and “The Fifth Element”), with this by far the worst. The only good news is that none of these was high-end expensive. But they need better news.

Holdovers

The football game is no help, but the drops this weekend overall aren’t that unusual compared to most winter weekends. “Kung Fu Panda” dropped 49%, but that’s about the same as Dreamwork Animation’s “Home,” their most recent release, in its second weekend. Last week’s second-best opener “The Finest Hour” dropped a discouraging 54%, the worst in the Top Ten, so the verdict is in on its domestic prospects at least.

“Star Wars -The Force Awakens” had the best showing, dropping only 38%. That suggests repeat business is bolstering it and will help sustain a longer presence than seemed likely a couple weeks back.

The rest fell in a close range around 45% drops. Far worse were, out of the Top Ten, the second weekend of “Fifty Shades of Black” (which started badly and dropped 63%), and at rock bottom “Jane Got a Gun,” which fell 84% despite holding most theaters. The public is not stumbling into lesser films as readily as they used to.

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