“Sully,” Clint Eastwood’s upbeat tale of real-life heroism, continues to rule the box office skies. But this mid-September weekend shows reason for concern about the state of Hollywood movies and their audiences.
Three new wide releases appealing to disparate audiences – “Blair Witch” (Lionsgate), “Bridget Jones’s Baby” (Universal) and “Snowden” (Open Road) – all failed to gross even a minimal $10 million, with none taking in half of what “Sully” managed on its second stanza.
The $69 million in the Top Ten is a pathetic 28% drop from 2015’s equivalent three days. Last year saw two openers – “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” and “Black Mass” – gross $30 and 22 million respectively, both ahead of this weekend’s “Sully” numbers. “Black Mass” was regarded as mixed at best, while “Scorch Trials” thrived far more overseas.
Next weekend sees two entries – Denzel Washington western “The Magnificent Seven” (Sony) and the animated “Storks” (Warner Bros.) to shake loose the cobwebs. Their returns will tell us a lot more about where the season is headed. It already needs help – it’s early, but so far (the official start was the day after Labor Day) it’s off more than 10% from last year. And that comes from seven wide release studio films in two weeks compared to four last year. Not good.
The Top Ten
1. Sully (Warner Bros.) Week 2 – Last weekend #1
$22,000,000 (-%) in 3,525 theaters (no change); PTA (per theater average): $6,241: Cumulative: $70,541,000
2. Blair Witch (Lionsgate) NEW – Cinemascore: D+; Metacritic: 46; Est. Budget: $10 million
$9,650,000 in 3,121 theaters; PTA: $3,092; Cumulative: $9,650,000
3. Bridget Jones’s Baby (Universal) NEW – Cinemascore: B+; Metacritic: 60; Est. Budget: $35 million
$8,241,000 in 2,927 theaters; PTA: $2,815; Cumulative: $8,241,000
4. Snowden (Open Road) NEW – Cinemascore: A; Metacritic: 58; Est. Budget: $50 million
$8,023,000 in 2,443 theaters; PTA: $3,284; Cumulative: $8,023,000
5. Don’t Breathe (Sony) Week 4 – Last weekend #3
$5,600,000 (-32%) in 3,208 theaters (-176); PTA: $1,746; Cumulative: $75,329,000
6. When the Bough Breaks (Sony) Week 2 – Last weekend #2
$5,525,000 (-61%) in 2,246 theaters (no change); PTA: $2,460; Cumulative: $22,698,000
7. Suicide Squad (Warners Bros.) Week 7 – Last weekend #4
$4,710,000 (-18%) in 2,740 theaters (-363); PTA: $1,719; Cumulative: $313,782,000
8. The Wild Life (Lionsgate) Week 2- Last weekend #5
$2,650,000 (-21%) in 2,493 theaters (no change); PTA: $1,063; Cumulative: $6,664,000
9. Kubo and the Two Strings (Focus) Week 5 – Last weekend #6
$2,509,000 (-24%) in 1,757 theaters (-578); PTA: $1,428; Cumulative: $44,241,000
10. Pete’s Dragon (Disney) Week 6 – Last weekend #7
$2,041,000 (-34%) in 1,948 theaters (-737); PTA: $1,048; Cumulative: $72,806,000
This marks the worst weekend since December 11-13 last year, a pre-Christmas period that opened one new release (Ron Howard’s “In the Heart of the Sea,” which was a flop but still managed $11 million). Any argument that three new films at once was suicidal ignores that they appealed to three distinct audiences – horror (“Blair Witch”), female comedy (“Bridget Jones”) and adult drama interest (“Snowden”). Each group has shown recent successes, so they are proven to exist in large numbers.
Comparisons to those successes may have been all of their undoing. Horror of late has thrived, in no small part because of a sense of freshness. “Bad Moms” had an edge (and R-rating) closer to the recent hit Melissa McCarthy comedies but also offered more contemporary stars than “Bridget.” And “Snowden” came after the acclaimed Oscar-winning documentary “Citizenfour” covered the same ground. At just under $3 million, it scored high for a doc but hardly was a blip compared to Oliver Stone’s film’s potential. But this audience relies on reviews, and the wide range of critical response hurt the film. Plus “Sully” pulled some “Snowden” audiences.
All three films are just plain weak, and the result is a worrisome weekend. We’ll find out soon if it is an outlier or a trend.
It’s a busy period for Lionsgate, which is by far the biggest of the independent non-studio distributors. Particularly since their merger with successful Summit Entertainment, they have had annual total box office shares between 6 and 11%, led by some of the most lucrative franchises in the industry (“Twilight,” “The Hunger Games”).
With those two history and more recent entries like the “Divergent” series not even close, their share has fallen YTD to 4.5%. That comes despite their having an industry-high 16 films so far in 2016.
On the positive side, they grabbed raves from fall festivals for Toronto audience-award-winner “La La Land,” as well as positive reaction to Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” and Peter Berg’s “Deepwater Horizon,” if not Ewan McGregor’s directing debut “American Pastoral.” Two of Lionsgate’s leading executives are moving on, as veteran and Summit founder Rob Friedman steps down as Lionsgate co-chairman to take on an advisory role, and head of distribution Richard Fay moving to beleaguered indie Broad Green (he had come to the merged Lionsgate from Summit).
So the context of the disappointing performance of “Blair Witch” is an unsettled company that has done better partnering with other people —Spanish-language Pantelion (“No Manches Frida”), CBS Films (“Hell or High Water”), Amazon Studios (“Cafe Society”) and Millennium (“Mechanic: Resurrection”).
But “Blair Witch” is a home-grown production. The ones above have had varying degrees of success, but not the kind of massive hit that Lionsgate are used to seeing once or twice a year. They inherited rights to the horror franchise with its acquisition of original distributor Artisan long ago, but finally made it happen. It seemed like a reasonable choice. Lionsgate has had a steady supply of horror successes (two or three most years), they hired up-and-coming director Adam Wingard (“The Guest”) with genre credibility, nurtured it as a surprise, then picked what looked like a reasonable mid-September date.
But their timing was off. This is not a time when the familiar rehash, whether remake or sequel, clicks. That goes across the board, not just for horror. But within this subset of films, the standards have risen as many have gotten good reviews, better than average Cinemascores and held well. “Blair Witch” entered the market against “Don’t Breathe” (with its thriller mix adding to its horror appeal) which is still competitive.
That’s a temporary blip. But the greater issue is that a company that has thrived with franchises -—in particular young female driven ones — hasn’t been able to replicate or replace them. And chasing after partners and counting on them to come up with the goods isn’t going to do it alone for them.
Open Road Films
“Snowden” an Open Road Disappointment
After several years of success at acquiring and distributing mostly general audience mid-budget films, Open Road hit a high point with its Best Picture win for “Spotlight.” It wasn’t its biggest grossing film (at $45 million, their third best, after “The Nut Job” and “The Grey”), but it showed they could compete and certainly add to their appeal to independent producers.
“Snowden” looked like it might have a shot at playing with audiences. Based on real-life events, with some strong young actors (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley), a logical director (Oliver Stone, whose last two films both grossed close to $50 million) and strong Toronto Film Festival buzz. At a cost somewhat less than $50 million, Open Road’s investment was likely steered toward marketing.
Open Road’s success apart from picking films has also come from picking dates. As a creation of its two owners, the very competitive Regal and AMC theater chains, hoping to fill gaps in the release pipeline, they are meant to go at less busy time frames.
But in their brief existence, that has changed. There are virtually no off weeks anymore with more films mostly from studios filling the schedule.
So Open Road ends up with a wide release against seven first or second week films. That’s a crowd.
But worse for them on the date is the bigger-than-expected success of “Sully,” which went early (the first Friday after Labor Day, usually not a date for serious adult-oriented films). They are different films on paper, but “Sully” not only went first, but it has elements — a bigger star, a more easily accepted hero, a feel-good story, visually elevated elements including IMAX, earlier entry into the market for word of mouth.
But above all else, “Snowden” suffered something critical: its reviews were not what was needed for a discerning audience.
Open Road got its base out – the A Cinemascore shows the movie scored with those who are sympathetic to Edward Snowden. But even with the great initial reaction, Saturday was about even with its initial gross, not the increase (ahead of the usual curve) that well-received adult dramas usually see. By contrast, “Sully” was up by 21% on its second day.
“Snowden” was closer to the other two openers than expected, and closer to its expected gross (though still short). It likely tops “Blair” and its domestic number might with luck come close to “Bridget” domestically. But those would be minor victories. It is also a disappointment.
America Doesn’t Matter for “Bridget” and Her Baby
The U.K. market (which includes Ireland) is less than 1/6 the size of the domestic population. But “Bridget Jones’s Baby” took in more there than the combined U.S./Canada. And the $11 million total was nearly triple in the other territories (in much but not all the world) it debuted in.
So unlike the two other releases, the stakes of the disappointing showing here are far lower. This is consistent with the previous “Jones” films, which generally took in 75-85% of their numbers overseas. The appeal is broadly European, not just British, and it appears to be happening again. The film was #1 in 24 territories (out of 39), while managing an anemic third here.
So Universal/Working Title is fine. The problem is that this is another sign that studios need not rely on the U.S. for success, and will continue to shape their release schedules for maximum returns elsewhere, while still releasing these films as part of their overall slate. So this one is far from a mistake: it’s a success. But the more this happens, the more American exhibitors have to worry that they count less and their returns aren’t the main concern of studios.
The frequent occurrence of better holds with weaker openers was in full view this weekend. “Sully” held a better than average (down 37%) for a #1 film at its initial level. But the rest thrived with only one exception (a 61% drop for “When the Bough Breaks,” not awful for a horror film, except this one was weak to start).
“Suicide Squad” continues to impress: down 18% and looking to survive several more weeks. The two animated films — “Wild Life” and “Kubo and the Two Strings” —dropped under 25%, though for Relativity and “Wild Life” in its second week at best a minor solace. “Don’t Breathe” even with “Blair Witch” held to only a 32% fall.
None of this was good enough to save a rotten weekend, but at least some borderline films along with some already established hits gained from less than expected competition.