“Blair Witch” (Lionsgate), the second sequel to the groundbreaking 1999 low-budget horror smash, looks to have the best chance to top Clint Eastwood’s “Sully” (Warner Bros.) for #1 this weekend. “Sully” has the edge against an eclectic slate of familiar follow-ups to prior hits.
With “Sully” included, the weekend showcases three Oscar-winning directors —Clint Eastwood, Oliver Stone (“Snowden,” Open Road) and Ron Howard (limited release “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week,” Abramorama)—plus “Bridget Jones’s Baby” (Universal), starring Oscar-winner Renee Zellweger, taking a third pass on her best-known role.
The weekend could be hard-pressed to equal its equivalent last year, when “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” and “Black Mass” combined open to $53 million, well ahead of what this weekend promises. But “Sully” might push the Top Ten weekend total close to 2015’s $93 million.
That would keep pace with the 5% year to date uptick still in play. But this week’s newbies include two sequels and the narrative redo of an already-seen Beatles documentary. How much interest will these have?
“Blair Witch” and the latest “Bridget Jones” film are expected to outpace “Snowden,” both grossing over $15 million with “Snowden” projected at closer to $10 million, and “Blair” the most likely to reach $20 million or more. If “Blair Witch” gets the edge, it continues the recent rebound in horror films. Three have opened over $25 million this year, compared to only one (“The Visit”) in 2015. And with “The Conjuring 2,” “10 Cloverfield Lane” and “Don’t Breathe” all sustaining better holds than usual, “Blair” could pull fan interest.
The low-budget original is the highest domestic gross to initial cost success in movie history (in adjusted figures, $240 million from a $100,000 investment), but a more expensive sequel in 2000, one year after the original, did less than one fifth the business. This sequel has a couple of factors in its favor. Lionsgate has experience with the horror genre, although this is their first one this year. Also adding to its credibility among fans is director Adam Wingard, whose “You’re Next” and “The Guest” garnered positive critical and fanboy response. He has yet to have a breakout commercial success. (“Blair” so far though has received less favorable reviews).
“Bridget Jones’s Baby” is the latest in a run of remakes and sequels this year that arrive an unusually long time after their predecessors. It didn’t hurt “Finding Dory” (13 years) or “10 Cloverfield Lane” (8), though “Independence Day: Resurgence” (20) had a past-expiration date feel. “Blair Witch” marks a 16 year break after the original’s sequel. The “Bridget” series had a three year gap between its first two entries (the initial one from Miramax, also directed by Sharon Maguire), but the prior one came in 2004, 12 years ago.
The two previous films were much bigger hits outside of North America. The first one did 75% of its gross overseas, the second 85% —that’s extremely high today. It testifies to the character’s popularity in British and adjacent cultures (which in its first rendition caused controversy with the casting of American Zellweger). She has been mostly absent from screens in recent years, so this added gap adds uncertainty about its appeal.
Open Road Films
“Snowden” has perhaps the highest profile among the openers. With Oliver Stone in tow on a project in his political wheelhouse and after a prime Toronto premiere slot, it was positioned to be an early awards-season prospect. Ironically, for the second year in a row, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has the lead role in a narrative feature telling of the same story that won a recent Best Feature Documentary (after last year’s “The Walk” from Best Director winner Bob Zemeckis). This may again have been a risky venture. Like “The Walk” (retelling “Man on Wire”), the non-fiction film “Citizenfour” precedes “Snowden.”
The story of one-time CIA officer Edward Snowden, who risks his freedom to reveal the extent of government spying, appeals to a narrower swath of the adult public than “Sully.” That film is strongly mining those viewers, but Open Road’s gamble is that “Snowden” might connect more with a younger crowd. We’ll see.
The independently-produced film is the first for Stone since 2012. His last two— “Savages” and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” —both grossed around $50 million. Gordon-Levitt has shown his edgy appeal in “Looper” and “(500) Days of Summer,” but has been uneven in less specifically youth-oriented films (“The Walk” in particular). “Snowden” also represents on ongoing shift by Open Road, after their success with “Spotlight,” to push fall awards-oriented films. (They follow this with the boxing film “Bleed Like This” starring Miles Teller). It remains to be seen though how this one will connect. Reviews so far are all over the place.
A fall-off of a third for “Sully,” certainly a possibility with its strong weekdays, would bring in over $23 million, likely more than enough to land #1 spot. Both star Tom Hanks and Eastwood have a track record of strong holds with similar films, so unless “Blair Witch” over performs, it looks poised to repeat.
The specialized world continues its calm before the storm period that launches right after the Toronto Film Festival finishes.
“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week” (Abramorama) is the most likely to stand out among the specialized limited releases. Its release is a hybrid on multiple levels. Ron Howard’s documentary focuses on The Beatles’ years as a touring band, with much concert footage unearthed. The movie screens on 99 dates on Thursday night, many of which are sold out, then goes to 63 full-week engagements. This is in advance of its Hulu showings beginning Saturday night (which don’t include remastered Shea Stadium concert footage exclusive to the theater dates).
This innovative plan brings distributors and theaters working together to share audiences with home viewing. Concert films are a highly communal experience even more than most movies, so it makes sense to seek success via this guerilla distribution strategy.