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Box Office Top 10 Takeaways: ‘The Girl on the Train’ Speeds Past Rivals

Amid another box office downslide, Fox Searchlight's high-profile "The Birth of a Nation" struggled in wide release.

“The Girl on the Train”

The good news: Emily Blunt thriller “The Girl on the Train” handily outpaced other Columbus Day Weekend openers, as well as last year’s single new wide release, “Pan,” which only scored $15 million.

The bad news: despite three wide releases, the weekend marked another box office downslide. The $94 million Top Ten total is off 11% from 2015, continuing the recent post-Labor Day decline.

So “The Girl on the Train” (Universal), which delivered a tad under $25 million at a third of its cost, is a significant improvement over “Pan.” It should become a success.

But given the earlier films performing weaker than last year’s fall releases, their results, even with some respectable holds, can’t compare to 2015 grosses. So for theaters, the drop continues.

The Top Ten

1. The Girl on the Train (Universal) NEW – Cinemascore: B-; Metacritic: 48; Est. budget: $45 million

$24,660,000 in 3,144 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $7,844; Cumulative: $24,660,000

2. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (20th Century Fox) Week 2; Last weekend: #1

$15,000,000 (-48%) in 3,705 theaters (+182); PTA: $4,049; Cumulative: $51,053,000

3. Deepwater Horizon (Lionsgate) Week 2; Last weekend: #2

$11,750,000 (-42%) in 3,259 theaters (no change); PTA: $3,605; Cumulative: $38,518,000

4. The Magnificent Seven (Sony) Week 3; Last weekend: #3

$9,150,000 (-41%) in 3,696 theaters (+22); PTA: $2,476; Cumulative: $75,915,000

5. Storks (Warner Bros.) Week 3; Last weekend: #4

$8,450,000 (-37%) in 3,608 theaters (-314); PTA: $2,342; Cumulative: $50,118,000

6. The Birth of a Nation (Fox Searchlight) NEW – Cinemascore:; Metacritic: 69; Est. budget: $17,500,000 (acquisition cost)

$7,100,000 in 2,042 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $3,373; Cumulative: $7,100,000

7. Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (Lionsgate) NEW – Cinemascore: A-; Metacritic: 51; Est. budget: $9 million

$6,900,000 in 2,822 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $2,445; Cumulative: $6,900,000

8. Sully (Warner Bros.) Week 5; Last weekend: #5

$5,270,000 (-36%) in 3,058 theaters (-659); PTA: $1,723; Cumulative: $113,485,000

9. Masterminds (Relativity) Week 2; Last weekend: #6

$4,100,000 (-37%) in 3,042 theaters (no change); PTA: $1,348; Cumulative: $12,788,000

10. Queen of Katwe (Disney) Week 3; Last weekend: #7

$1,618,000 (-35%) in 1,259 theaters (+17); PTA: $1,285; Cumulative: $5,385,000

The Takeaways

A Steady but Not Severe Decline

At the end of August, year-to-date box office was up 5%. Through this weekend, initial figures show it now  up 3.8%. That’s about a quarter less, which, if extended through year end would put 2016 slightly ahead.

Netflix chief Ted Sarandos spoke this week about theaters becoming a drag on the industry with their exclusivity on most movies. Coming against what could be a slight increase above last year’s (unadjusted for ticket increases) grosses, that looks self-serving and against evidence.

But there is no guarantee that the fall won’t increase, with last year’s last two months having stellar results climaxing in the impossible to be matched “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” And 2015 showed a decline in audience totals far below even a few years earlier. So Sarandos might be a bit ahead of the curve, but not wrong long-term.

Keeping things close to 2015 is good enough for theaters as long as 2017 rebounds. But for studios with much higher total budgets and an increased output, it’s more of a problem. But there were some silver clouds this week.

First, the three films this weekend didn’t represent huge investments. Second, some of the marginal openers are holding better and have a better shot at profit – doing better in part because there was no new blockbuster opener.

The three openers total $40 million, lower by about $16 million that last weekend’s three. Two were anticipated lower grossers (only “The Girl on the Train” boasted mainstream breakout potential.) The third – Lionsgate and CBS Films’ “Middle School – The Worst Years of My Life” was mediocre at $6.9 million. But it was inexpensive (under $10 million), jumped 47% on the second day and earned a decent A- Cinemascore. So it could have some life ahead.

“Girl” Power – Good Enough Again

Adaptations of thrillers with strong central women characters has fueled the surge in domestic interest in female-driven dramas.  “The Girl on the Train” (Universal) remains a current strong bestseller, and follows such book-born hits as “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and “Gone Girl” and the distantly related “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

It used to be common to see fiction successes almost automatically turned into movies. That this genre has stood out speaks to a level of appeal that transcends just the written page. It comes in part because of the strong roles it provides to young, talented and charismatic actresses – Rooney Mara, Rosamund Pike and now Emily Blunt – providing them with complicated characters in intriguing situations. That they are set up as general audience films comes from the success of the initial material (it’s hard these days to see similar original screenplays having the same entree) but then having the added credibility to grab adult audiences, discerning but steady as moviegoers.

Falling short of $25 million doesn’t make this “Girl” sensational, and it likely doesn’t have the same 4X multiple as “Gone Girl” (which opened 50% higher). But it had neither the directorial heft (David Fincher, who helmed both “Gone” and “Tattoo”) nor as positive reviews. The tepid critical response likely played a role in curbing the level of gross, which remained strictly respectable.

And what made it a success was the budget of only $45 million. With a likely domestic total of an estimated $65-70 million, plus likely international appeal, where the book has sold well, this could ease into a modest profit.

The problem for domestic is this is a film that had its shot at being much bigger (“Tattoo” and “Gone” both crossed the $100 million mark). It’s the latest of several openers – several far more expensive – that have fallen into the “OK, maybe small-profit territory” and failed to achieve the $40 million or better opening level and further long term grosses that make the difference in keeping the momentum from early this year going.

"The Birth of a Nation"

“The Birth of a Nation”

How “The Birth of a Nation” Fell Short

The initial response to “The Birth of a Nation” (Fox Searchlight) at Sundance last January will be regarded as a major moment in its history. Rapturous response combined with seeming like the perfect film just as minority-free acting Oscar nominations were announced positioned it as one of the biggest potential successes among films from new American indie directors, one of the fest’s prime reasons for importance.

Searchlight won the heated bidding at $17.5 million, despite falling $2.5 million short of Netflix’ likely streaming-emphasized release. The latter company, like Searchlight, likely had in mind an awards-oriented theatrical play, though far more limited. But the producers could have favored the lower bid with the hopes that the film would be better Oscar-positioned.

No need to repeat the controversies since, although the film’s low end of favorable critical response – a 69 Metacritic score, which dips a tad below what top nominees usually receive — might have limited its chances anyway.

Searchlight from the start positioned this smartly (more so since they didn’t need to unburden themselves of a late-year limited platform run riding awards momentum) to play wider and reach its core, not necessarily typical indie movie audience right away. Though the number of theaters increased from the initial 1,500 or so, the date – this early in October is not typical for a prime contender – suggested they felt they had a strong commercial film that could earn the needed gross to justify the acquisition cost plus marketing expense.

That combined number would be easily above $30 million. With little foreign revenues likely, that meant by a rough guess they had to hope for a domestic gross of $35-40 million or more to make their investment worthwhile.

And they had that potential. By looking at precedents of films that have clicked with core African-American audiences outside the usual commercial/entertainment parameters, they had several strong examples to follow.

The most relevant was “Precious” in 2009. A similar Sundance sensation, also filled with tricky, adult, tough subject matter (though contemporary, which helped), it ended up at $47 million (which would be some millions higher today). But a look at individual weeks shows how “Birth” is lagging.

“Precious” started in 18 theaters, but jumped to 174 in week two. That had a gross of $5.9 million – barely a million less than what “Birth” did in over 2,000. Then when “Precious” added more the following week to get to 629 theaters, it nearly hit $11 million. That’s more than 50% better in one third as many theaters.

And then subject matter and audience limitations still got it to only $47 million. That’s great for what Lionsgate invested. But since “Birth” is already at its maximum theater depth, only showing a 2% jump on its second day, it looks like at best a normal drop-off film. And projecting from that leads to $20 million total gross.

“Twelve Years a Slave” had a conventional platform/awards run which got it to $56 million (and relatively strong foreign results) to get into decent territory despite high marketing expenses for its awards run. Its best of many weeks in play was $6.7 million – but in just over half as many theaters as “Birth.” “Selma” got to $52 million, with its second (and first wide) week of 2,179 theaters grossing $11.3 million. Again, much stronger.

“Beasts” might end up holding better than average and elevating its eventual total. But it’s hard to believe that it can ever recover with all the attention it already has received. It already feels like old news, and unless there’s something we’re missing, it looks like its release will not remotely live up to the hype of its initial sale.

Holdovers

The seven older films in the Top Ten all dropped under 50%, four less than 40%. While all were helped by the mixed appeal of the new openers, most so were “The Magnificent Seven” and “Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children.” Combined with foreign results they now look like better bets for their studios.

“Masterminds” and “Queen of Katwe” both are well past any likelihood of recouping, but their 35-37% falls suggest audience appeal that studio marketing failed to connect initially. “Deepwater Horizon” (-42%) is hanging on by its fingertips. It has an outside shot at $70 million domestic, so if it gets going overseas Lionsgate and Participant could still escape relatively unscathed from their initial $120 million in costs.

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