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Weekend Box Office Preview: ‘The Girl on the Train’ and ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Battle Huge Expectations

Two high profile films hit this weekend: a big-budget studio thriller for women and a high-priced Sundance buy aimed at the African-American audience.

Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train

“The Girl on the Train”

The somnolent autumn box office, down 9% since Labor Day, could get a boost from two high-profile titles, “The Girl on the Train” (Universal) and “The Birth of a Nation” (Fox Searchlight). They will fare better than “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life,” (Lionsgate), with only “Train” projected to gross over $10 million for the three days of the four-day semi-holiday weekend.

The combination of newcomers and adequate holdovers might raise the Top Ten total to over $100 million, which would get it to close to even with last year ($106 million). But with only one film, “Sully,” exceeding expectations in recent weeks and many falling short of what would have been expected in past years, it’s tough to make optimistic guesses.

Birth of a Nation

“The Birth of a Nation”

Fox Searchlight

A small factor could be Hurricane Matthew, targeting Florida and the Atlantic Coast northward around Friday. That could cause regional theater closings (and more serious problems) but a wide area of rain might also draw others into theaters.

“The Girl on the Train” is the third women-centered bestselling novel adaptation to hit theaters over the last two years. A bigger-selling book than “Gone Girl,” but lacking the zeitgeist-capturing erotic appeal of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” it looks to open below both of them. $30 million would mark a credible start, but the mid-$20s seems more likely.

Even that number would be positive news for Universal. With an estimated average budget in the $40-45 million range (similar to “Grey,” somewhat less than “Gone”) and strong international prospects based on the book’s success, this has an easier path to profit than such $90-million-plus-budgeted grossers as “The Magnificent Seven,” “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” and “Deepwater Horizon.”

“Fifty Shades” capitalized on its much bigger renown and Valentine’s Day opening to soar to an $85 million start. The fairer comparison is “Gone Girl” which exactly two years ago delivered $37.5 million, then more than quadrupled that to $167 million and more in foreign returns. But the latter had three elements that “Train” lacks: a bigger draw (Ben Affleck vs. Emily Blunt) and a name director (David Fincher vs. “The Help”‘s Tate Taylor). But most important is that with older adult appeal, “Gone Girl” nabbed strong critical acclaim rather than the tepid advance notices for “Train.”

The Birth of the Nation” is tricky to assess. For myriad reasons, both positive (strong Sundance acclaim, favorable reviews) and negative (director Nate Parker’s handling of his acquittal on rape charges while in college) the film has received much attention over the last nine months. Its appeal to African-American audiences has always been apparent, with its recounting of the Nat Turner slave rebellion and its theme of empowerment and fighting back resonating in the time of Black Lives Matter.

Much of the discussion surrounding the film has centered on its declining chances with Oscar based on factors not related to the film. Searchlight chose to break early after the fall festivals in order to build awareness for a relatively unknown director and star. But the release pattern is not the usual fall awards platform but much wider—over 2,000 dates.

Fox Searchlight bought rights for the film for a high $17.5 million, lower than the $20-million offered by Netflix (which had floundered with “Beasts of No Nation”). Searchlight risks more with marketing expenses far greater than the online company would have incurred (easily far above $10 million just for this initial level of release). Obviously, the distributor is focused on getting its money back from a movie with anticipated wide appeal for its core audience, rather than slowly build momentum for an awards haul.

And that makes sense. Winning Oscars can lead to making films loss leaders rather than piles of gold. Fox Searchlight has won the big prize three times. Their first, “Slumdog Millionaire,” became a huge success grossing nearly $400 million worldwide from a $15 million cost.  “12 Years a Slave” benefited from its win – $186 million worldwide, with $56 million domestic (compared to $141 million for “Slumdog”). But “Birdman” managed only just over $100 million worldwide, $42 million domestic. “The Artist” for Weinstein and “Spotlight” for Open Road both fell short of $50 million domestic, with much of their gross coming only after their slew of nominations. They arguably spent more on marketing to receive their awards than their final share of the box office gross.

So with its acquisition cost in the range of what some of these films cost to produce, Searchlight seems to be chasing earnings and worrying later about awards—if at all. Both “The Butler” and “Straight Outta Compton” are closer to the targeted African-American audience model than “12 Years” and another Sundance breakout, “Precious.” “Butler” and “Compton” both went wide (more initial runs than “Birth” in the upper 2,000 range), and both hit late summer paydirt, placing #1 for multiple weekends.

“Birth” doesn’t have the initial appeal of either of those films. But it has potential for scoring big with a target audience that has been underserved by recent releases. Fall brought Denzel Washington in “The Magnificent Seven,” while the summer saw only two big studio films with major African-American stars, “Central Intelligence” with Kevin Hart and “Suicide Squad” with Will Smith, which both performed above expectations.

What to expect for the weekend? $10 million for “The Birth of a Nation” would be impressive. Less could be not fatal if the film becomes a word of mouth success. The movie played well in Toronto, where audiences seemed unaware of the inside-the-beltway ruckus. So the film could exceed expectations. If so, Searchlight is going to look smart for acquiring the film even at a high cost and for having a release plan that dodged a bullet by not having a conventional awards date and pattern.

“Middle School” is targeting a sub-teen crowd. The CBS Film production, released through Lionsgate, cost under $10 million, with an anticipated gross around $7 million, give or take a couple million. This is more along the line of “The DUFF” ($11 million opening/$34 million total) than their recent arthouse crossover hit “Hell or High Water.” It is also Lionsgate’s sixth release in seven weeks, on top of “Hell.” Most haven’t sustained lengthy runs, so “Middle School” will have a theater count in the high 2,000 range and a clear shot of reaching whatever audience it has.

"Voyage Of Time" Malick IMAX

“Voyage Of Time”

Arthouse

After  “Denial” (Bleecker Street) and “American Honey” (A24) opened above average for limited openings, don’t expect equal numbers this week. New docs “Newtown” (Abramorama), “13th” (Netflix, with openings parallel to its home viewing debut for awards and review purposes) and “Under the Shadow” (Vertical) and the French drama “Being 17” (Strand) from veteran director Andre Techine, all earned strong advance reviews.

Also opening at IMAX museum locations is Terrence Malick’s “Voyage of Time.” This is a 40-minute version narrated by Brad Pitt and shaped for these locations by the director.

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