Hollywood is a big fan of May-November relationships. The first weekends of those months is when studios look to launch top franchise films and get a head start on the season. Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” (Disney) leads a trio of potentially strong releases that includes the animated “Trolls” (20th Century Fox) and Mel Gibson’s World War II story “Hacksaw Ridge” (Lionsgate).
Last year at this time, the combination of the James Bond entry “Spectre” and “The Peanuts Movie” led to a Top 10 total of just under $150 million, the best figure since mid-July at peak summer. More than 75 percent of that came from the two new releases; they went on to gross more than $100 million, as did that November’s final “Hunger Games” entry, “The Good Dinosaur,” and “Creed.”
Combined, expect this week’s debuts to amass more than the $115 million total opening weekend for “Spectre” and “Peanuts.” They’d better; add “Hacksaw” and these three films cost their studios more than $300 million to produce, and more to market.
“Doctor Strange” will be the easy no. 1, likely to earn north of $70 million. It is the fourth Marvel Comics adaptation of the year, and the first from Disney since “Captain America: Civil War” last spring.
Some forecasts question its strength because Doctor Strange is a less central character in the Marvel universe. That also might be to its advantage: The unfamiliarity gives it a sense of originality. Then there’s a cast (Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Rachel McAdams) that, in a non-MCU, would make for a credible Oscar-bait movie. That, plus generally favorable reviews, could increase adult interest.
Curiously, of the 40 or so Marvel live-action titles produced, very few have been released this late in the year. New Line released “Blade: Trinity” in December 2004, while “Thor: The Dark World” opened November 8, 2013. That character sequel opened for Disney at around $86 million.
One of the most consistent factors in boosting Marvel grosses has been the gap since the previous one. It’s been five months since “X-Men: Apocalypse,” more than enough to build up demand. (“Deadpool” came after more than six months; “Ant-Man” came less than three months after “Avengers: Age of Ultron”).
Consistent with the new normal, “Doctor Strange” has already opened in much of the world and has earned over $110 million in its first week.
“Trolls” is aimed at younger kids rather than their chaperones. The latest Dreamworks Animation release (via Fox) sits on what has become a popular date for animated features that want to get a head start on Thanksgiving (which will see Disney’s “Moana”). Fox’s “The Peanuts Movie” opened to $44 million last year; in 2014, Disney’s animated feature “Big Hero 6” topped $56 million, besting “Interstellar.”
Dreamworks’ most recent releases, “Kung Fu Panda 3” and “Home,” opened to $41 million and $52 million, respectively. Like the Marvel movie, the “Trolls” cause is aided by the length of time since the last breakout animated hit. Both “Finding Dory” and “The Secret Life of Pets” opened over $100 million in a three-week period between late June and early July; their combined domestic total was $850 million. Only “Ice Age: Collision Course” and “Storks” have made any impact since, neither topping $70 million (“Storks” is still in release).
The hunger for a top-tier cartoon release should more than compensate for toys that aren’t at the peak of their popularity. $40 million seems to be at the high end of expectations, but higher than that is plausible.
“Hacksaw Ridge” is Mel Gibson’s first directorial effort since “Apocalypto” in 2006. Recent war film successes have drawn from modern conflicts, including “American Sniper,” “Lone Survivor,” “The Hurt Locker,” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” This one is set at Okinawa in World War II, but the combination of Gibson and the ongoing interest in military stories looks to give this respectable results.
After a Wednesday New York/Los Angeles opening, “Hacksaw” goes wide Friday with favorable reviews that fall short of award levels. “Lone Survivor” (with the benefit of Mark Wahlberg in the lead; “Hacksaw” has Andrew Garfield and Vince Vaughn) did $38 million when it went wide, and “Sniper” of course did even more.
“Apocalypto,” which was subtitled and set in the Amazon, opened to $15 million in the wake of the massive success of “The Passion of the Christ.” Most “Hacksaw” estimates place it in the $10 million-$15 million range, but it’s enough of a wild card that higher wouldn’t be a surprise.
“Doctor Strange” cost $165 million, “Trolls” $125 million, so both require major initial figures, international success, and decent holds. At $40 million “Hacksaw” is more economic, but in some ways more critical for its distributor Lionsgate. They are coming off their surprise success with “Boo! A Madea Halloween,” but otherwise have lagged among their higher-cost films in recent months.
The big-ticket item among specialized releases is Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” (Focus). It opens in the same spot as last year’s Best Picture winner “Spotlight” which also initially had a limited platform opening.
Its retelling of the interracial couple who had to go to the Supreme Court to make their marriage legal has received decent reviews, but not ones that normally suggest awards caliber. (Its Metacritic score of 74 is below any of last year’s winners and most of the nominees). Like “Moonlight” and “The Birth of a Nation,” it has been one of the possibilities that prevent another #OscarSoWhite. Public response will contribute to its awards potential, but Focus did its job in showcasing its potential.
“The Eagle Huntress” (Sony Pictures Classics) opened Wednesday after strong reaction at this year’s Sundance. Yes, another of the growing list of acclaimed documentaries this year, it follows a 13-year-old Kazakh girl as she breaks gender barriers to hunt in tandem with eagles.