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Top Ten Takeaways: ‘Equalizer’ Rises on Denzel Washington, ‘Boxtrolls’ Best Laika Opener

Top Ten Takeaways: 'Equalizer' Rises on Denzel Washington, 'Boxtrolls' Best Laika Opener

The three top films outperformed pre-weekend predictions (though the studios do tend to lowball). “The Equalizer” turned out to be among Denzel Washington’s best openings, while “The Boxtrolls” performed solidly with family audiences. The second weekend of the young adult “The Maze Runner” fell a relatively modest 46% (the year’s biggest success in the genre, “Divergent,” dropped 54% its second weekend from a higher initial number). The three films served distinct audiences: “The Equalizer” was 70% over 30, “The Boxtrolls” aimed at kids and parents, while “The Maze Runner” was the sole big draw for the increasingly absent 15-25 demo. 

The 5% or so improvement from a year ago doesn’t guarantee a continued turnaround. Next weekend David Fincher’s acclaimed but lengthy R-rated “The Gone Girl” (Fox) is a likely #1. But last year saw “Gravity” open to $55 million, followed by two more weeks in the top spot, which is a tough mark for “Gone Girl” to match. But at least for a second straight weekend the recent free fall has halted.

Besides “The Maze Runner,” the holdover action was variable this week. The other two second week films had dramatically different results. “This Is Where I Leave You” (Warner Bros.) managed to only fall 40% from its weak start, but that is not unusual for an older audience appeal film. “A Walk Among the Tombstones” (Universal) dropped 67% and all the way to seventh place after its tepid second position last week.

“Dolphin Tale 2” (Warner Bros.) also continues to struggle. Its 2011 predecessor fell 34% its third week, compared to 45% this time, and the to date gross is only two thirds of what the earlier film did. The best hold of all the films remains “Guardians of the Galaxy” (Buena Vista), down only 28% despite losing another 395 theaters. Between repeat business and stragglers still catching up, the totals for 2014’s biggest domestic hit so far keep increasing, with $330-335 million now looking like its ultimate take.

The Top Ten Grosses

1. The Equalizer (Warner Bros.) NEW – Cinemascore: A-; Criticwire: C+; Metacritic: 57; estimated budget $55 million
$35,000,000 in 3,236 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $10,816,000; Cumulative: $35,000,000
2. The Maze Runner (20th Century Fox) Week 2; Last weekend #1
$17,500,000 (-46%) in 3,638 theaters (+34); PSA: $4,810; Cumulative: $: $58,018,000
3. The Boxtrolls (Focus) NEW – Cinemascore: B+; Criticwire: B+; Metacritic: 64; estimated budget $60 million
$17,250,000 in 3,464 theaters; PSA: $4,980; Cumulative: $17,250,000:
4. This Is Where I Leave You (Warner Bros.) Week 2; Last weekend #3
$7,010,000 (-39%) in 2,868 theaters (unchanged); PSA: $2,444; Cumulative: $22,557,000
5. Dolphin Tale 2 (Warner Bros.) Week 3; Last weekend #5
$4,835,000 (-45%) in 3,376 theaters (-280); PSA: $1,432; Cumulative: $33,665,000
6. No Good Deed (Sony) Week 3; Last weekend #4
$4,600,000 (-53%) in 2,130 theaters (-45); PSA: $2,160; Cumulative: $46,623,000
7. A Walk Among the Tombstones (Universal) Week 2; Last weekend #2
$4,234,000 (-67%) in 2,174 theaters (+2); PSA: $1,560; Cumulative: $20,871,000
8. Guardians of the Galaxy (Buena Vista) Week 9; Last weekend #6
$3,789,000 (-28%) in 2,451 theaters (-395); PSA: $1,546; Cumulative: $319,192,000
9. Let’s Be Cops (20th Century Fox) Week 7; Last weekend #7
$1,515,000 (-44%) in 1,534 theaters (-778); PSA: $988; Cumulative: $79,628,000
10. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Paramount) Week 8; Last weekend #8
$1,450,000 (-45%) in 1,585 theaters (-763); PSA: $915; Cumulative: $187,182,000

The Takeaways

1. Why Denzel Washington Is an enduring movie star

“The Equalizer” is Denzel Washington’s 12th consecutive wide-release film with him in the lead since 2004 to open at over $20 million. This is an incredible, possibly unequaled achievement among today’s A-list stars. This success as a lead, going back more than two decades, has distinctive elements to it. With “The Equalizer” coming in as his third best opener over the last 11 years, a review of his career shows some distinctive, even unique elements that make him look like one of the smartest actors at work today, as well as one of the best.

Like DiCaprio, Pitt, or Clooney, Washington takes care with his choices and strives to ensure that every project seems likely to both maintain his elevated status. But he also likes to stretch himself generically and not repeat past success too readily. Like DiCaprio, Washington has avoided sequels or franchises (which has led other stars like Johnny Depp to dim their appeal). He has never been in a 3D film, unlike most stars this side of Meryl Streep. And, opposite the industry norm for ongoing success, his films are usually R-rated (nine of the last 12). In an era of franchise-chasing, 3-D/IMAX presentation PG13 blockbusters, this is a major anomaly.

And another rarity –while he often boasts big-name costars in action material (Mark Wahlberg, Chris Pine, Ryan Reynolds, John Travolta) — his films consistently gross more domestic than international. That said, few African-American stars fare as consistently well overseas as Washington. 

Another curiosity — the biggest unadjusted gross in his career in North America is $130 million “American Gangster,” solid if not spectacular. But his films — normally less expensive than those of many other top stars (“The Equalizer” is a relatively thrifty $55 million) — usually make money. He refrains from repeating himself. “The Equalizer” is another case of his taking on a project — in this case, an ex-CIA operative who becomes a hit man in order to avenge wrongs that have no other solution — that wasn’t an automatic draw, but which his presence helped elevate. This is a redo of the 1980s niche TV series starring the British but equally erudite actor Edward Woodward (who also was capable of conveying toughness). The show was celebrated for its stylishness in a genre setting (a la concurrent “Miami Vice”). Washington easily fit into the role as an apparent everyman character who is boasts far greater talents than it the surface reveals.

The biggest factor in his consistent success is that each film is a stand-alone event different from his last, which can be sold as a one-time event. In an era offering same-old formulas week after week, he offers a model for everyone. Not taking the easy route can work.

2. Indie animation scores at Laika

With four big studio animated films grossing over $250 million domestically over the last 18 months, and international takes for these and others taking in far more, there’s growing interest from independent producers to step into the market. It’s tough to break into. Any credible animated film requires a much higher initial budget than other indie films as well as more technical skill and equipment than a live-action film.

But Oregon-based Laika Studios has found modest success. Their third feature release “The Boxtrolls” (after “ParaNorman” and “Coraline”) had the best first weekend yet (by a small margin) of their films (all handled by Focus) and looks likely to also end up with over $100 million worldwide theatrically before going on to the healthy ancillary life enjoyed by more animated films.

Laika stands out both with grosses and acclaim. Its first two films were Oscar nominees, up there with top studio smashes (that category is open to indie and foreign contenders). With its roots in legendary animator Will Vinton (who maintained his independence his whole career) and the deep pockets of its owner, Nike founder Phil Knight, they have the ability to keep their identity as a distinct creative force in the field of stop-motion animation.

But they are not alone among non-studio animated creators. The Canadian/South Korean production “The Nut Job” has amassed $64 million domestic and over $100 million worldwide (U.S. distributor was Open Road). Also this year, “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return” (Clarius) had much less success, only managing $17 million world wide on a $70 million budget. Both “Escape from Planet Earth” (Weinstein) and “Free Birds” (Relativity) were among the highest recent grossers, delivering over $50 million stateside.

Laika is the most successful of these indie producers. Based on its opening, “Boxtrolls” has a chance to be their biggest grosser, depending on word of mouth (only one wide animated release is scheduled before the next big Disney release, the Marvel character project “Big 6” in early November). It continues to show that quality work outside the studio-centered operations can still compete in a wide market.

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