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Top Ten Takeaways: ‘Exodus’ Targets Bible Thumpers as Oscar Holdovers Face Holiday Stakes

Top Ten Takeaways: 'Exodus' Targets Bible Thumpers as Oscar Holdovers Face Holiday Stakes

The unresolved question: will opening before Christmas reap rewards, or will the epic be supplanted by fresher product ahead? While religious-themed films are considered a growth market, this opening shows the challenges of marketing these films in the U.S.

The Top Ten was down a disturbing 46% from the same weekend. But the third “Hobbit” entry (which has already opened to $117 million in multiple territories) comes next Wednesday domestically, while its predecessor grossed $73 million on this weekend last year. This by itself more than covers the shortfall.

The totals are enhanced by two awards contenders in the Top Ten, and others just below, as well as Chris Rock’s festival success “Top Five,” which took fourth place in just under 1,000 theaters, and the most unheralded big grosser, “Lingaa.” That last film, from the Tamil region of India, flying below the radar, is in a battle for tenth place with an estimated gross of $1.5 million in only 136 theaters.

The Top Ten

1. Exodus: Gods and Kings (20th Century Fox) NEW – Cinemascore: B-, Criticwire: C-; Metacritic: 52; Est. budget: $140 million
$24,500,000 in 3,053 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $6,994; Cumulative: $24,500,000
2. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (Lionsgate) Week 4; Last weekend #1
$13,200,000 (-40%) in 3,731 theaters (-323); PSA: $3,538; Cumulative: $277,398,000
3. Penguins of Madagascar (20th Century Fox) Week 3; Last weekend #2
$7,300,000 (-33%) in 3,667 theaters (-108); PSA: $1,991; Cumulative: $58,839,000
4. Top Five (Paramount) NEW – Criticwire: B; Metacritic: 81 ; Acquisition cost: $12 million
$7,210,000 in 979 theaters; PSA: $7,365; Cumulative: $7,210,000
5. Big Hero 6 (Buena Vista) Week 6 – Last weekend #4
$6,145,000 (-24%) in 2,943 theaters (-225); PSA: $2,088; Cumulative: $185,325,000
6. Interstellar (Paramount) Week 6 – Last weekend #5
$5,500,000 (-29%) in 2,692 theaters (-336); PSA: $2,043; Cumulative: $166,800,000
7. Horrible Bosses 2 (Warner Bros.) Week 3; Last weekend #3
$4,630,000 (-45%) in 3,202 theaters (-198); PSA: $1,446; Cumulative: $43,601,000
8. Dumb and Dumber 2 (Universal) Week 5; Last weekend #6
$2,757,000 (-36%) in 2,842 theaters (-246); PSA: $970; Cumulative: $82,117,000
9. The Theory of Everything (Focus) Week 6; Last weekend #7
$ (-5%) in 1,220 theaters (+394); PSA: $2,070; Cumulative: $17,148,000
10. Wild (Fox Searchlight) Week 2; Last weekend #15
$1,550,000 (+%) in 116 theaters (+95); PSA: $13,362; Cumulative: $2,423,000

“Exodus” and Religious Marketing

The days of Cecil B. DeMille and “Ben-Hur” are long gone. Taking great dramatic stories from the Bible and turning them into
mass-audience domestic blockbusters now faces challenges unknown to
studios in the past. It has become trickier to reach the
larger-than-ever faith-based audience– with their suspicion of a
“Hollywood” agenda–while the less devout audience seems to have less interest than in previous generations.

So how did Fox try to please these conflicting audience segments? For years since the stunning success of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (independently produced and distributed) the studios have assessed how to recreate the formula. This year has seen at least four religious-related films gross $60 million or more — the Bible stories “Noah” and “Son of God,” contemporary-set “Heaven Is for Real,” and micro-budget “God Is Dead” all found at least some of their audience from conservative, faith-based ticket buyers. And in this more divided, almost tribal contemporary America, the preferences for literal undiluted messages in these films are strong, with inherent suspicion of “pagan” Hollywood not easy to overcome.

The $24.5 million gross in the U.S./Canada doesn’t by itself conclusively suggest how “Exodus” will fare going forward. And its $50 million two-weekend foreign haul — also likely to grow considerably ahead — is no small thing.

Unlike numerous openings this time of year that have exceeded $30 million, this did not draw heavily from the late teen/young adult crowd or the family audiences that can still show up in large numbers in this period (65% of attendees were over 25). So the hope that this might draw an action/special effects crowd that could propel this to a bigger gross have not been initially realized.

The gross actually is slightly less than “Son of God” –a shorter version of a TV miniseries from producers with established credibility in the fundamentalist community. “Noah” opened to $43 million. The playdate does explain some of reason for the lower number, but not all. And “Exodus” had some built in advantages — perhaps the most epic Old Testament story, major successful talent involved, and most importantly, no real competition for most audiences this weekend. (Also, with a bigger than usual turnout for 3D shows, the number falls even shorter of those results.)

It could be that aiming for a middle ground — sticking closer to the Bible than did “Noah,” but still making no bones about its religious roots — captured neither the faithful nor the broader audience. It did show some strength with both African-American and Latino audiences (about 38% of total, with the former also drawn by “Top Five). The B- Cinemascore is ahead of “Noah”‘s at least, though still not encouraging. The Saturday uptick, even taking out the Thursday night shows, lags behind the rest of the Top Ten, which is more problematic considering the older crowd.

It could be that the core faith-based crowd, after the disappointment with “Noah,” was in a wait and see mode. And the beauty of the release date, and at least a viable initial gross, is that “Exodus” is guaranteed four-week playtime through the holidays and their gross-heavy every-day-is-Saturday attendance. So barring a huge drop next weekend (which sees not only “The Hobbit” but also “Annie” and Fox’s “The Night of the Museum 3”), this looks to have a shot at a three times multiple. But whatever happens, this will need to depend on international big time to get to the perhaps $400 million this needs to gross worldwide.

What Makes It Through Christmas?

With seven prime new wide releases scheduled between now and Dec. 25 (at least one from each major studio) and expansions for several prime awards contenders plus “Top Five,” the quest for screen space is about to be brutal. The rewards from 11 days of great grosses (12/25-1/4 this season as the calendar falls) make the fight worth it for some of the November releases still in the mix. Here’s how they stack up, and how their holdover levels will affect them:

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” has been holding up quite well of late. This weekend (helped by the absence of a “Hobbit” film) was less than $500,000 below “Catching Fire”‘s total the same time last year. Absent any new release from Lionsgate, figure that this should be able to hold nearly as many theaters through the holidays as last year (New Years’ weekend still showed 2,315) and, unexpectedly after its lower opening, a shot at the title of biggest-grossing 2014 release.

“Frozen” last year was the biggest ever performer ever among Thanksgiving-released animated films over the Christmas holidays (it even returned to #1 at the end of the period). This year two decent but lesser entries are fighting over the same bounty. At the moment, Fox’s “Penguins of Madagascar” is outgrossing Disney’s three-week earlier released “Big Hero 6.” (which has amassed more than $125 million more than the Fox/Dreamworks entry and could actually be the stronger head to head in upcoming weeks). But “Hero” has another big advantage: while Fox has two other films (“Exodus” and “Museum”) fighting for screens, Disney/Buena Vista has only “Into the Woods” –going wide but perhaps more limited in appeal– to open. Edge to “Hero.” Both films will likely accept matinee shows in some cases, and if “Exodus” falters it might mean that Fox might have to decide how hard they insist on complete shows throughout the holiday (although “Mockingjay” could also allow schedule truncation in order to keep dates). But at the end of the day, neither film has remotely the chance that “Frozen” did to thrive.

The most interesting story to follow should be the fate of “Interstellar.” Whatever the somewhat lackluster opening, this has managed to reach $167 million (falling only 29% this weekend). This now has a chance to hit $200 million — if Paramount can figure out how to get exhibitors to keep it on screen. They have two films in play — the expansion of “Top Five” and the out-of-the-box release of “The Gambler.” Somehow I expect the studio to juggle their commitments and find a way to keep this around for another month.

“Theory of Everything” and “Wild” Stake Their Claim to Holiday Playtime 

A year ago, one film that became a prime Oscar contender placed in the Top Ten (“Philomena,” #8 with $1.8 million at 832 theaters). “Dallas Buyers Club” was #10 (just under $1.2 million in 574, while the more limited “Nebraska” placed #13 with $911,000 in 250. “American Hustle” opened in 6th to a huge $740,000. Except for “Hustle,” all had vacated those positions (despite in some cases keeping their grosses steady). This year sees three similar films in the top 12 (“The Theory of Everything,” the still very limited “Wild” and the longer-running “Birdman” all grossing over $1.3 million, with “Theory” $700,000 better than “Philomena.”

With the very strong third week expansion of “The Imitation Game” also knocking at the door for more theaters (it grossed $875,000 in only 25) and recent award attention giving them fresh attention, all are going to be fighting with each other for their share of the Christmas bounty, far more than was seen last year. Sony Classics Pictures, with their own deserving films, has gone more slowly with “Foxcatcher” and could be holding back a bit until the nominations next month, which would be the optimal date to break out. Meantime their “Whiplash,” which has been stabilizing after a slower than expected initial response, should also be in the mix, at least in core center-city theaters. Expect it to thrive as well on a more limited scale.

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