An ugly box office weekend was redeemed partially by some solid holdovers and a decent, unexpectedly wide opening for the more upscale, specialized older-crowd film “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (Fox Searchlight). Neill Blomkamp’s “Chappie” (Sony) managed to take first place with a weak $13.3 million. Hopes were high for the film to return grosses to their elevated level of recent months. Alas, with “Cinderella,” “Insurgent,” “Get Hard” and “Furious 7” coming up, we’ll soon see if mainstream tentpole-oriented releases — which have had uneven results over the last year — will lead to a rebound.
The Top Ten came in at $74 million, a terrible $54 million down from a year back, when “300: Rise of an Empire” and “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” combined grossed more than the whole list this year.
As has been clear for sometime, “American Sniper” (Warner Bros.) is the new top grossing film among 2014 releases, though nearly all of its $337 million domestic total has come since January 1. It dropped out of the Top 10 to place #11 with $4.5 million.
The Top Ten
1. Chappie (Sony) NEW – Cinemascore: B; Criticwire: C; Metacritic: 40; est. budget $49 million
$13,300,000 in 3,201 theaters; PSA (per screen average); $4,155; Cumulative: $13,300,000
2. Focus (Warner Bros.) Week 2 – Last weekend #1
$10,020,000 (-46%) in 3,323 theaters (unchanged); PSA: $3,015; Cumulative: $34,573,000
3. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Fox Searchlight) NEW – Cinemascore: B+; Criticwire: C+; Metacritic: 52; est. budget $10 million
$8,600,000 in 1,573 theaters; PSA: $5,467; Cumulative: $8,600,000
4. Kingsman: The Secret Service (20th Century Fox) Week 4 – Last weekend #2
$8,300,000 (-30%) in 3,101 theaters (-181); PSA: $2,677; Cumulative: $98,028,000
5. The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (Paramount) Week 5 – Last weekend #3
$7,000,000 (-35%) in 3,097 theaters (-370); PSA: $2,260; Cumulative: $148,933,000
6. Fifty Shades of Grey (Universal) Week 4 – Last weekend #4
$5,604,000 (-47%) in 2,788 theaters (-595); PSA: $2,010; Cumulative: $156,448,000
7. McFarland, U.S.A. (Buena Vista) Week 3 – Last weekend #6
$5,318,000 (-32%) in 2,792 theaters (+27); PSA: $1,905; Cumulative: $29,426,000
8. The Lazarus Effect (Relativity) Week 2; Last weekend #5
$5,100,000 (-50%) in 2,666 theaters (unchanged); PSA: $1,913; Cumulative: $17,400,000
9. The DUFF (Lionsgate) Week 3 – Last weekend #8
$4,850,000 (-29%) in 2,559 theaters (-63); PSA: $1,895; Cumulative: $26,116,000
10. Unfinished Business (20th Century Fox) NEW – Cinemascore: B; Criticwire: C-; Metacritic: 32; est. budget $35 million
$4,800,000 in 2,777 theaters; PSA: $1,728; Cumulative: $4,800,000
1. The “R” Rated Excuse
The excuse of the week in some quarters is that the disappointing showings of both “Chappie” and “Unfinished Business” are due to their R ratings. Really? It’s a bit hard to substantiate this. It’s true that the rating limits potential audiences, and particularly at prime holiday and summer periods, studios try to make sure most top-price releases are PG-13. But digging deeper, this seems unlikely.
The argument goes that R-rated films have been too successful of late. Five of the top nine 2015 releases have been R-rated, led by “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Kingsman,” as is “American Sniper,” by far the biggest early year grossing entry. It’s hard to attribute the failure of star-driven higher budget films like “Mortdecai” and “Blackhat” to their ratings though. Other duds since Christmas have been PG-13.
The dubiousness of this alibi is reflected in this week’s disappointments. Neill Blomkamp’s two earlier science fiction successes, “District 9” and “Elysium,” were R-rated. “Unfinished Business” star Vince Vaughn’s variably successful output has been mostly PG-13, but his biggest hit, the R-rated “Wedding Crashers,” would have grossed $270 million when adjusted to 2015 numbers. A look at 2014 releases shows a whole range of R-rated surprises that outgrossed expectations: “Gone Girl,” “Neighbors,” “Lucy,” “22 Jump Street” among them. A year ago, “300: Rise of an Empire” did $32 million despite its R rating.
Exhibitors, from whom the complaint is loudest, have a reason for concern. Kids films (with lowers admissions prices) bring in more ticket buyers, and many are more likely to purchase concessions. But to suggest that the R rating should be avoided flies in the face of the reality that “Chappie” and “Unfinished Business” weren’t likely to work with any lower rating and that recently it’s older audiences, for whom the R rating has no effect, that have been increasing the box office. Also, remember that most of these films are made with more international audiences in mind, with much different rating systems and impact. Domestically, ratings matter much less to studios than they once did.
“Chappie” is likely more the case of a tired, familiar-looking film. As for “Unfinished Business,” its sensibility seems to have been more European-oriented (where it was filmed in multiple locations) than domestic, where audiences have patronized his releases. The R-rating was appropriate to its overall tone, and again raunchy has worked quite a bit in recent years. It just didn’t this time.
2. Neill Blomkamp: Too Much, Too Soon? Or Too Limited?
South African/Canadian director Neill Blomkamp had a debut future success few directors could ever dream of having with “District 9”: $210 million worldwide on a $30 million budget, a rare science fiction Best Picture nomination, backing by Peter Jackson, and listing in Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world while still only 30. Comparisons were made to Steven Spielberg, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, Alfonso Cuaron and others who have made influential sci-fi/action FX-heavy successes.
He is hardly on career death’s door, but after “Elysium” (at best a break-even film with a worldwide gross of $286 million on a $115 million budget) and now “Chappie” eyeing, at best, around $40 million, Sony has to be happy the budget was a thrifty $49 million before marketing. International will have to do far better.
What might be the problem? It could be Blomkamp’s limited but intense background in special effects and video games, combined with his original scripts (also with solo credits). Looking at other similar directors who went on to great success, the pattern of their rise came more modestly, and though clearly inventive and talented, most started in films more grounded in story and character than effects driven. See Nolan with “Following” and “Memento,” Spielberg on TV and then “Duel,” Ridley Scott with “The Duellists,” Cuaron with low-budget Mexican films, and Fincher who began with “Alien 3” only after a long career making character-driven music videos.
The Blomkamp formula — being a great FX designer while working with mostly derivative scripts without particularly memorable characters — seems to have run its course. Repeating the oft-recycled dystopian apocalyptic setting doesn’t help.
He is currently involved in a reboot of the “Alien” franchise, which at least takes him into an established framework not of his making, though he’s also penning the script. It needs to soar — otherwise, as talented as he is, he is going to look like a one-trick pony of lesser future interest.
3. Searchlight’s Unusual “Exotic” Release
A specialized sequel/franchise is unusual. The idea that Fox Searchlight took a wider release route rather than going the normal platform pattern before expanding isn’t as risky as it might seem.
But early on, it does appear that the second time around isn’t likely to reach the success of the first, though none of this is certain until we see next week (which includes 200-plus more theaters). The $8.6 million weekend is better than any given one for the 2012 original, whose best weekend was its fourth, at $6.4 million, in fewer (1,233) locations with $10 million already in the bag. The not-so-great Saturday increase, where last night was 33% ahead of Friday, shows that this is way behind the much better jumps — 47% or higher — of its predecessor.
This isn’t to say that Searchlight guessed wrong. The reviews were less supportive this time but despite the same-old formula, familiarity and good will from the original made this immediately of wider interest (not to mention continued love for its two Dames). The mediocre B Cinemascore reinforces the shrewdly quick playoff. And though an initial wide release means marketing more top-heavy from the start, if this can come anywhere close to the $46 million domestic of the original, it might be accomplished with the spending more concentrated into fewer weeks, saving money. At its low upfront cost and worldwide appeal (whatever it does domestically, expect at least twice as much in foreign earnings) this should turn out fine, even if it ends up closer to $30 million here ultimately.
Both lack of much competition from newcomers and better weather meant that four of seven holdovers in the Top Ten fell a respectable 35% or less — led by “The DUFF,” “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” “McFarland, USA” and SpongeBob.” Both “The DUFF” (the first CBS release handled by Lionsgate) and “McFarland” are less expensive films, with both looking to end up in the range of $40 million, 3.5 to 4 times their opening numbers.
The two second week films fell more. “Focus” (-46%) is not going to get to $60 million domestic. “The Lazarus Effect” for a horror film didn’t collapse — down 50% — but it started off weak. Still, it was a less expensive buy for Relativity. “Fifty Shades of Grey” didn’t drop as much as earlier (-47%), and is still headed toward $170-180 million, great by any measure, and more than triple that worldwide.
Apart from “Sniper,” also just out of the Top Ten, is the sole Oscar winner among top categories still only in theaters: “Still Alice” (Sony Pictures Classics) dropped to #12, down 39% with $1,651,000. It only had a per-screen-average of $1,379, suggesting more theaters will drop out on top of those that already have after only one week of post-Oscar play.