An 11% Top Ten drop from the same weekend last year can be blamed mainly on the shortfall of this week’s sole new release, Ron Howard’s whaling saga “In the Heart of the Sea.” Its $11 million gross is about half of what “Exodus – Gods and Kings” opened to in 2015. Take away those two films and grosses actually inched slightly higher than last year.
The weekend was ho-hum, as several films jockeyed to stay on screen for the lucrative holiday weeks ahead. Next week any movie that is not “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” will battle for screen space. The Top Ten pre-Christmas weekend last year totaled about $124 million. Next weekend by most estimates should easily top $200 million, possible with “Star Wars” approaching (or even exceeding) that figure by itself. Many all-time top grossers —”Titanic,” “Avatar,” both the “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” series —have opened around the same date and had less than record grosses because of the typical pre-Christmas lull, but the excitement surrounding the “Star Wars” rebooting seems unprecedented in its front-end appeal.
The Top Ten
1. Hunger Games – Mockingjay Part 2 (Lionsgate) – Week 4
$11,300,00 (-40%) in 3,651 theaters (-435); PTA (per theater average): $3,095; Cumulative: $244,491,000
2. In the Heart of the Sea (Warner Bros.) NEW – Cinemascore: B+; Criticwire: C+; Metacritic: 48; Est. budget: $100 million
$11,005,000 in 3,103 theaters; PTA: $3,547; Cumulative: $11,005,000
3. The Good Dinosaur (Buena Vista) – Week 3
$10,497,000 (-31%) in 3,606 theaters (-143); PTA: $2,911; Cumulative: $89,661,000
4. Creed (Warner Bros.) – Week 3
$10,120,000 (-32%) in 3,502 theaters (+78); PTA: $2,890; Cumulative: $79,321,000
5. Krampus (Universal) – Week 2
$ 8,010,000 (-51%) in 2,919 theaters (+17); PTA: $2,744; Cumulative: $28,151,000
6. Spectre (Sony) – Week 6
$4,000,000 (-28%) in 2,640 theaters (-200); PTA: $1,515; Cumulative: $190,768,000
7. The Night Before (Sony) – Week 4
$3,900,000 (-22%) in 2,674 theaters (-120); PTA; $1,458; Cumulative: $38,206,000
8. The Peanuts Movie (20th Century Fox) – Week 6
$2,650,000 (-26%) in 2,653 theaters (-264); PTA: $999; Cumulative: $124,956,000
9. Spotlight (Open Road) – Week 6
$2,509,000 (-10%) in 1,089 theaters (+109); PTA: $2,304; Cumulative: $20,303,000
10. Brooklyn (Fox Searchlight) – Week 6
$1,975,000 (-19%) in 947 theaters (+41); PTA: $2,086; Cumulative: $14,330,000
The Calm Before the Storm
This weekend is always variable in impact. A major film can soar, particularly with younger/fanboy appeal (entries in both the “The Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” series have debuted about this time to huge responses), but it is not ideal for run of the mill films. Between lagging interest in ordinary movies and vulnerability to pressure in demand for screen time from bigger films ahead, it takes a brave distributor to go against the trend.
“In the Heart of the Sea” is by no definition a throwaway film. Ron Howard’s $100-million variation on “Moby Dick” (based on an award-winning non-fiction book) was aimed at adults and upscale audiences, with franchise draw Chris Hemsworth in the lead to broaden appeal. Adults though, particularly at this time of the year, respond to reviews, and they weren’t strong. And the younger crowd tends to like their stars in a narrow range of films, which doesn’t extend to early 19th-century whaling sagas. The delayed release seems to have been planned with hopes that the usual default holiday boost would propel a multiple that might help this break even (plus international tallies of course). Instead they have a film that will be under pressure to hold beyond two weeks in many locations— it’s hard to imagine that this won’t drop by 60% of more to around $4 million next weekend.
That total grosses held better due to a range of decently holding films, though few of them were automatic holds through the holidays. That many are close — the top four this weekend were separate by little more than $1 million — means that exhibitors and distributors have a lot of tough choices to make ahead.
A Variable 2015 for Veteran Directors
Oscar-winner Ron Howard is one of the most commercially successful directors of his era. The former actor has had at least six films to (adjusted) gross $200 million or more domestically, and has sustained a career in the last decade by making more adult stories (“Rush,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Cinderella Man”). He’s had a few flops — the Western “The Missing” and “EdTV” failed— but nothing whiffed on the level of “In the Heart of the Sea.”
Is he still connecting with audiences? He could recover (he does have the Tom Hanks “Da Vinci Code” sequel coming up). How are his peers, directors who had prominent releases before 1990, faring at the box office this year? At 61, he is younger than most of the others (he made his debut at 23 with Roger Corman-produced “Grand Theft Auto” in 1977).
Ron Howard is one of six Best Director Oscar-winners whose careers span more than 25 years with 2015 releases, a field led by 85-year-old Clint Eastwood, as most of the gross for “American Sniper” was counted this year. Among the other four, it’s a more mixed record. Only the reliable Steven Spielberg broke through with “Bridge of Spies” (still below many of his successes). Four others— Jonathan Demme’s modest performer “Ricki and the Flash,” Woody Allen’s recent low “The Irrational Man” and Barry Levinson’s stillborn “Rock the Kasbah”— performed at levels below what “Sea” will achieve (with much lower budgets). Particularly disappointing was Robert Zemeckis’ highly touted and ambitious “The Walk,” the first bellyflop in his career.
Among other veterans, the successes include 78-year-old Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” among his biggest hits ever, and possibly his own first Oscar. George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” was also a mass audience hit. Spike Lee (“Chi-Raq,” made mainly for ultimate Amazon streaming) and Joe Dante (“Burying the Ex”) aimed for more modest results. Cameron Crowe flopped with “Aloha,” Chris Columbus’ “Pixels” will barely break even. Also back this year were Peter Bogdanovich with the mostly VOD “She’s Funny That Way,” and Ken Kwapis, whose “A Walk in the Woods” scored a surprise $30 million mid-level release).
Howard’s rival for most expensive flop among his age-group is Michael Mann’s “Blackhat” at the start of the year, which though costing less (around $70 million) ended up with only $20 million in total worldwide gross. “Sea” should exceed that at least by some distance and ultimately lose less money.
With older audiences stronger than ever and awareness of brand-name directors far higher than it was in past eras, that Howard’s failure looks project specific. Universal, his regular past partner, optioned the to-be-released mystery novel “The Girl Before” (in “Gone Girl” vein) two weeks ago, and Imagine (run by his producing partner Brian Grazer) has other projects pending. But no studio will give him the benefit of the doubt on a big budget movie. He will be flying in safe mode.
Not counting the initially 2014 released Clint Eastwood effort, I count 15 new films from veterans whose work go back to the 1980s and earlier. Out of curiosity, I looked back at 25 years ago. In 1970, there were about the same number of films released by directors who had started in 1945 or earlier, including seven from Oscar winners. What a difference! Those veterans, including Wyler, Wilder, Preminger, Minnelli, Hawks, Huston, Lean, Reed among others, were mainly struggling to adapt to the post-“Bonnie and Clyde,” “Graduate,” “Easy Rider” world, and nearly all of their films flopped (including the roadshow high-end “Ryan’s Daughter,” whose failure kept David Lean from making another film until 1983). The exception was the most old-fashioned of the group, George Seaton’s “Airport,” which adjusted had a domestic gross of $550 million, alone bigger than the likely totals of all of this year’s veteran films.
Today marks a better era for veteran directors who appeal to a still vital and active older audience.
Holdovers – What Makes the Cut
This was one of the best weekends for holdovers in a while. Only “Krampus” dropped over 50% (normal or better for the second week of a horror film). Its gross makes it an easy film to drop after at most three weeks at most theaters, as expected.
From there it gets more complicated, with many vulnerable contenders. “Mockingjay” dropped 40%, holding slightly better than Part 1 last year, retaining #1 (last year second place), but the gross is more than $1 million lower. Like last year, Lionsgate has no Christmas release, and now with the performance stabilizing, though still lower than past franchise entries, expect it to hold the bulk of its dates, though perhaps sharing screens in some case with other holdovers.
“The Good Dinosaur” remains a disappointment for Pixar, but its gross is $3 million above the best of last year’s two November animated releases, both of which got major holiday play (when these family films are natural matinee draws). Again, there might be some split screens by 12/25, but it has major grosses yet to come.
“Creed” is one of three Warner Bros. films fighting for space, but here the failure of “In the Heart of the Sea” could help. Assuming Warners is willing to pull the plug on some of its dates (and after “Point Break” opens 12/25), this should thrive ahead.
Sony has a dilemma. “Spectre” has done quite well, but is falling short of “Skyfall.” Its sixth weekend, similarly placed, was more than 50% better. At $4 million this weekend, it is vulnerable to losing holdover slots than earlier Daniel Craig Bonds. Sony’s holiday priority “Concussion” aside, this has unexpected in-house competition though from the sleeper comedy “The Night Before,” down only 22% and grossing only $100,000 less this weekend, and the best hold among the wide releases (“Spotlight” and “Brooklyn” round out the Top Ten and fell less, but are at far fewer theaters).
Christmas is the most contentious time of the year between theaters and studios. The latter accept to some extent the priority that “Star Wars” is getting, but beyond the first week, expect them all to demand fair and reasonable treatment. And things just got a little more complicated, as Paramount’s “The Big Short” just opened huge in its platform runs (to go wide on 12/23), and Weinstein has moved up the non-70mm dates for “The Hateful Eight” to January 1. Which doesn’t make things any easier.