Western remake “The Magnificent Seven” (Sony) faces off against animated “Storks” (Warner Bros.) for #1 this weekend. But ranking is less important than how much the two movies pull in audiences. This fight pits the latest iteration of the venerable Hollywood western against a new example of the dominant genre ruling the 2016 box office.
Last weekend’s three duds and a big drop in Top Ten box office can be explained by retread projects that lacked appeal. However after a quick start to the season where six out of seven initial wide releases disappointed (Clint Eastwood’s “Sully” will end up grossing more than the other six combined), this week sees only two new wide releases.
That’s actually a sign of strength, since both look appealing enough to boost numbers. It’s an interesting combo, with both films having potential but neither guaranteed to open as well as “Sully” ($35 million), although both cost more.
2015’s last full weekend in September saw the Top Ten gross $126 million. Just over half of that came from two films —”Hotel Transylvania 2″ at $48 million topped “The Intern.” “Magnificent Seven” and “Storks” combined have a shot at the same total, and conceivably more, but where each fits into the equation could vary.
“The Magnificent Seven” is a remake of John Sturges’ classic all-star epic western from 1960 (itself based on Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” followed by three minor sequels, then a late ’90s multi-season TV series). It’s hard to remember that westerns were once as dominant at the box office as animation is now. And yet the genre, which appeals to the older demo, has not disappeared from theaters.
Though rarer these days, the westerns that work tend to be bigger-budget, big-feel stories with classic roots. Last Christmas saw both “The Hateful Eight” and “The Revenant,” the latter scoring far bigger thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio’s star power and an awards season boost. But traditional western remakes “True Grit” and “3:10 to Yuma” both fared well, led by strong star casts.
“Magnificent” hope to replicate their success. It is certainly star-driven, with a cast led by Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt but also with Korean star Lee Byung-hun and Mexico’s Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (a tip to the international casting included in the 1960 film, unusual for a western at that time). At $90 million, it isn’t close to the $215 million “The Lone Ranger” set Disney back, but it is still a risk.
This is an unusual ensemble cast film for Washington, who tends to be a stand-alone star (“The Equalizer,” “Flight”). He is reunited for the third time with successful African-American director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day” and “The Equalizer”).
Washington is reliable at opening films at the $25 million level, and has gone as high as $35-40 million twice in the last four years. And this time he has Chris Pratt in tow, whose star power has been enhanced by the $1 billion combined domestic gross of “Jurassic World” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Pratt has more to prove than Washington; a big success here will add to his luster—along with the upcoming “Passengers.”
On paper the western should easily open to the $35 million “Sully” tapped two weeks ago, and possibly more. But given the vagaries of the genre’s appeal, increased audience discernment (particularly older viewers – its high-profile Toronto opening film premiere led to advance reviews more mixed than favorable, unlike some other recent Western successes). Given its expense, a low-end opening would demand a strong multiple plus better international results to get into the black.
The $70 million “Storks,” Warner Bros.’ second film under its new animated banner, is a far safer investment. They’ve committed to a limited slate initially, with “The LEGO Movie” a tough act to follow. “Storks” is unlikely to come near “LEGO”‘s opening weekend of $69 million.
On the other hand it’s been more than two months since the last big studio family audience cartoon release “Ice Age: Collision Course” and more since the last big hit, “The Secret Life of Pets.” Like nearly all top cartoon smashes this year —other than top fish “Finding Dory”— talking animals again take center stage.
Warners’ seems to be making interesting creative choices – like “LEGO,” whose directing team had live-action experience ( “21 Jump Street”), “Storks” co-director Nicholas Stoller also comes out of comedy (the “Neighbors” films among others). It has a degree of freshness on its side, but familiarity often is more of an asset with animated than live action (unless like the most recent “Ice Age” the expiration date has clearly passed).
Pre-Thanksgiving animated releases in recent years have tended to open in the mid-30s to upper 40s range, for both new and existing franchises. It’s not the most prime period, and initially a September date was considered low-season until Sony found gold with “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” then “Hotel Transylvania” and their sequels. But with so many cartoon features coming down the pike, it makes sense to go out now. The next two don’t arrive until November, so Warners with any sort of strong opening likely have a chance to thrive for several weeks.
Of note among limited releases is that the two with the biggest push – “The Queen of Katwe” (Disney) and “The Dressmaker” (Broad Green) – are opening in multiple cities and double digit theater counts (approximately 52 and 36 respectively). One of the questions for this fall is whether an evolution to more than just a New York and Los Angeles platform first release – an option Fox Searchlight has used several times, and more recently by “Hell or High Water” among others – becomes more common through the crowded awards season.
Both films are from veteran women directors. “The Queen of Katwe” (Mira Nair, director of “Mississippi Masala” and “The Notebook”) tells with vivid detail the true story of a Uganda girl who becomes a chess champ. Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo costar. “The Dressmaker” (Jocelyn Moorhouse – “How to Make an American Quilt,” “A Thousand Acres”) features Kate Winslet as an internationally known designer who returns to her rural Australian mother (Judy Davis) and town with some scores to settle. “Katwe” premiered at this year’s Toronto, “The Dressmaker” debuted over a year ago there and has already opened in most territories.