The last two weeks of July are usually a time to open multiple blockbusters. The midpoint of summer offers plenty of time to capture kids on vacation, but the window is starting to close. Recent examples include “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” “Jason Bourne,” “Dunkirk,” and “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.”
Not this year. There are exactly two wide releases through the end of the month, school schedules be damned: Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King” this weekend, followed by Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood.”
Clearly, the market perceives these titles as too big to compete. However, each also carries its own enormous burden.
Film box office is in a slump. It is down $250 million from last year, or about 7%. For the year to date, the drop is 9%, or $610 million. If both of these films perform at the high end of projections, we could end July with a $200 million cut in each of those deficits. That would be impressive. Even so, these films only have the capacity to reduce the bleeding. Grosses from August-November 2018 were among the best months of the year, which makes exceeding them in 2019 unlikely.
Both “The Lion King” and “Once Upon a Time in America” fit into existing brands. One is a revamp of a Disney animated classic (the third this year!); the other is a director who, as much as anyone today, has a name value that immediately attracts a large number of core fans. But they represent two very different paths.
Facing decidedly mixed reviews (55 on Metacritic), “The Lion King” has become a lightning rod for controversy and potentially faces a real disconnect. Critics view it as a technical achievement, but one that contains little originality or emotion; meanwhile, its advance ticket sales have been second only to “Avengers: Endgame.”
If it fails, the box office plunges further. If it succeeds, we can expect more of the same. Of course, its success or failure won’t be wholly determined by North America; initial results in China are strong. If the foreign performance bears that out, that will be its own stamp of approval.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is the rarest of properties: an original screenplay, and one that’s very unlikely to see a sequel. So far, there’s only one original film among the 10 top grossers of 2019, Jordan Peele’s “Us.” Both films have distinct and original voices and styles, but ground themselves in genres. And, in both cases, the films’ biggest stars are their directors.
The films are likely to share another element: “Us” is the sole standalone, original film to top $100 million domestic this year. Certainly, Tarantino will join that number. More importantly, his film’s performance will serve as Exhibit A for the idea that star-heavy, original-story, review-driven, R-rated event films that aren’t part of an existing franchise can thrive in the marketplace. (Exhibit B will be Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.”) In other words, what hit movies often used to be.
So what’s reasonable to expect from these would-be juggernauts?
Disney projects a domestic opening of $140 million-$180 million for “The Lion King” (though initial first-day results suggest higher), but another guidepost lies in box-office records. The biggest July opening was “The Dark Knight,” at $199 million adjusted. For an animated film, it was “Minions” at $126 million adjusted. In terms of Disney animated reimagings or remakes, the top is “Beauty and the Beast” at $178 million adjusted.
Bottom line: Anything from $140 million-$180 million falls in a range from respectable to great. Less will raise eyebrows. More will show the public is at odds with many critics and cinephiles.
Quentin Tarantino operates on a different scale. His nine previous features grossed around $930 million total (adjusted); four, led by “Pulp Fiction,” made the equivalent of over $100 million today.
His most recent release,”The Hateful Eight,” fell far short of its hype with only $54 million domestic take. More comparable for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” would be “Inglourious Basterds” — a summer film and a period piece. It opened to (an adjusted) $46 million, with a total $146 million gross (and another $200 million foreign).
Like all Tarantino films, it’s rated R and it’s long (over 2.5 hours). With Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio (in his first film since winning an Oscar for “The Revenant”), that might suggest a $50 million opening. However, that’s at the high end of predictions. Current consensus is $30 million-$35 million, with the low end at $25 million. Last year, original titles “A Quiet Place” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” each debuted over $50 million.
The hype and social media chatter generated by the film would seem to suggest that $50 million shouldn’t be a stretch. But is its appeal too narrow, its 1960s setting too old? Does it represent a sensibility more attuned to streaming originals? Are the Manson murders a turnoff, even in Tarantino’s hands? Even with its lower costs ($90 million vs. $250 million for “The Lion King”), it’s perceived as the riskier venture.
These two come a week apart, at a time when there’s serious questions about the financial and aesthetic future of movies for in theaters: It’s as important a moment we will see in box office this year. Stay tuned.