Per-theater averages are usually one of the nerdiest box-office metrics, but sometimes they’re incredibly acute. For example: Thursday-night numbers for “Cats” reflected about 25 ticket buyers per show, with two shows per theater.
Remember “The Lion King” last summer? The remake with a somewhat derisive critical response (Metacritic: 55) saw a domestic gross of $544 million, and another $1.11 billion international. That’s the context of viewing initial numbers for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” and “Cats.”
“Skywalker” (Disney), the finale of the third trilogy that began 42 years ago and still stands as the prototype for franchise-fantasy filmmaking, took in around $40 million last night in “previews” that marked the start of its run. Overseas, 46 territories also opened with full-day shows, taking in $59 million.
Meantime, “Cats” (Universal), which has seen more advance interest than just about any film released this year outside the Star Wars or Marvel universes, took in $550,000 in around 2,500 theaters (about three quarters of the 3,380 playing today). That’s an average of $220 per theater. The expansion of “Bombshell” (Lionsgate) after its initial strong platform last weekend grossed $335,000 in around 1,100 of its scheduled 1,480 venues today, for $330 per theater.
The “Skywalker” results are what any film would kill for; adjusted it’s the fifth best ever. But some caveats are in order. This had earlier initial showtimes than other recent “Star Wars” titles (5 p.m. for event screenings, 6 p.m. otherwise, compared to the normal standard 7 p.m. start). Trilogy predecessors “The Force Awakens” amassed $57 million, “The Last Jedi” $45 million, surpassing the takes for “Solo” and “Rogue One.” The all-time record is the $60 million for “Avengers: Endgame” last April.
“The Force Awakens” launched the pre-Christmas weekend as a viable record-setting date, beyomnd strategic holiday positioning. “Titanic” and “Avatar,” both of which ultimately sold more domestic tickets than anything since “E.T” (yes, more than “Endgame”), but neither opening topped $100 million adjusted. For this time of year, competition for activities outside a theater are at their peak — particularly for any film counting on older audiences.
With its own 55 Metacritic score, “Skywalker” is now the lowest-ranked series entry. But whether that matters remains to be determined. As the climax of a trilogy, it has precedents for doing the best business of the three. “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” was tops at every stage of its release. “Endgame” soared as the best of the “Avengers” titles.
But both those had excellent reviews ahead of their predecessors, and also followed second entries that completely satisfied fans. Here, reviews are not a plus, and it follows the divisive “The Last Jedi.”
It also comes in a year with a mixed record of franchise fatigue and celebration. “Last Jedi” opened five days earlier, with another weekend intervening before Christmas. That can make a difference.
Based on its Thursday numbers, and the performance of “The Last Jedi,” “Skywalker” could do $93 million through today, and $196 million for the weekend. That would be about the $200 million consensus guess for the weekend, but also a drop from “Jedi.”
“Cats”Reviews for “Cats” are dire: The Metacritic score is a horrific 31. It’s become a hot topic for social media, although not in the way Universal might have hoped.
I went with 3 friends but we found ourselves in a room full of strangers that quickly became…a family pic.twitter.com/XSY9iRWH6a
— Kevin T. Porter (@KevinTPorter) December 20, 2019
Literally the only way to see this movie is to descend into the abyss within yourself and see if you can make it out the other side.
IF YOU DARE.
(Put that on the poster, Universal.) https://t.co/2Fe1yGjeLm
— Emily CrimCramWerff (@tvoti) December 20, 2019
“The Lion King” faced critical griping and carping, but much of it stemmed from questions like, “Is this remake necessary?” However, the public clearly didn’t hear the complaints — or, more likely, didn’t care. And as a film it represented a low-risk family-oriented choice. By contrast, noted Matt Golder at Collider, “‘Cats’ always feels like it’s two seconds away from turning into a furry orgy in a dumpster. That’s the energy you have to sit with for almost two hours.”
Some of that comes with the territory of translating a theatrical treasure for the screen. Sometimes it works (“Les Miserables,” also directed by Tom Hooper). Sometimes it falls flat (“A Chorus Line,” “Rent”). But the common element is that these are films aimed at an adult audience, which is the one most influenced by critics.
The pre-Christmas placement makes comparisons close to impossible. “Into the Woods” had previews grossing $1.1 million on Christmas Eve (in big cities, often a good movie night) and then $15 million on December 25 (a Tuesday). For “Cats,” the reality at this point is a weekend under $10 million.
But even then, more than with “Skywalker,” this release date looks to have been positioned to allow a few days of audience response to overcome what Universal likely suspected might be off-putting reviews. That comes with risk: This is a time of year when audience response can go viral, and for “Cats” the prognosis is not good.
The more sophisticated “Bombshell” is tougher to judge. It is going narrower initially with 1,480 theaters, and after the holidays it could see a boost via awards. It could outgross “Cats,” but this weekend will be less predictive of what is to come.