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2020 Box Office Surge Will Continue with ‘Bad Boys for Life’

But, on the heels of its "Cats" disaster, Universal could face another costly VFX misfire with $175-million "Dolittle."

"Bad Boys for Life"

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence star in Columbia Pictures’ “Bad Boys for Life”

Kyle Kaplan; © 2019 CTMG, Inc.

So far so good, two weeks into 2020. Domestic box office is up about 10% ($40 million) from the start of last year. And this upcoming Martin Luther King holiday looks to keep that positive pace going. The three top spots should easily belong to openers “Bad Boys for Life” (Sony) and “Dolittle” (Universal) and Oscar contender “1917” (Universal). They could be close, but most likely the Will Smith-Martin Lawrence remake will lead.

One calendar advantage is that the Oscar nominations came a week later last year, with no impact on the long weekend. Add that this year has surging top contender “1917” as well as several recent Oscar hopefuls like “Little Women” to boost the totals.

Last year saw the three-day weekend gross $134 million ($162 million for four days). But apart from the Oscar boost, this year has other ways to surpass that. Two wide studio openers — last year standalone “Glass” delivered $40 million — with strong holdovers could increase the total more than the 10% jump so far. One informed guess: Sam Mendes’ World War I film will hold. Four years ago, “The Revenant” opened wide after a similar Christmas platform start, with its many nominations arriving before the second weekend, also the King Birthday holiday. It fell 20% from its $40 million start. If “1917” does the same, it would do around $30 million. Good enough for #1? Perhaps not, but close.

Of the two new titles, “Bad Boys for Life” looks best-positioned to challenge the top spot. The $90-million film, the third in the franchise, and first since 2003, reunites Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as detectives. This time, similar to other action series (James Bond, “Mission: Impossible,” “Fast and Furious”), this installment has a more international flavor with a Romanian gangster villain, though the action is stateside. It was directed by a Belgian pair, Adil El Darbi and Bilall Fallah, whose earlier work caught the attention of producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

The first two franchise entries were successes, though “Bad Boys II” in 2003 cost an adjusted $200 million, with a domestic total around an adjusted $200 million, same as foreign. The 1995 original (adjusted) grossed $140 million domestic, around $280 million worldwide, so about the same adjusted $400 million.

Is this recent reboot more “Jumanji,” which Sony has parlayed twice into sequel success, or a past-its-expiration date release like “Terminator”? The big advantage for “Bad Boys,” apart from awareness, is it’s the first tentpole action release (aimed at core audiences who aren’t tuning year-end awards titles) since the November 1 “Terminator” reboot, if not “Joker.” One test is how well Will Smith still draws. He starred in “Aladdin,” a big hit last year but he wasn’t the main draw. “Gemini Man,” a more sophisticated action film, failed to reach $50 million domestic (at a budget 50% more than this film), and his voicing in the recent “Spies in Disguise” did not support a breakout.

Still it appears likely that “Bad Boys” will end up in the top spot, at $35 million as a minimum, with an upside for three days of $40 million possible or more. Early reviews have been more positive than normal than most recent franchise extentions.

Dolittle

“Dolittle”

When Universal ended up spending a reported $175 million on VFX extravaganza “Dolittle,” they weren’t banking on opening in third place. That could happen. The troubled production starring Robert Downey Jr. and Antonio Banderas, with animal characters voiced by the likes of Rami Malek, Ralph Fiennes, Emma Thompson, and Octavia Spencer, was directed (before extensive reshoots) and co-written by Stephen Gaghan, writer of “Traffic” before directing “Syriana.”

That’s an odd match for a huge budget family-oriented comedy, but it suggests major ambition for this film. Before reshoots last spring, this was set for May, then April 2019. The holiday weekend date makes sense as family fare, though Christmas would have maximized its chances. Universal had already blocked out that date for another VFX-driven entry, the disastrously expensive “Cats.”

The optimistic guess for the “Dolittle” opening is $20-25 million. Reviews haven’t appeared yet, but more than review-proof “Bad Boys,” the family movie could be vulnerable to bad notices. One asset: “Dolittle” could do much better foreign — it already did well in Korea. But it needs some domestic heft to justify its budget, and that looks unlikely.

Oscar bonuses should arrive for “Little Women” (Sony), which might see only a small drop from $7.8 million last weekend, delivering by Sunday around $90 million. “Bombshell” (Lionsgate) got two acting nods, which took it over $1 million. Watch for a big bump for Oscar nominee “Parasite” (Neon). Expanding to its widest point in its 15th week (ahead of home availability), it will play on 800 theaters and could have its biggest weekend yet (previously it was $2.5 million). It will be at $26 million by Thursday, so this uptick will propel it ultimately above $30 million. That’s more than “Moonlight” grossed even after its Best Picture win. Expanding even more is Fox Searchlight’s “Jojo Rabbit.” It will play in 945 theaters, hoping to build on its $22 million total so far.

Expect “Jumanji: The Next Level” (Sony) to end up ahead of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (Disney) after falling a million short last weekend. The second weekends of “Like a Boss” (Paramount) and “Underwater” (20th Century Fox) should fall sharply, with the latter likely out of the Top Ten.

“Just Mercy” (Warner Bros.) failed to score a Supporting Actor nod for Jamie Foxx, but its A+ Cinemascore and civil rights topicality over the holiday could see a decent hold. And “Knives Out” (Lionsgate) should stay strong. “Frozen II” (Disney) is winding down, with a chance of reaching $500 million domestic.

The Monday school holiday will lift all boats.

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