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MLK Box Office Looks Beyond ‘Avatar’ and ‘M3gan’ and Sees Reason for Hope

"Plane," "House Party," and "A Man Called Otto" are reasons to believe that MLK weekend can maintain box-office momentum.

PLANE, from left: Gerard Butler, Mike Colter, 2023. ph: Kenneth Rexach / © Lionsgate / courtesy Everett Collection

“Plane”

©Lions Gate/Courtesy Everett Collection

We began the year on a strong note with the hold for “Avatar: The Way of Water” (Disney) and a $30 million start for the low-budget horror film “M3EGAN” (Universal). Now we have the Martin Luther King weekend, historically one of the strongest before May. This time, it faces some impediments — a lack of holdovers, few awards releases going wide, and no top-flight opener. Pre-Covid MLK debuts like”Bad Boys for Life,” “American Sniper,” “Glass,” and “Ride Along” opened to more than $40 million.

Between 2018-2020, the three-day MLK weekend totaled $130 million-$166 million (not calculating a 20 percent+ increase in ticket prices). This year will be closer to $100 million. Still, that would be a significant improvement over last year ($72 million) and continue the early-year surge.

This weekend offers multiple possibilities to encourage long-term optimism and suggest that better times are ahead in 2023. Here is what insiders will look at:

Is the market expanding?

The best news last weekend was “The Way of Water” declined only 31 percent after a holiday weekend, while “M3GAN” opened to an impressive $30 million. That gave evidence that James Cameron’s film wasn’t a market fluke (suggested by the otherwise weak Christmas totals) or strictly benefited from its lack of competition.

With the expansion of “A Man Called Otto” (Sony) and a wide opening for “Plane” (Lionsgate), this weekend has a shot of four films grossing over $10 million. That hasn’t happened in nearly six months, and would be a sign that multiple films can successfully open at the same time — a critical factor in box office recovery.

AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, (aka AVATAR 2), Tuk (voice: Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), 2022. © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

“Avatar: The Way of Water”

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Can originality overcome resistance?

Although the top 10 domestic releases of 2022 are franchise-connected, six standalone titles grossed over $100 million. Still, more often than not (“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” “Babylon” last month), original success outside of horror films remains the exception. This week sees originals “Plane” and “Otto” (although that’s a remake of the 2015 Swedish film “A Man Called Ove”); there’s also “House Party,” which may seem new for anyone under 35 (the last title from the initial franchise came out in 1994). None of these films can claim multiple audience quadrants, but success for at least two of these would be a victory for theaters.

“A Man Called Otto”

After a disastrous one-week platform (not helped by mixed-to-poor reviews), last weekend’s limited expansion of the Tom Hanks comedy did better than expected with a per-theater average of $6,597. If word of mouth is good, this title could prove a pleasant surprise. Tracking suggests it will place #3 for the weekend, with the chance for a gross in the mid-teens. Not a smash but respectable, particularly when that would see it outgross “The Fabelmans” (Universal) and “The Banshees of Inisherin” (Searchlight), which have been box-office disappointment despite awards attention.

“Plane”

Initial reviews for this Gerald Butler actioner aren’t bad. It’s unclear if marketing has connected, but if audiences respond to this as the right kind of dumb fun, it might exceed lowball expectations. As of now, $10 million is possible. Butler elevated “Greenland” to a decent response in late 2020 when theaters were just reopening, with his 2019 “Angel Has Fallen” (a particular favorite of Robert Downey, Jr.) opening to $21 million. This kind of film used to be Lionsgate’s bread-and-butter, but last year its biggest hit only grossed $20 million. It needs a return to form, and theaters need Lionsgate.

“House Party”

This one’s a wild card. Originally slated to go directly to HBO Max, this first shifted to theaters for December 9 and later pushed to fulfill this weekend’s tradition of the Black-oriented film. This has a more limited run (around 1,200 theaters) and exhibitors expect early PVOD availability before HBO Max at 45 days. That will lower the gross, which industry projections place around $5 million. It’s a comedy (rare) aimed at younger audiences (even rarer).

M3GAN, (aka MEGAN), from left: Amie Donald as M3gan (voice: Jenna Davis), Violet McGraw, 2023. © Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

“M3GAN”

©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

“Avatar: The Way of Water” and “M3GAN”

Any drop under 35 percent would be excellent for “The Way of Water,” and raise expectations for its ultimate domestic take to $700 million or more, potentially vying with “Maverick” as top 2022 release. Horror films typically drop 50 percent in weekend two. If “M3GAN” can hold that to 40 percent or less, particularly with increased competition, that’s a sign it might reach an unexpected $100 million.

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