‘Joker’ Could Open to $100 Million, but Box-Office History Suggests Otherwise

Also in our weekend box office preview: Pedro Almodovar's "Pain and Glory" and Netflix title "Dolemite Is My Name" open as "Judy" expands.

For all the talk surrounding “Joker,” it seems odd that the industry guess for its domestic opening weekend is “only” $80 million. As the weekend’s only new wide release, and one that’s generated both intense interest and simmering controversy, $100 million or more might seem possible. However, underlying factors suggest otherwise.

The story of a crazed and desperate middle-aged man rebelling against constraints to get the attention and adoration of the public, “Joker” owns the zeitgeist. That could be playing with fire in a drought-parched climate, but blazes tend to attract big crowds.

Still, box-office precedent is what generates the conservative $80 million estimate. If it makes just a little more, “Joker” would set an October record (set only last year, same weekend, by “Venom”). However, Marvel films tend to have stronger openings than the darker DC Comics titles. And while “Venom” was PG-13, “Joker” is rated R and only 12 R-rated movies have ever opened to more than $80 million.

Arguably, there isn’t a comic-book character with more clout than Joker; Heath Ledger won an Oscar for the role, and Joaquin Phoenix is positioned for his own nomination. While that’s impressive, it also speaks to the kind of movie “Joker” really is: It’s a character study, with a budget around $60 million that doesn’t leave room for impressive FX or action-film set pieces. Points for being different, but the difference may also show at the box office.

"The Joker"
“Joker”Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Still, if “Deadpool” opened to $139 million adjusted, it’s possible that “Joker” could open to $100 million or more. Event films do tend to overperform, and this one opens in a vacuum that gives it access to more screens and seats.

While that’s good news for Warner Bros., it creates an exhibition problem: Although event films are vital, the studios’ overwhelming tendency to avoid their opening weeks hurts theaters. Grosses this weekend will almost certainly be less than those for the same weekend in 2018. A year ago, “Venom” made $80 million and “A Star Is Born” generated another $43 million along with two holdovers that each added over $10 million.

Achieving a 2018 weekend par of about $180 million seems nearly impossible. “Joker” would have to make $123 million to replicate those top two films, and this weekend’s box office holds little holdover promise save for the second weekend of DreamWorks Animation’s “Abominable.” The year-to-date deficit is back to more than $500 million.

JudyRoadside Attractions / screencap

Roadside Attractions had a decent 481-theater debut with “Judy” (though closer to a $2.9 million gross rather than Sunday’s nearly $3.1 million estimate). This weekend will treble its theater count with over 1,400 dates. This smart expansion should continue to elevate Renee Zellweger’s strong early position in the Oscar Best Actress race, and a total gross of up to $5 million seems likely. It’s already in the key theaters and expansions like this one never achieve the per-theater averages of the their opening weekends.

Limited Openings

“Pain & Glory”Sony PIctures Classics

It cheapens Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory” to reduce it to its Oscar chances, although they’re there; star Antonio Banderas is favored for a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of a veteran director reviewing his past. Almodovar has been an arthouse box-office draw for over 30 years, with three films grossing over $10 million — excellent for subtitled films. And Almodovar is arguably the sole remaining European director committed to making films solely on his home turf and language, similar to auteurs like Bergman, Fellini, and Truffaut. It opens in four core New York/Los Angeles theaters.

His last film to make more than $10 million adjusted was “Volver” in 2006. Since then, like the foreign-language market itself, Almodovar’s box-office results have been in decline. His most recent, “Julieta,” grossed $65,000 in six theaters its first weekend, and ended up around $1.5 million.

“Pain and Glory” could be the biggest specialized subtitled opener this year. Of last year’s major foreign-language awards contenders,”Roma” had a two-city PTA of around $40,000. “Cold War” and “Shoplifters” each achieved roughly half of that.

“Lucy in the Sky” is a Fox Searchlight title that once was highly anticipated, but now faces terrible reviews after its Toronto International Film Festival premiere. It’s the feature-directing debut of Noah Hawley, who is best known for FX series “Fargo.” Natalie Portman plays an astronaut who has a complicated affair with another astronaut (Jon Hamm) that leads to a personal collapse. This is only the distributor’s fourth release this year; it will open in with 36 theaters in Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington along with New York and Los Angeles. That 35 Metacritic score is an albatross; it will expand to around 350 dates, the low end for a Searchlight film with this kind of talent.

"Dolemite Is My Name"
“Dolemite Is My Name”Netflix

Ahead of its October 25 Netflix debut, “Dolemite Is My Name” will open in about 20 theaters. Unlike previous Netflix limited theatricals, this one is not based around Landmark Theatres. It’s an oddball approach: There’s little presence in prime major black audience centers like Chicago and Atlanta, though there are dates in Alabama, Tennessee, and Alabama (and Helena, Montana!).

It’s a shame, because this Rudy Ray Moore biopic with a bravura Eddie Murphy performance is a great audience experience and could have real appeal at many locations. It’s a tough year for best actor contenders, but this film will likely suffer from the lack of immediate audience reaction. It could add theaters, as “Roma” did, but in the last year big chain resistance to Netflix films has not dissolved one bit.

Also opening:

Dilili in Paris (Goldwyn) – Veteran French animator Michel Ocelot’s latest film opens in limited theaters and VOD.

The Disappearance of My Mother (Kino Lorber) – Debuting at Sundance, this documentary by the son of a 1970s fashion icon gets his mother’s reluctant participation in telling her story.

Wrinkles the Clown (Magnolia) – The other clown movie is this documentary about a real-life clown hired by parents as a form of extreme behavior control. In limited theaters and VOD.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

Daily Headlines
Daily Headlines covering Film, TV and more.

By subscribing, I agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

PMC Logo
IndieWire is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 IndieWire Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.