With its $192 million opening weekend, “The Lion King” grossed more than Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” will earn in its entire domestic run. However, hopes are high that his R-rated film can break another kind of record: Will it make enough to justify studios that take the chance on original tentpoles?
Based on estimates, it should gross over $100 million, but with a $30 million-$35 million opening weekend that will fall short of his personal best. Best case, that suggests a $122 million domestic total. Still, those are projections. The film has buzz, mystery, and other key elements that could give it the momentum to soar above expectations.
Like “Once Upon a Time,” “Pulp Fiction” premiered at Cannes and opened wide (by 1994 standards) in 1,338 theaters to $20 million (adjusted, like all grosses listed here). It then had a phenomenal run with great word of mouth and awards expectations that led to its ultimate take of $229 million. (Unadjusted, it opened to $9 million, ultimately grossing $109 million.)
“Pulp” remains Tarantino’s most iconic film: It’s his most critically acclaimed, the biggest domestic gross, his first Oscar, and his sole Palme d’Or. For “Once Upon a Time” to come close to that would require a convergence of factors difficult to replicate.
This is Tarantino’s fourth film in a decade, with 2012’s “Django Unchained” ($184 million) and 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds” ($145 million) representing his next two biggest hits. “The Hateful Eight” in 2015 managed only $57 million, but “Once Upon a Time” has more in common with the hits than the flop.
This year has seen four original releases gross over $50 million. Only two opened to even $25 million — “Rocket Man” just barely, “Us” much better at $71 million, about double of the more-optimistic projection for “Once Upon a Time.” And “Us” director Jordan Peele could be a bigger draw that Tarantino at the moment, with a wider reach among potential moviegoers. Per MPAA reports, about 40% of domestic tickets are bought by black and Latino moviegoers; “Us” opened with a 51% black/Latino audience (often the case for horror films, regardless of cast). Tarantino benefitted from that audience with “Django Unchained,” his biggest film since “Pulp Fiction.”
Set in 1969, “Once Upon A Time” also carries the burden of being a period piece. That might seem insignificant to older cinephiles, but “Pulp Fiction” certainly would have been a more challenging sell if it had been set in 1944. It also hinges on a brutal murder, although marketing has presented the film as a Hollywood time capsule. Still, Tarantino has a history of pushing the envelope on violent subjects and if the film appeals primarily to older audiences, that could be an issue.
“Once Upon A Time” has the best reviews of any wide release this summer; among his films, it’s second only to “Pulp Fiction.” With a Metacritic score of 88 (closest is “Toy Story 4,” with 84), it is approaching “Dunkirk” territory — a more-cerebral period film that opened in late July and opened to over $50 million.
It also has the benefit of an opening playing field, with competitors clearing the date. Fewer alternatives, particularly for a non-family audiences, give this a chance for a boost.
And, for all the hand wringing over original films, there’s the surprise success of “Yesterday” heading for as much as $80 million — with much less going for it than “Once Upon a Time.” The casting is unimpeachable with Leonardo DiCaprio in his first film since “The Revenant” (2015) and “Django Unchained” (2012), both of which grossed over $180 million. Brad Pitt, the lead in “Inglourious Basterds” stars opposite DiCaprio for the first time. Margot Robbie also adds gravitas and interest. Do stars matter? They could still.
Finally, Sony has managed to keep the plot details secret, including a third-act twist and surprise ending. An audience that valued seeing the film early was key to the massive opening for “Avengers: Endgame;” on a different scale, that could be a boost here.
The $30 million-$35 million opening estimate seems low. All things considered, $40 million seems well within reach. Even $46 million, which would stand as Tarantino’s best, doesn’t seem out of the question. And opening in July allows for a stretch of several weeks without serious competition (not that “Hobbs & Shaw” the following week won’t be bigger). “Dunkirk” had a 3.75 multiple; “Crazy Rich Asians,” opening in mid-August last year, had a stunning 6.5 multiple. That suggests “Once Upon a Time” has a real shot of a domestic $150 million gross. That would be a strong result — but it still would be only about 65% of “Pulp Fiction.”