Weekend Box Office Preview: ‘Downton Abbey’ Could Top Rare Trio of Strong Openers

As studios often hedge their bets by not competing with other movies on a crowded weekend, this one could yield three strong performers.
Robert James-Collier, "Downton Abbey"
Robert James-Collier, "Downton Abbey"
Jaap Buitendijk/ Focus Features

The summer pattern has seen one franchise tentpole succeeding another. On the one hand, the success of “The Lion King” (Disney) reminds that audiences have an insatiable appetite for enhanced versions of the familiar. On the other, decent results for original movie “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (Sony) suggest that some brands — Quentin Tarantino, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt–still sell. An established director and top stars came together with great reviews and a movie that clicked with audiences.

This weekend’s box office could be the most significant of the fall, even if no blockbusters are in the offing. Three new wide releases, appealing to distinct audiences, all have a shot at a gross total we rarely see at one time. And if that happens, it’s great news for the future of movies released to theaters.

Here’s what the weekend looks like, and what the results might mean:

The top five

Debut titles “Downton Abbey” (Focus), “Rambo: Last Blood” (Lionsgate), and “Ad Astra” (20th Century Fox) will all make the top five, along with two holdovers, “Hustlers” (STX) in its second weekend, and “It: Chapter 2” (Warner Bros.) in its third. All five titles should wind up in the $15-30 million million range; it’s unlikely any will total over $25 million. “Downton” and “Rambo” should lead the pack, as “Hustlers” and “It” vie for the $20 million range. “Ad Astra” could lag behind. But none of this is etched in stone.

This is rare

The period from Labor Day to Thanksgiving can provide major hits. But in the last 30 years, only one film opening in September or October (even in adjusted terms), has ever ended up grossing over $300 million (2017 release “It” and last year’s “A Star Is Born” got to $215 million). Last year only 11 films opened to $15 million or more.

That’s why any weekend boasting five grossers over $15 million, three of them new, would be  exceptional. The last time three new films opened to over $15 million in these two months was in 2008. Five films grossing over $15 million in one weekend — new and holdovers — hasn’t happened since July 13-15, 2018. In September or October? Last time was 2003.

Why it matters

If the weekend turns out that well, it’s more than a statistical curiosity. It would fill a critical need for movie theaters. Yes, it’s great that 2019 has seen six films gross over $300 million so far (not a record — 2016 had eight by this point).

But one of the key reasons for the $525 billion box office downturn from 2018 (6% so far) is that the bottom has fallen out on mid-range films. And the key to accumulating maximum gross is for multiple films to be in play at the same time. It’s even better when they draw a range of audiences. History shows that hits can breed hits, and moviegoing can grow into a regular habit when audiences have a wider range of compelling choices.

Distributors have become gun-shy about opening in weeks with two other new films. It can work and should be tried more often.

Also, five films averaging $20 million means a $100 million base for the weekend gross. The rest of the films in play could add another $25-30 million. That would mean an increase of as much of $40 million over last year. That’s well above the level by which each weekend needs to improve for the rest of the year to bring 2019 up to last year’s box office total.

"Rambo: Last Blood"
“Rambo: Last Blood”Lionsgate

What it means for the openers

“Downton Abbey”: Movie versions of popular TV series have been around as long as there has been TV. (“Molly” in 1950 from the early comedy hit “The Goldbergs” was almost 70 years ago.) But movies spun from high-end PBS broadcast shows like “Downton Abbey,” not so much.

Coming on the heels of six seasons of the early 20th-century Crawley family adjusting their aristocratic lifestyle to the modern world, this cinematic extension looks to have the best chance to hit $25 million or more. It opened last week in some countries, with the U.K./Ireland market raking in around $12 million. Comparing population, that’s the equivalent of $60-million domestic.

Obviously, the homegrown appeal isn’t the same, but the interest from pre-sales has been above normal for an older audience film. And with a nearly year-long lack of major draws for “Downton Abbey”‘s core older audience, don’t be surprised to see this kick into high gear.

At a little over 3,000 theaters, this isn’t Focus’ widest release ever, but it’s wide for an older-appeal title. (The company’s top opening weekend came from a horror release, “Insidious Chapter 3” in 2015 at an adjusted $23.7 million.) Perhaps wisely, Focus kept the film out of film festivals, with reviews just mildly favorable.

“Rambo: Last Blood”: Sylvester Stallone is nearly as well-known for his Vietnam vet turned mercenary/vigilante character Rambo as for Rocky. But unlike the latter role, which has turned into a late-career supporting gig for him in the “Creed” films, he’s back here as one of the oldest action heroes ever (he’s 73; even Clint Eastwood stopped trying this at an earlier age).

With a clear attempt to appeal to Latino viewers (who are a critical moviegoing demo), this Mexico drug cartel rescue story is with the right distributor (Lionsgate) who also released the 2008 reboot.

If the “Rambo” opening tops $20 million, don’t believe the hype that this is the best Rambo opening ever. That would tie it for fourth with the initial “First Blood” in 1982 in terms of actual tickets sold. “Rambo,” the biggest in the series, opened to $51 million. The 2008 reboot opened to $23 million.

This stands apart from this weekend’s other two openings, with appeal to a male action audience. Its reviews are dreadful, but how well this does rests more with the established appeal of the character than what critics think.

“Ad Astra”Fox

“Ad Astra”: James Gray’s cerebral and acclaimed space saga, which debuted well at Venice, sits at a strong 78 on Metacritic, below Oscar-winning “Gravity” and closer to “The Martian.” Disney is overseeing the release of the the Fox movie. It is the most expensive of the week’s openers (estimates range up to $100 million) and is getting a high-profile release including IMAX presentations.

The movie also boasts resurgent Brad Pitt fresh off of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Pitt has worked hard to pick high-quality projects. But he also has been unsteady as a draw, with his last $25-million opener as the lead six years ago (“World War Z”).

The film was delayed first by Fox and then Disney, and placed in a less prime period despite its cost. It’s a serious genre film that few filmmakers other than A-listers Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott are able to make. “Ad Astra” was greenlit before “Blade Runner 2049” opened two years ago with an even higher budget and pulled $33 million its first weekend. It grossed $260 million worldwide, but lost a substantial amount.

Brad Pitt was right when he preemptively said this week that a film’s value should not be based on its box office, particularly by opening numbers. But Disney is going to be the judge of whether they approve similar stand-alone films like this in the future. It appears that their ingrained instinct not to bother could be reinforced.

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