Weekend Predictions (July 20-July 22) Sequels Abound!!

This weekend looks to be dominated by sequels. After the previous weekend cemented the fact that Ant-Man & The Wasp is thoroughly lacking in box office traction, three new major releases look to fill said void. Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again!The Equalizer 2, and Unfriended: Dark Web will do battle with Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation as well as other summer holdovers. Finally, Sorry to Bother You looks to expand even further in this sea of mainstream movie programming, hoping to further appeal to moviegoers looking for something a little more experimental.

More than likely to take the weekend’s top spot at the box office is Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again!, dropping in almost exactly a decade after the original film adaptation of the smash hit West End musical which has since gone on to gross over $2 billion worldwide since its premiere in 1999. The original Mamma Mia film was directed by famed UK theater director Phyllida Lloyd and starred Meryl Streep in the lead role of Donna, along with Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Amanda Seyfried, and Dominic Cooper. Despite mixed reviews (with many critics panning several of the actor’s singing voices), the film became a surprise smash hit worldwide grossing over $609 million on a $52 million budget, becoming not only the highest grossing musical film at the time but also the highest grossing film ever directed by a woman (said record having been surpassed only last year with the release of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman). Since then, the film has gone on to become a fun and campy classic with many fans worldwide.

Admittedly, while charming, the prospect of a sequel was a bit odd to consider when first announced. One could easily argue a precedent for a sequel; the first film was a bonafide success with millions of fans across the globe, revivals of long-dormant properties are more popular than ever now (both in film and on TV), and perhaps most importantly, the movie musical has made an incredible comeback in the past two years, starting with La La Land, continuing with Beauty and the Beast (a billion dollar earner no less), and being cemented with the surprising strength of The Greatest Showman. The latter is particularly noteworthy given that the Hugh Jackman-led musical about P.T. Barnum fought against odds that would have surely led any other film to box office ruin, namely being derided by critics, a very small opening weekend gross during the normally very slow Christmas Day Weekend, and having to compete with a little indie film called Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Despite all that, The Greatest Showman‘s lavish production values and infectiously good-hearted soundtrack powered its lowly $8 million opening to a near 22x multiple, for a domestic gross of $174 million and a worldwide haul of $434 million on a budget of $84 million. The box office marathon that the film ran was a wonder to behold and proved just how powerful a killer soundtrack could be in a film’s box office arsenal, and with the Mamma Mia films packing heavy artillery in the form of the ear-candy that is ABBA music, Universal should have another smash hit on their hands, right?

Yes, this movie has a lot going for it with its soundtrack alone. Add in the return of nearly every single cast member from the original film, the addition of the legendary Cher to the cast, and a higher budget of $75 million and it would seem that there is nothing not to like. That said, I have some doubts. First off, the sequel is coming in 10 years late. To a fan of the original (musical or film), this probably doesn’t matter, but a blockbuster does need to appeal to people who are not familiar with the property as well,  lest it lack that must-see factor. Thankfully, ABBA music seems to appeal to all ages which is definitely a feather in this film’s cap. Still, though, while the music may be popular, that does not mean that the original movie is still fresh in the minds of moviegoers, especially after a decade. If fewer people are familiar with the first film, the appeal of the sequel is certainly diminished to a degree. Then, there is the problem of story. The original musical is a jukebox musical, written by Catherine Johnson, in which a story was weaved out of the hit songs of the Swedish band ABBA. As with any jukebox musical, while the story many have its charm, it is typically underdeveloped, having a fun and creative set-up, but faltering in the actual execution of the plot. Indeed, this was a complaint leveled against the first film by critics, who praised the performances, but felt that the actual story served more as filler between musical numbers (I guess it must work better on stage). Sure enough, public reception of Mamma Mia today seems to reflect the same sentiment, though audiences give the film a significantly greater amount of leeway given its the sheer level of fun. This will likely bode well for Mamma Mia 2, which it will need. If the first film struggled to produce a cohesive plot that sensibly connected the various ABBA musical numbers that made it up, I can’t imagine that sequel will fare much better. It also doesn’t help that sequel is confirmed to be primarily using more lesser known ABBA songs as opposed to the more popular titles used in the original. While this will likely help to give the sequel its own distinct identity, it remains to be seen if the lesser known songs will be able to draw in the same audience, much less connect to tell a proper story.

On the bright side, things look to be shaping up in Universal’s favor. Mamma Mia 2 is projected to open between $30-$36 million this weekend, topping the original’s $27 million. When it comes to sequels that is always a good start, and with a solid $3.4 million in Thursday night previews, the film looks like it is on track to deliver in that range. The sequel’s buzz is undoubtedly bolstered by the sheer curiosity factor of how the story looks to continue (based on the trailer, Meryl Streep’s Donna looks to be dead, so fans will definitely be clambering to see how she is honored in the film, or how Streep will undoubtedly cameo) which will provide a nice assist for a large Friday gross. After that, it will all come down to word of mouth. As proven by the first film, mixed reviews don’t matter if the film can power through on pure sweetness, fun, joy, and music, so I believe that a $30 million opening is completely within reach. However, with all the factors going against it I am a little hesitant to predict as high as $36 million. I am assuaged by the fact that critics reviews are coming in and are actually surprisingly positive, with many calling the film “fun” (just what it needs), “great for summer”, and several pointing out a surprising amount of narrative heft and tonal depth compared to the first film thanks to the more somber-yet-sweet ABBA melodies used for this iteration. Though I will only predict a conservative $33 million opening, I would not be at all surprised to see that number climb higher (maybe even $40+ million) is the film catches on with audiences.

Duking it out for second place this weekend, we find Hotel Transylvania 3 and The Equalizer 2 (hilarious given that both are Sony properties). Coming off of a strong opening weekend last week, Hotel Transylvania 3 managed to beat out Dwayne Johnson’s Skyscraper by pulling in the family audiences and posted the second largest opening of the franchise with $44 million. Always a solid performer, this third installment of the series is the first to be released in the month of July, in theme with the Summer Vacation branding of the film. This is a smart move on Sony’s part given the family-oriented nature of the series. With children off from school this month, and through at least August, the film has a large stretch of potential box office to draw from for the next few weeks. The Hotel Transylvania films have been also shown to have very strong legs, with the first holding by 36%  in its second weekend and the second by 31%. All these factors, along with an “A-” Cinemascore, lead me to believe that Hotel Transylvania 3 will likely take the number two spot, dropping between 30%-35% for a second weekend total of $31-$28 million, perhaps even more given the timing of the release.

On the other hand, The Equalizer 2 presents a much less family-friendly option but seems to quite strong in its own right. The long-awaited follow-up to Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer (he returns to helm the sequel), the film his getting a heavy push from the media as Denzel Washington’s “FIRST. SEQUEL. EVER.” Based on the 80’s TV series, the original film opened solidly with $34 million in September of 2014 and managed to become a surprise word-of-mouth hit, surpassing $100 million domestically and making $192 million worldwide, with many praising Washington’s performance and the gritty stylishness of the picture. Though this new installment is shouldering a much more lukewarm response from critics, audiences seem to still be interested as the film posted $3.1 million in Thursday night preview grosses, right on the heels of Mamma Mia 2‘s $3.4 million. While projections of the film peg it with an opening between $26-$30 million, the Thursday night previews suggest that the film will likely debut on the higher side of those projections, if not with $30+ million, especially given that its predecessor’s $34 million opening came about after a Thursday night gross of $1.5 million. Washington’s most recent blockbuster outings have opened around $34 million, so a $30+million is definitely plausible, which would make for a photo finish with Hotel Transylvania. Conservatively, I predict that Hotel Transylvanian 3 will beat out The Equalizer 2 for second place this weekend solely on the basis of having a larger, more all-ages appeal, but keep an eye out for Denzel to easily jump ahead if the audience reaction is strong enough.

Fourth place also looks to be a tight race between Ant-Man and the Wasp and Skyscraper. Both suffered rather devastating blows last weekend, with Ant-Man & Wasp dropping a whopping 62% in its second weekend, the largest drop of any Marvel solo sequel, which fully cements the fact that audiences are not responding enthusiastically to the film. As I mentioned in my last post, this is not to say that audiences are responding negatively, but given the smaller stakes and lack of clues to what is coming next for the MCU, they simply don’t seem to see the film as essential viewing, and so many are skipping out on it while it is in theaters. Skyscraper also suffered as it underperformed in its opening weekend. Despite being expected to open in the lower to mid $30 million range, the film actually opened to only about $25 million, dealing quite a blow to Dwayne Johnson, perhaps signalling some overexposure on his part as he was coming off not only the surprise hit of Jumanji but also Rampage, which had premiered only three months earlier and was eerily similar in tone and premise to Skyscraper (a campy story with the Rock muscling his way through urban destruction). Now both Ant-Man & Wasp and Skyscraper will be dueling for fourth place given the likelihood that Ant-Man will suffer another large drop (likely in the 50%‘s) and the fact that Skyscraper did not have much strength out of the gate. In the end, I expectd expect Ant-Man to take fourth place with around $13 million given Marvel’s brand recognition, with Skyscraper taking fifth with around $12 million.

Outside the top five is where we would be likely to find the last new release of the weekend, Unfriended: Dark Web. A standalone successor to the original Unfriended, the film boasts the same visual set up as the first, being shot to look as though the entire film takes place on a laptop during a Skype call. The first Unfriended managed to make $64 million off of a $1 million budget, owe its to the unique approach the film took to the horror genre and the marketing strategy of its producers at Blumhouse Productions. While the original was distributed by Universal, however, this time around Dark Web is totally in-house as it is being released through Blumhouse’s own distribution arm, BH Tilt. While the incredibly small $1 million budget will result in immediate profit, it is surprising to see this film released this way as BH Tilt has so far not proven to be a strong distributor. Specializing in ultra-low budget releasing, most films from BH Tilt will debut between $3-$4 million, which is a massive step down from the $15 million opening of the original Unfriended. This opening will likely put Dark Web in ninth place as it will be competing directly with Sorry to Bother You which is expanding this coming weekend into over 1,000 theaters.

In my last post, I noted that Annapurna Pictures had something potent on their hands with Sorry to Bother You given its massive per-theater-average upon opening in limited release. I advised that they take one or two more weeks to keep the film in limited release, drumming up buzz so that it would have a stronger debut when it opened wide. However, Annapurna decided to go much wider in just its second weekend, bumping from 16 to 805 theaters. While 805 is still not necessarily “wide” release, it is still quite a jump. The expansion did yield strong results as the film debuted in seventh place last weekend with a solid (more than solid for an experimental indie) $4 million, but I can’t help but fear that Annapurna may have jumped the gun. Time will tell as Sorry to Bother You expands into 200 more theaters for a proper wide release. Given how wide it is going, I anticipate a drop in its gross from $4  million in the previous weekendto $3 million for this weekend (about a 25% drop), which would actually be quite strong, but I still feel that the film would have benefited from a slower roll out. In terms of the specialty market, Sorry to Bother You will now have to compete with this weekend’s new speciality release Blindspotting, which similarly deals with race relations. While Blindspotting is only debuting in 14 theaters, if it is as strong as Sorry to Bother You in limited release, it could snag a chunk of the box office from the latter which could be pretty substantial in the end, especially given that Sorry to Bother You is currently dealing in single-digit millions, and a large larger, several hundred thousand dollar gross on Blindspotting‘s part could make quite a dent. Hopefully, Annapurna’s faith in Sorry to Bother You will pay off.

The rest of the overall box office looks to be mostly holdovers. Incredibles 2 and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom will likely continue to run neck and neck as the latter inches closer to a worldwide gross of $1.2 billion. Both pictures are likely to take the number six and seven spots, respectively, with around $9 million for the weekend each. Ocean’s 8 will finally drop out of the top ten after a very strong run for the past six weeks and  Sicario 2 poised for the tenth spot this weekend. However, given the strength of the buzz on the specialty releases Blindspotting, Generation Wealth, and McQueen, don’t be surprised if one these jumps up and claims the number ten spot for itself, especially given the lackluster performance of the Sicario sequel.

(Box Office Data taken from BoxOfficeMojo.com and Deadline.com)

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