Fair warning, these predictions are highly likely to be waaaaaayyyyy off. Why? Because we are entering Christmas weekend (“Gird your loins!” he said, inserting cheap Devil Wears Prada reference for comedic effect) and this is not only one of the most packed movie weekends of the year, but also (shocking) one of the slowest moviegoing weekends. That latter should come as no surprise. People are running around, trying to get presents last minute, some people are leaving town, some a coming into town, and most people frankly just want to spend time with their families. As a result, moviegoing behavior is highly erratic, with most tending to underperform or just see slow business, though some do make a break for it and have great openings. Overall, however, movies that open during Christmas weekend tend to generate most of their grosses after opening weekend, in some cases 70% their grosses.
In terms of major releases, this weekend will see five new titles enter the frame: Aquaman, coming on the heels of its phenomenal overseas performance, Mary Poppins Returns, which got a head start by opening on Wednesday, Bumblebee, hoping that its strong reviews (stronger than both Aquaman and even Mary Poppins Returns, to the surprise of many) can help to turn the tide of the ailing Transformers franchise, and Second Act and Welcome to Marwen, each looking to pick at the scraps. All of these will be competing with potentially strong holdovers in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, The Mule (which is eyeing the 50+ crowd and thus has no competition), and The Grinch which is specifically likely pose a pretty large threat to the rest of the competition given the strength of the film’s performance up to now and the fact of every movie in the likely top ten, The Grinch just about as Christmas-y as you can get.
Without a doubt, Aquaman will be coming in first place this weekend, both in the 3-day weekend frame and the 5-day frame through Christmas Day (Friday through Tuesday). The film came on the tracking boards with projections around $65 million, however, in an effort to drum up buzz, Warner Bros. decided to gamble and open the film in the highly violate Chinese film market first. This could have easily spelled disaster for the film as the film market in China is always highly crowded and even films that open well can easily fall off the map within the next weekend. However, this gamble thoroughly paid off as the film opened two weeks ago to a stunning opening weekend gross of $93 million, the highest grossing Chinese opening weekend for any of the DCEU movies as well as Warner Bros. highest opening weekend of all time in China. Their luck doesn’t stop their though, as the film not only opened well in the Middle Kingdom, but has continued to hold well for the past two weeks, having already amassed $189 million in China for a combined international total (the film has been rolling out internationally since the opening two weeks ago, which highly unusual for a blockbuster to do before opening in the US) of $266 million, all before it opens this weekend! This has generated great headlines for the past two weeks and was the perfect primer for the next phase of Warner Bros. plan.
Last weekend, the film did open in the US, but, taking a page from Sony and Jumanji last Christmas, it was not directly open to the public. Instead, in an effort to get the ball rolling with audiences stateside, Warner provided advanced screenings to Amazon Prime members. This was another gamble, as these people would be the deciding factor with regard to the film’s critical reception. The reviews were already pouring in, and while they were indeed better than expected, they eerily echoed the early word regarding Justice League, which debuted to severely weak reviews, emphasizing how the film was “fun” and not much else (to Aquaman‘s credit, the reviews are actually pretty solid; not incredible, but miles ahead of the vast majority of DCEU offerings, currently sitting at 68% on Rotten Tomatoes, thus comfortably positive). These Amazon exclusive screenings would be the first time the public laid eyes on the film, and their reaction would set the tone going forward. Thankfully, audience reaction from those screenings was stellar, with many social media reactions once again emphasizing the film’s “fun factor” but also its scale and spectacle and how the film is more than worth seeing on the big screen given its incredible worldbuilding (my personal favorite reaction was, “It’s like a Star Wars movie, but underwater!”). On top of it all, the film made nearly $3 million from these early screenings, more than the $1.86 million that Jumanji made from its Amazon screenings last year; a great sign for Aquaman given that Jumanji went on to power through Christmas and the month of January, and even challenge Star Wars: The Last Jedi for box office dominance while it climbed its way to a global gross of $962 million.
So where does that leave Aquaman for this weekend? Pretty well off actually. Despite early tracking suggesting a $65 million debut, the increased interest and the positive buzz for the film has raised those expectations into the $70-$80 million range, and that is just within the 3-day regular weekend frame. In the 5-day (Friday to Tuesday) frame, the estimates are surpassing $100 million, which is already quite good for a late December release. Some are predicting in the range of $110-$120 million while others have some lofty predictions of $150 million. Personally, while I am typically very reluctant to overestimate, I feel pretty confident about Aquaman. From what I can tell, interest is quite high, and I personally can see the film breaking $80 million in the 3-day frame. As for the 5-day weekend, I definitely don’t feel it will break into $150 million, but I can see it cracking $120 million (I don’t feel as confident with the 5-day, but if Aquaman does catch on, it will power its way to the top).
In second place, we are likely to find Mary Poppins Returns. This film is tricky to predict as it is eschewing the typical 5-day Christmas Weekend frame in favor of a *takes a deep breath* 7-day frame. Yes, Mary Poppins Returns opened on Wednesday and in doing so, we are gonna have to examine its Opening Weekend gross in the context of how the film performed over the course of SEVEN DAYS! Let me repeat: This movie’s opening weekend is going to be A FULL WEEK LONG! I honestly don’t know whether to be impressed with Disney that they are shrewd enough to open the film early so it can get a headstart and potentially dominate the moviegoing conversation for A FULL WEEK, or if they are genuinely concerned about/don’t have a lot of faith in the film and are giving it A FULL WEEK to make as much money as it can. In either case, the unorthodox strategy is making projections quite difficult to come by.
Early projections had misleading headlines saying that Mary Poppins would see an opening weekend of $70+ million, a great opening for the reported $130 million budgeted feature, but further examination made it clear that this projection was one for the 7-day frame. That would amount to about $10 million per day (obviously not exactly because kids have school and people need to work this Wednesday through Friday) which, in turn, would lead to a 3-day opening weekend gross projection between $28-$30 million, suddenly not so hot for the picture. Looking at the progression of the projections up to this point, there hasn’t been too much of a change. The 3-day projections have admittedly gone up into the $35 million range, however, the 7-day frame projections haven’t changed all that much, ranging from $70-$75 million. Only, making it there when Aquaman (from a rival studio no less) manages to pull in at least $100 million in just 5-days would not make for the best comparison, especially given that the Mary Poppins brand from Disney is so beloved.
Now, it is important to remember that Christmas releases usually open small, just as I mentioned above, and they can potentially amass an audience through word-of-mouth over the Christmas weekend. Jumanji also comes into play in this scenario as the unlikely major hit opened to just $36 million over the Christmas weekend last year before growing exponentially in popularity. Mary Poppins also has the benefit of being an semi-surprising awards contender this Oscar season, having not only netted four Golden Globe nominations in the Comedy/Musical categories (Best Motion Picture, Best Actress for Emily Blunt, Best Actor for Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Best Original Score), but also landing Best Actress nods for Blunt’s turn as Mary Poppins at both the Screen Actors Guild Awards and Critics’ Choice Awards, thus firmly cementing her status as a contender for a Best Actress Oscar nomination. The film also garnered a position on both the American Film Insitute’s and National Board of Review’s “Top 10 Films of the Year” lists. This kind of publicity will undoubtedly be an asset to the film as Disney can not only use the nominations in marketing the film, but the film’s presence at various televised awards ceremonies might further entice viewers to head to the theater throughout January (especially if it wins anything) and maybe even through February should the film score some coveted Oscar nominations.
There is something worrisome developing though. I am beginning to wonder if this movie is really being as well received as it seems. Early word on the film from industry insiders said that it was “magnificent”. Obviously, such reports are to be taken with heaping grains of salt, but the appearance of the film on the above mentioned top ten lists, as well as its awards nominations, seemed to indicated that the early praise was not hyperbole and that the film was indeed worthy of Best Picture contention. Then the actual reviews dropped. Now, they are far from bad; the film’s Rotten Tomatoes score is currently sitting at about 78% and its Metacritic Score at 65. However, this is not what is typically expected of a film that is potentially in contention for Best Picture. Those kinds of film typically see Rotten Tomatoes scores in the 80%s (usually around 85% or more) and Metacritic scores in the high 70s. This, to me, suggests a certain bit of dissatisfaction with the film, not enough to write it off, but enough to criticize. The actual reviews reflect this as well, complementing Blunt endlessly as well as the charmingness of the film, but also criticizing how it apes the original (at best, the film seems to play like a charming but noticeable retread of the first, and at worst it is said to feel like a hollow imitation). Because of this, I’m genuinely curious as to how this film will fare with audiences at large. The Wednesday night audience seemed to like it enough, giving it an “A-” Cinemascore, but I wonder how it will change as the weekend/WEEK goes on. The film made a respectable $4.8 million this past Wednesday, but I am currently lowballing it with a prediction of $28 million in the 3-day frame. As for its performance through Christmas (whether in the 5-day or 7-day frame), I’m completely stumped. Keep a close eye on this one.
Third and fourth place are actually looking to be really close, and that situation is not helped by the fact that both films looking to occupy those spaces are competing for a very similar audience. Bumblebee and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse are both targetting families and younger audiences, the former with its more retro, nostalgic, and frankly, child-friendly take on the Transformers franchise (harkening back to the original cartoon) and the later offering quick-witted animated spectacle featuring your friendly neighborhood Spider-Men and Spider-Women (interesting side note: Bumblebee is the live-action directorial debut of Laika-founder and Kubo and the Two Strings director Travis Knight, whose animation background makes the film’s competition with the animated Spider-Man movie all the more intriguing). At first glance, my immediate instinct would be to say that Spider-Verse will come away the clear winner in this battle, besting Bumblebee to take third place thanks to the strength and reputation of the brand, the critical support it has been receiving thanks to all its awards and nominations, and the incredibly enthusiastic audience response. However, to the surprise of many, Bumblebee actual possesses several of those very things.
Yes, the Transformers film franchise (beginning with the first Michael Bay-helmed movie) has never been nearly as beloved by audiences as Spider-Man has, at least not in terms of brand reputation. Marred with complaints of about crude humor, the over-sexualization and degradation of female characters, and the films devolving into “CGI-messes” as they progress, the Transformers films have been seeing worse and worse reviews with every entry. Nothing ever changed in the films, however, since the franchise continued to pump out money for parent studio Paramount with every entry, particularly overseas. This all came to a halt, however, with the last entry, The Last Knight, which actually bombed in theaters as the bottom completely fell out from under it in terms of international grosses. With a complete lack of support from the US audience to boot, the film was the first financial loss in the franchise and clearly signaled to the executives at Paramount that things needed to change. Fast forward two years later and we have Bumblebee, a movie with every odd stacked against it: It’s franchise on life support, featuring a script from a woman (Christina Hodson) whose last film had nearly a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes (that being Shut In), a director who’d never directed a live-action film before, and a star (Hailee Steinfeld) who was coming off a string of flops and underperformers (namely The Edge of Seventeen and Pitch Perfect 3). And yet, despite all of this, the first reactions from press screenings emerged as overwhelmingly positive, eventually translating to a positive Rotten Tomatoes score (a first for this franchise) of, wait for it, 95%!!!! Yes, the reviews for Travis Knight’s Transformers spin-off have been nearly unanimous in their praise for the film, citing Hailee Steinfeld’s likable and engaging performance, the simplicity of the Transformer’s designs (a more stripped down and action figure-like look that harkens back to the original series), the fluidity of the visual effects and action scenes, the humor, and the overall level of heart in the film as its best qualities. It should go without saying that Bumblebee is being hailed as the best Transformers film ever made (at least in live-action), which would normally be a backhanded compliment, but by the looks of the reviews, it seems that this is merely the verbalization of genuine admiration.
So, coming back to the discussion of which film will take third place, I still would go with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but I fully recognize that Bumblebee is potentially a force to be reckoned with. The main assets that Spider-Verse has its corner are that it has already been out for a week (during which time it has so far had a truly great performance in terms of day-to-day grosses), thus has already engendered at least solid general audience support, and that the film has an “A+” Cinemascore, a major feat that only 80 films in the past 40 years have accomplished. This kind of Cinemascore tends to foreshadow incredible success down the line, and for that reason, I see Spider-Verse dropping only around 25% in the coming 3-day weekend frame for a gross of around $26 million, if not more. However, one should never underestimate the Transformers fanbase, especially not fans of the original series. That is Bumblebee‘s secret weapon, that it taps into that nostalgia and embraces it. Bumblebee is projected for a $22-$26 million opening in the 3-day frame, and I would be willing to bet that it debuts at around $25 million in the end. This would put it in fifth place behind Spider-Verse, but if Bumblebee truly strikes a chord with audiences, particularly families, it will leapfrog over the competition with no hesitation. As for the 5-day frame, estimates peg it at around $35-$40 million.
Rounding out the top five is likely to be The Mule. As I’ve mentioned in my previous post, The Mule is in a very good position to make money this weekend as it has absolutely no competition in the market. Last week, the film premiered to solid reviews but, most importantly, played to an audience predominately over the age of 50. Not only this, but this audience was relatively balanced, with men making up 54% of the audience and women making up 46%, showing that Clint Eastwood appeals to almost everyone in that age demographic. With this information, it is clear to see that The Mule has an advantage in this crowded weekend full of family-friendly fare in that it does not have to fight with any other movie for an audience. Its audience is clearly defined and more than willing to come out for the film as there are few movies out there that specifically cater to it. The only real obstacle standing in the film’s way is that audience members may be spending time with family, but even then, I predict a healthy 35% drop for a gross of about $11.3 million, in line with the last few of Clint Eastwood’s films.
Outside of the top five is where we will be finding the most of our holdovers, most notably, December’s box office MVP, The Grinch. This is it, this is the moment, this is the time for The Grinch to shine. All through the month (and last month for that matter), The Grinch has dominated, holding beautifully from weekend to weekend, leapfrogging over Creed II and eventually overtaking Ralph Breaks the Internet, and riding the wave of yuletide cheer all the way to becoming the highest grossing Dr. Suess film of all time. If there was any way for this film to go out on top (because you know it’s going to drop off the face of the earth after Christmas), it would be with this weekend. Leading right into Christmas The Grinch is bound to drop by, at max, 20%. This would make for a gross of $9.3 million in sixth place, though I could totally see this movie grossing even more as it is bound to do so anyway in the 5-day frame. Expect a very large boost for the film’s daily gross on Christmas day, and potentially for it to push past the live-action Grinch to become the highest grossing Dr. Suess movie domestically as well as the second highest grossing Christmas film in the US (under Home Alone).
In seventh place, we’re looking at Jennifer Lopez’s Second Act from STX Entertainment which, despite looking quite promising, I personally feel is opening way too late. If you can’t already tell by the 3116-word count up to this point in the post, this weekend is absolutely packed and there is very little room to breath. Second Act looks like a lovely, feel-good, overall fun time at the movies, and I genuinely feel that there is a large audience for this film. Unfortunately, the release is being handled by STX Entertainment, a company with whom I have a love-hate relationship with. On one hand, STX has great ideas and they are packaging and developing a lot of projects that look very promising down the line. Second Act was one of those such projects in my eyes, one that was perfectly packaged for success. Starring Jennifer Lopez as a woman who reinvents herself, going from supermarket worker to high-powered businesswoman with her street smarts, the film recalls her earlier work like Maid in Manhattan, which is still one of her most popular films today, and is actually receiving positive notices on social media which praise the film as a feel-good and funny movie with a wonderful message about knowing your worth. Unfortunately, STX is burying the film in a weekend full of bigger studio pictures where it doesn’t stand a chance.
Originally, the film was scheduled for a November 21st release where it could play right into Thanksgiving, which would have been great as the film totally feels like a November release. However, reportedly “incredible” test screenings led STX to reposition the film in December for Christmas. While it certainly fits the spirit of the holiday, the fact that STX missed just how crowded the weekend was is baffling, and if a projection of around $6 million in the 3-day frame isn’t enough evidence of this, STX is in for a rude awakening when the film gets completely lost in the shuffle. One can only hope that Second Act can manage at least half the box office strength showed by The Greatest Showman last Christmas. Reviews for the film aren’t great, but after seeing the similarly reviewed (and frankly, similarly themed) I Feel Pretty earlier this year and finding it absolutely delightful and highly underrated, I’m having some trouble taking bad reviews of STX films seriously (at least the studio has that going for them).
Eighth and ninth places look to contain another fight between two films, this time Ralph Breaks the Internet and Robert Zemeckis’ Welcome to Marwen. Based on the 2010 documentary, Marwencol, the film tells the story of Mark Hogancamp (played by Steve Carrell) who survives a brutal assault by five men but loses his memory due to brain damage. In an attempt to regain his memory, Mark creates an art installation of a World War II village, populated with figurines based off of the kind women in his life who eventually try to help him heal so he can testify against his attackers. Originally meant to be an Oscar contender, the film’s awards chances stopped in there tracks when the first trailer debuted, with many reacting negatively to the visual effects used to bring the figurines to life in fantastical animation sequences. Things have only gotten worse as the reviews have poured in, being overwhelming negative (or mixed at best), and the film also finds itself in the same boat as Second Act, stuck in a crowded market and (even worse) not really knowing what audience it appeals to. The film is looking at a potential $5 million debut, but will likely come in ninth place for Christmas as it is going up against the more well-regarded Ralph which is also taking aim at a weekend gross around $5 million. Rounding out the top ten will likely be Mortal Engines, which will be dropping at least 55% for a gross of $3.3 million, falling right out of the top ten almost as fast as it came in (maybe even faster if Once Upon a Deadpool can pop in ahead of it).
Finally, in the specialty market, The Favourite and Mary, Queen of Scots will each expand into over 780 theaters, but will likely get nowhere near the top ten thanks to the massive crowd occupying it. The Polish Best Foreign Language film Oscar frontrunner this year, Cold War, also debuts in three theaters for a qualifying run. I would normally be expecting a big per-theater-average given the number of awards the film has won already, but given the underwhelming performance the near-equally lauded Capernaum last weekend, I’m not counting it. I’m also a bit biased in this assumption as I saw the film last October when I attended the Miami Film Festival-GEMS. I plan to publish a review this weekend, but I can say here that I was pretty disappointed with the film. I admit to having high hopes given my familiarity with director Pawel Pawlikowski’s previous film, the stunning and devastating Ida which won a Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2015, and while I can say that Pawlikowski certainly retains a stunning artistic eye and penchant for creating atmospheric visuals and a dreary sense of place, the story was just too sparse and the characterization of the characters just too underdeveloped. While star Joanna Kulig certainly adds energy and vitality to her role (truly a stand out), her love interest is dead-eyed and weights the film down considerably. I truly believe that the film is garnering such massive acclaim almost exclusively on name recognition for its director.
On Christmas day, there will also be limited releases for Nicole Kidman’s Destroyer, a hard-boiled and dirty L.A. crime drama from director Karyn Kusama, and Felicity Jones’ Ruth Bader Ginsberg biopic On the Basis of Sex, each hoping for Oscar consideration that neither is likely to get. My saying that is not meant to be rude, it is simply a fact; neither film has strong enough reviews nor the industry support it needs to break through. Kidman did receive a Golden Globe nomination for her turn in Destroyer, which many critics have labeled as the greatest performance of her career, but the film, outside of her performance, is widely regarded as subpar; plus its distributor, Annapurna, has bigger fish to fry with Vice. Yes, the Dick Cheney biopic starring Christian Bale as the titular Cheney, alongside Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carrell, Tyler Perry, and Bill Pullman, is also set for a Christmas day wide release. The film is directed by The Big Short‘s writer/director Adam McKay, who won an Oscar for the film back in 2016. Interestingly enough, McKay’s longtime friend, producing partner, and Gary Sanchez Productions co-founder, Will Ferrell, also will be opening a film on Christmas day, the comedic Holmes & Watson, a Step-Brothers style take on Sherlock Holmes with John C. Reily in tow. How these two wide releases will perform on Christmas day is a complete mystery as neither seems like a fit with the Holiday, but who knows, maybe they will surprise us.