On this hallowed football weekend, Death on the Nile and Marry Me aim to counterprogram while Blacklight is just happy to be here!
Happy Super Bowl Weekend Everyone! At once one of Hollywood’s favorite and least favorite weekends of the year, the Super Bowl is nonetheless a massive delight for the fans. We get to watch a great football game with family and friends whilst movie studios debut exciting trailers for their upcoming slate of hopeful hits! Of course, the irony here is that while studios are hoping to get us jazzed for their future films, they unfortunately usually have to take something of a hit this weekend at the box office. Yes, due to the long-standing status of the Super Bowl as a big-time national event, Sunday tends to see very little foot traffic for movie theaters, this resulting in some depressed grosses for films. As a result, it’s generally not the best idea to try and release a movie during this hallowed weekend; that is unless you think you have a clunker. Sure enough, we do have one such project believed to be DOA arriving from Disney (though it might not be the dud they think it is), alongside two other projects.
Yes, this weekend will see the release of three films, Disney/Fox’s long-delayed Death on the Nile, Universal’s Jennifer Lopez rom-com Marry Me, and Briarcliff Entertainment’s (aka Open Road Film’s) Blacklight with Liam Neeson. All three films are quite interesting to not only pit against each other but also to place on this specific weekend given each of their specific circumstances. While the interpretation for Death on the Nile‘s release this weekend is that Disney is trying to quietly dispose of a 20th Century Fox holdover that they really don’t want on their hands (though I personally think it has secret strengths), both Marry Me and Blacklight stand out in terms of the niches they’re trying to appeal to.
Marry Me is a project that I personally have had loads of interest in for a while now, largely thanks to the film’s intriguing production history. Following the story of a world-famous pop singer (Lopez) who, moments before her wedding to her equally famous boyfriend in front of thousands of adoring fans at their concert, discovers that her fiance is cheating her and, on a whim, picks a random man (Owen Wilson) out of the crowd to marry instead, Marry Me is first and foremost a Jennifer Lopez vehicle. The film is designed with striking precision and meant to take aim directly at fans of her romantic comedy work from the early 2000s like The Wedding Planner and Maid in Manhattan. Both of those films have been perennial favorites for years and, with a notable lack of theatrically released romantic comedies these days (with many of them going straight to Netflix), studios as of late have been actively working with Lopez to craft a number of romantic comedy vehicles for her to film that void and profit accordingly. What makes Marry Me special in this regard is that it was originally meant to be an extension of Lopez’s relationship with another studio.
Back in 2018, Jennifer Lopez allied herself with STX Entertainment (a studio that I personally have a major love/hate relationship with) for a little film called Second Act. Built on a now seemingly old-fashioned idea of crafting mid-budget movies built around the appeal of a specific movie star, STX had the same idea as many studios when coming across the script for Second Act. Telling the story of an older working-class woman who earns a job at a prestigious cosmetics company using only her street smarts and wit (as well as a fake resume), STX saw some potential for the script to become Maid in Manhattan-adjacent fish-out-of-water comedy and shrewdly attached Lopez to the project as a star and producer. Directed by comedy veteran Peter Segal and co-starring Vanessa Hudgens, Milo Ventimiglia, Leah Remini, and Treat Williams to name a few, the film was originally set for a Thanksgiving release before it reportedly received “glowing” responses from test screenings which gave STX the confidence to move the film into the more competitive Christmas window. To their credit, no one in those test screenings was lying as the film is genuinely wonderful, featuring a fun story with emotional heft, a fantastic message about believing in your own self-worth, and game performances from the entire case, particularly JLo in her element as a beautiful, spunky, and thoroughly capable businesswoman (Leah Remini is also a major scene-stealer). While I would personally argue that film may have performed slightly better in the Thanksgiving corridor, given that faced massive Christmas competition from the likes of Aquaman, Mary Poppins Returns, and even Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Second Act still managed to hold its own, legging out to $39.3 million domestically and $72 million worldwide on a $16 million budget. Clearly, that was a strong showing for the film as STX was quick re-up with JLo again for what would become one of her most famous roles.
Earlier that year, Lopez had signed on to star in an adaptation of the New York Magazine article, “The Hustlers at Scores” by Jessica Pressler, for Annapurna Pictures. The film would tell the story of a group of strippers who, during the Recession, managed to swindle thousands of dollars from their Wall Street banker clients. Unfortunately, due to financial issues at Annapurna, the project was dropped and forced to search for a new backer. Of course, this coincided with the release of Second Act which ingratiated Lopez to the studio. Eagerly looking to keep her in-house, STX seized upon the opportunity to snatch up the rights to The Hustlers at Scores (now renamed simply Hustlers) and develop it into another star vehicle. Attaching a strong cast including Constance Wu, Keke Palmer, Lily Reinhart, and even Cardi B, Hustlers saw an extremely quick turnaround with merely six months between the start of filming and its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Weaponizing JLo’s and the rest of the cast’s strong social media presence, STX rolled out the red carpet for promotion on Hustlers and reaped incredible rewards as a result. This not only premiered to incredibly strong reviews which praised the script and cast, but also generated significant Oscar buzz for Jennifer Lopez in the Best Supporting Actress race, though she would not be able to secure a nomination in the end. Still, the intense interest in the film translated to a huge $33 million opening weekend gross for the film, the highest in STX’s history as a studio, and phenomenal legs with $105 million domestic and $157 million worldwide; JLo’s best performing film in years.
The one-two punch of Second Act and Hustlers obviously made STX very eager to team with Lopez again for a third collaboration which is where Marry Me, a planned adaptation of a web-comic that had originally been set up at Universal before languishing in development hell and being put in a turnaround, enters the pictures. STX quickly set the project up with Owen Wilson set to co-star and Kat Coiro of Dead to Me fame (fantastic Netflix show) set to direct. However, in a sad and somewhat ironic twist of fate, STX ran into its own financial problems and was forced to drop the package which, hilariously, was then snapped up again by none other than Universal. Two years, two delays, and one pandemic later, Universal has positioned the film to work as counterprogramming to the Super Bowl, hoping that Lopez’s massive following will be able to attract female audiences not being catered to by the big game. It’s not a bad play, but Universal is still hedging its bets to a degree as the studio has also set the film to debut simultaneously both in theaters and on their streaming service, Peacock (specifically on their premium tier which requires a $9.99/month subscription). Interestingly enough, the Super Bowl itself is airing on NBC, the network owned by the same parent company as Universal, Comcast. Clearly, the telecom giant is expecting to win overall audiences this weekend, men via football and women via Marry Me, which will hopefully drive more audiences to use their service. Expect to see a lot of ads promoting Marry Me on Peacock this coming Sunday.
Now, while Marry Me seems poised for success, Disney and 20th Century Studios’ Death on the Nile is something more of a question mark. Similarly having completed filming over two years ago, Death on the Nile started out as a premium all-star package reuniting recently Oscar-nominated Belfast director Kenneth Branagh with Agatha Christie’s source material. Featuring a cast with the likes of the perfectly cast Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer, as well as fan-favorites Letitia Wright, Game of Thrones‘ Rose Leslie, Sex Education‘s Emma Mackey, and well-regarded star in Annette Bening, Jennifer Saunders, and Dawn French (plus Kenneth Branagh himself returning as the iconic Hercule Poirot and Tom Bateman as his confidant Bouc, my personal favorite holdover from the last film), Death on the Nile looked like a luxurious cruise of a film. Of course, several factors came along to wash away much of the goodwill this film had as it geared up for release.
First, there was the Disney/Fox merger which threw the film’s marketing into question as it skewed older than Disney’s normal fare. Then, of course, there was the pandemic, which resulted in the film being heavily delayed, receiving five different release dates in the past two years as it ran into production issues and Disney tried to find an optimal time to release it as COVID cases surged (with a Disney+ release not being an option at the time given the pre-existing 20th Century Fox/HBO output deal). Not to be outdone by world events, however, the film also found itself heavily mired in a number of controversies at levels ranging from “pretty innocuous in the grand scheme of things” to “Yikes! That’s a really bad look.” First, there was Gal Gadot’s “Imagine” video, which was honestly harmless in retrospect but resulted in a massive amount of online backlash for its perceived tone-deafness at the onset of the pandemic (that video, combined with Gadot’s subsequent film output being considered less than stellar, has caused many to brand her as an untalented hack just coasting by on her looks). Then, things got quite ugly with the startling sexual assault allegations leveled at Armie Hammer, some of which accused him of having cannibalistic fetishes (like I said, yikes!) and resulted in him leaving social media, being dropped by his agency, and dropping out of several upcoming projects (including one with JLo, funny enough!). And finally, to put a cherry on top, there’s Letitia Wright, whose stance on COVID vaccinations has made her somewhat persona non grata in the media and is rumored to even have caused some friction between her and her co-stars on the set of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. All in all, quite an eventful two years for this film. They say “there is no such thing as bad press,” but this is definitely pushing it.
With all that said, it makes a lot of sense that Disney would position Death on the Nile for a Super Bowl release, signaling to the movie-going public that the film might just not be worth it. However, in the past few days, I’ve gotten the distinct sense that Death on the Nile might not be a complete bust. First of all, the fact of the matter is that the film comes from a pretty high pedigree. Not only is it based on the Agatha Christie novel of the same name, but as I mentioned earlier, this is not the first time Kenneth Branagh has adapted an Agatha Christie novel. In fact, Death on the Nile is actually a sequel of sorts to that of 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express. Released that November, two weeks ahead of the Thanksgiving Day-weekend, that film also starred Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot alongside another group of fan-favorite actors (Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Johnny Depp to name a few) as he unraveled the mystery of the titular murder. The film received thoroughly mixed reviews (I personally find the film’s mystery to be incredibly uninvolving, but the film is still enjoyable thanks to fantastic production values, a great cast, a very engaging first act, and a climax that lands thanks to strong work from Michelle Pfeiffer), but clearly managed to find an audience as it ended up opening to a modest $28.6 million but was able to ride the Thanksgiving/Christmas wave and impressively leg out to $102.8 million domestic and a staggering $351.7 million worldwide (over 6x its budget). Unsurprisingly, especially since it was winkingly teased at the end of the film, Fox greenlit the Death on the Nile sequel that has finally managed to make it to screens today.
Now, it’s been nearly five years since that last film, so there is reason to believe that much of the goodwill that Murder on the Orient Express generated will have vanished for this property. That said, I’ve borne witness to many people, including my own family members, having more recently discovered the 2017 adaptation through its airings on HBO and FX, and they have liked the film quite a bit. While I don’t think that necessarily will carry over to Death on the Nile as much as it once would have, it does speak to the enduring entertainment value of Agatha Christie stories (she is one of the best-selling authors of all time) as well as the still-potent draw that strong production values and old-Hollywood glamor can have on films. By the looks of the trailers, Death on the Nile looks to be bringing all of that back to the table on this second go-around, so by extension, if you liked Murder on the Orient Express, there is no reason to think you would enjoy this adventure any less. On top of that, Death on the Nile also got a notable win earlier this week as the review embargo lifted on the film to reveal surprisingly good reviews! Now, that’s not to say that the movie is acclaimed at all, but given the thoroughly mixed reaction from critics to The Orient Express, Death on the Nile sporting a generally solid 63% on Rotten Tomatoes with general consensus amongst reviews seeming to be that the film is a well-made, old-fashioned fun mystery that improves upon the 2017 outing is a pretty solid feather in its cap. Furthermore, given that Agatha Christie novels are particularly popular amongst women, Death on the Nile, like Marry Me, it positioned pretty well to counterprogram the Super Bowl. One might think the controversies surrounding its actors might keep audiences away, but I am inclined to believe that general audiences (as is typical) generally aren’t aware or honestly don’t care about the issues involving these actors. If anything, Armie Hammer’s controversy, which has led to his presence being highly de-emphasized in the marketing for the film, may have only helped as Disney has had to subsequently place Gal Gadot front-and-center, further emphasizing the film as female-centric counterprogramming.
So, with all that background out of the way, the question becomes: How are these two movies going to do? Well, Death on the Nile is currently projected to have an opening weekend gross somewhere between $11-17 million while Marry Me is estimated to be bringing in $8-11 million. While I personally think the race will be closer than we think, I am inclined to agree that Death on the Nile will come in first place this weekend. While the intervening years between Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile have assured the film will absolutely not reach the heights of its predecessor, Death on the Nile still look like a good fun time at the movies, and solid reviews, as well as a greater female appeal, lead me to believe it will perform on the higher end of expectations. Personally, I see it taking in around $15 million this coming weekend in first place.
As for Marry Me, JLo fans have been buzzing for this film since the trailer was released and there is really no reason to believe they won’t show up in support of their favorite superstar getting back to her rom-com roots (the film’s reviews are mixed, but they unanimously praise Lopez’s performance, her chemistry with Wilson, and the film’s overall nostalgic throwback tone). Plus, the movie does have a secret weapon in the form of its release being timed to lead right into Valentine’s Day. Yes, this coming Monday (in case you forgot), is Valentine’s Day, a holiday which has always proved quite lucrative for films in the past as the movies tend to serve as a sweet, laid-back couples activity for a romantic evening. Given that Valentine’s Day falls on a Monday this year, many couples (and single gals) will likely be celebrating this weekend as opposed to the weekday, and Marry Me is poised and ready to be the romantic film of choice this weekend for couples as well as girl groups celebrating a “Galentine’s Day.” This will likely have Marry Me performing on the higher end of expectations and potentially even strongly exceeding them. The film’s availability on Peacock is something to take into consideration as it may take away audiences members who would have otherwise seen the film in theaters, but given Peacock’s small subscriber base, as well as the fact that Halloween Kills also debuted on Peacock and still has a solid run at the box office, I don’t think that Marry Me is in all that much trouble. The film is budgeted at $23 million so it doesn’t have to do huge business to be a genuine success. Given that, and JLo’s notable Valentine’s Day appeal, I’m personally predicting the film to see a gross of around $12 million this weekend, which would actually be above expectations. That said, as discussed last weekend, studios do tend to low-ball expectations, so don’t be too surprised if Marry Me actually ends up performing even better than that (I don’t know about it outperforming Death on the Nile, but I won’t be surprised to see a comparable gross).
All that said, the question surrounding Marry Me‘s performance is two-fold as while I see it taking in $12 million, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee it a second-place finish in the top ten. This is because Marry Me is going to be running smack into the rest of the holdovers from last weekend, particularly Jackass Forever. Last weekend’s box office wunderkind has been doing pretty well all week, generally taking the number one spot in daily grosses, and is likely to see a solid hold from last weekend’s $23 million. Of course, Jackass will be facing competition from the Super Bowl, an event that skews male in appeal, which will likely take away a lot of its age 18-34. Still, looking at the more recent Jackass movies, just as the franchise has had unusually strong box office numbers in the past, the films also tend to see solid holds, with the last film, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, even holding back a superstrong -38% in its second weekend. With that, I’m inclined to believe that somewhere between a 45-50% drop is in order here, which would have the film grossing around $11.5-12.6 million this weekend. Because I’m an optimist, and because of the pretty singular appeal of the franchise, I’m gonna predict that the film holds by -45% and takes in $12.6 million, which would have it taking second place ahead of Marry Me in third; though, like I said, don’t be surprised if Marry Me overperforms.
As for other holdovers, most of them are far enough into their runs that I’m inclined to believe that the Super Bowl won’t dent business all that much. Spider-Man: No Way Home will likely come in fourth place with at worst a -20% drop for a gross of $7.6 million (though it will likely hold better given its sheer momentum). Meanwhile, Moonfall, given its lackluster performance last weekend, is liable to see a -60% drop, or worse, given that its original $10 million opening ended up adjusting down in the Monday actuals to $9.8 million. A drop like that would have it grossing $3.92 million by the end of the weekend in fifth place(Side Note: I find it kind of funny that between Moonfall and Marry, Game of Thrones alum John Bradley has two mainstream movies appearing atop the box office two weekends in a row. Good for him!).
Sixth place is to be the likely spot for our final new wide release of the weekend, Blacklight. Keen observers may have noticed that I didn’t give it nearly as much attention as that of Marry Me or Death on the Nile early on. That’s not me trying to slight Liam Neeson or anything, it’s just that there is little to talk about here. Like it or not, Liam Neeson has crafted himself a “particular set” of movies that he always makes because people are always showing up for them (even if those numbers are small). Blacklight is no different as it follows a former government operative fighting a conspiracy in the FBI to save US citizens and his family. Written and directed by Ozark co-creator Mark Williams, whom Neeson recently teamed up with for the light, but thoroughly enjoyable Honest Thief, Blacklight is being distributed by Briarcliff Entertainment, the newest indie distributor run by Tom Ortenberg which he built out of the skeleton of his former company Open Road Films. Ortenberg and Neeson go way back, with the former having established creative partnership with him after releasing the underrated The Grey in 2011. Open Road, like my smaller distributors, has struggled post-2016 in the loss of the “middle-class” of the movie-going audience, but Neeson has always proved to be a reliable asset for them both theatrically, but particularly in the ancillary market. I don’t expect Blacklight to make waves at the box office at all given that Neeson’s last two features, Honest Thief and The Marksman, only opened to about $3 million apiece (it was mid-pandemic but projections for Blacklight are no different), but you can definitely expect to see Blacklighthaving a very robust second life in the rental market and on Netflix and Amazon. Expect about a $3 million weekend for the picture.
As for the rest of the top ten, Scream will likely be hit with a -50% drop for a gross of $2.35 million in seventh place, likely owing to theaters dropping the picture in favor of new releases, while Sing 2 should continue completely unscathed by the Super Bowl as it continues to heavily leverage its kiddie appeal; I’m predicting at -15% drop for a gross fo $2.1 million in eighth place. As for the bottom two spots, these are somewhat wildcards as they can either go to holdovers, or they could be home to a few Oscar contenders that are expanding this weekend to capitalize on their new nominations. That said, there were some surprising misses this past Tuesday, most notably with House of Gucci being shut out of Best Actress for Lady Gaga, that may have shaken certain distributors’ confidence in the expansion of their films. Overall the contenders, frankly, House of Gucci was the most commercial. Outside of that, I can’t really see movies like Belfast (which affirmed its Best Picture frontrunner status) or West Side Story benefiting all that much from expansion into a wider release (Belfast is confirmed for 920 theaters) as their grosses are minuscule to begin with. Of all the Best Picture contenders, only Licorice Pizza is close enough to the top ten to make that much of a dent (it did receive three nominations: Picture, Director, and Screenplay). Should it expand, I could see it taking in anywhere between $800K to $1 million this weekend, so I will be predicting in ninth place; otherwise, I don’t expect to see any other Oscar contenders get much of a boost. Rounding out the top ten is likely to be The King’s Man with a potential $780K as it makes one last hurrah before heading to Hulu and HBO next weekend.
As for the specialty market, given that the Oscar nominations have passed, no major new releases will be entering the, though I will pay close attention to holdovers to see how any newly minted nominees take advantage of their status. In particular, The Worst Person in the World and Parallel Mothers will be interesting to watch as they both overperformed on nomination morning, good for them! Also of note are Chinese release The Battle of Lake Changjin II by CMC Pictures (a sequel to, naturally, The Battle of Lake Changjin which was the second highest-grossing film of last year as well as what has become the highest-grossing film in Chinese history) as well as the theatrical release of AppleTV+’s YA novel adaptation, The Sky is Everywhere. I can’t wait to see the results!