The Bad Guys, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, and The Northman all have varying degrees of commercial viability, but maybe one can break out as all three enter the fray!
We have quite an exciting weekend ahead of us. For the first time in a while, we actually have three whole films, wide releases no less, entering theaters this weekend! Furthermore, these three films are of wildly different genres and tones and target very different audiences. We have The Bady Guys from DreamWorks and Universal, which is based on a children’s book and is looking to cash in on the family audience that Sonic 2 and Sing 2 have courted, The Northman, a violent Viking tale with an all-star ensemble directed by the man who brought you The Lighthouse, and perhaps most intriguingly, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, a rollicking and highly self-aware (and arguably self-indulgent) romp that casts Nicolas Cage as himself in a high-stakes comedic adventure thriller. I’ve spoken in the past few weeks about how the pandemic has resulted in a surprisingly diverse lineup of films at the box office, though in most cases this has been due to an influx of eventized foreign films, particularly anime and South Indian Telugu cinema. This is the first weekend in a while that we’ve seen that diversity of film come primarily from America. Will this result in a major weekend for the box office? Will this breadth and variety draw more moviegoers in? The odds are not in our favor, but inevitably, this will be a very interesting weekend.
Now, when I say “the odds are not in our favor”, I promise that I’m not trying to be a downer. I don’t even have all that much interest in The Northman (I’ve never been all that interested in director Robert Eggers, horror usually just isn’t my preferred genre) or The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (okay, that’s a little bit of a lie, I am at least slightly curious to see how it turns out) and I would still be absolutely thrilled to see both of them become breakout hits! On both of their accounts, these films each represent a strong artistic vision on the part of their directors and producers/studios while simultaneously being surprisingly more commercial ventures than one would typically expect given the auspices involved. I mentioned above that Robert Eggers directed The Lighthouse, starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. That film debuted in 2019 to much fanfare and critical acclaim for its atmosphere and performances and further cemented Eggers as a unique and new voice in horror following his breakout directorial debut, The Witch (which featured Anya Taylor-Joy, who co-stars in The Northman, in her arguably breakthrough role). Both The Witch and The Lighthouse have been hailed as modern horror classics, and each even did respectfully well at the box office thanks to their low budgets and strong marketing campaigns from Eggers’ home studio A24. With all that said, however, The Northman feels like such a departure for Eggers not only because of its genre (a historical war epic) but also because of its sheer scale. Made for a reported budget of $90 million compared to Egger’s previous films’ $3.5-4 million (though there is reason to believe that The Northman‘s budget is actually around $65 million, having only ballooned to $90 million due to COVID-related circumstances) and featuring a very big-name cast, including the likes of Alexander Skarsgard, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Claes Bang, and even Bjork, acting out a Hamlet-like Viking tale, The Northman showcases a staggering leap forward by Eggers, maintaining his singular artistry while also giving him the platform to launch in a more mainstream and commercial space with an epic war film in the vein of Game of Thrones. The trailers have certainly promised grand action and carnage while the reviews have hailed the film as a masterpiece.
On a much different but not wholly opposite side of the spectrum, we have The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (or Massive Talent, as Lionsgate has been referring to it in the trailers), which stars Nicolas Cage as a fictionalized version of himself who, down on his luck and in need of cash, agrees to make a paid appearance at the birthday party of a billionaire superfan who also happens to be a drug kingpin. Hijinks ensue. Featuring its own surprisingly strong ensemble with the likes of Pedro Pascal and Tiffany Haddish alongside Cage, this film is clearly an audacious attempt to cash in on the….”resurgence” that Cage has been having? I don’t feel totally comfortable saying that as Nicolas Cage is far from the butts-in-seats movie star that he once was and has, up until recently, been doing a lot of direct-to-video/DVD/Streaming rental fare. That said, while for years Cage was mocked for this turn in his career, it is this very circumstance that has led Cage to take on a variety of incredible roles that have actually earned him a surprisingly level of critical acclaim and have made audiences (at least those on Twitter) coming to respect him more. From his restrained nuance in Joe, to the buck wild insanity of Mandy, Willy’s Wonderland, and Mom and Dad, to even the surprising empathy of Pig last year, a film which genuinely had him in the Oscar race for a moment, Cage’s fearless commitment to all the roles he takes, no matter their size (or the size of the paycheck), has gone from being a source of mockery for the man to a genuine pillar of the fanbase that has developed around him in the last few years. It is this aspect of his persona that The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is built upon. The film debuted to great reviews out of SXSW and Cage, in interviews, has gotten to talking about this film in the grand scheme of his career, stating that many of the roles he took in these low-rent films over the years were taken specifically to pay off debts and provide for his family (specifically his mother in order to keep her out of a mental institution) and that Massive Talent has officially allowed him to come to a place of financial stability where he can do just that. As a clever, meta-commentary on his career, and as a genuine marker of this turning point in Cage’s life, it’s very hard not to root for this movie.
So why do both films give me pause? Well, largely because while the talent in front of and behind the camera is evident, these films still have to contend with a market that doesn’t necessarily favor them. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, while massively appealing to critics, Hollywood insiders, cinephiles, and Nicolas Cage aficionados, is still a crazy Nicolas Cage movie and at the end of the day, while his movies may do well in the ancillary market, Cage hasn’t really put butts in seats since his National Treasure and Ghost Rider days. That’s part of the reason why the film is being marketed as just “Massive Talent“. Cage doesn’t have the draw to support a film with such a pretentiously long (purposefully so, but still…) title. To the untrained eye, the film looks like an over-the-top joke, and while that is absolutely the point, it’s not a joke that most general audiences are actually in on. Now it is not impossible for this kind of movie to find success. Remember that Lionsgate was also going to release the similarly bonkers Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar in theaters prior to the pandemic, and that film still found a huge audience in the ancillary market, rightfully so. That said, Lionsgate is going to need the word of mouth on this feature to be really strong because die-hard Nicolas Cage fans will not be enough to financially prop up the film.
As for The Northman, it’s admittedly a much more commercial bet given its size and scale and the action and gore it brings to the table. However, while epic war dramas like this have been all the rage recently, as with Game of Thrones, Vikings, The Last Kingdom, and Vikings: Valhalla being big hits, it should be noted that all those examples that I just mentioned are TV shows. It’s hard to pinpoint just why these sword-wielding stories have thrived in the space more so than on the silver screen but if I had to guess, I would argue that is the result of two factors. For one thing, usually with these shows, there is a bit of fantasy and soapy drama thrown in. Obviously, Game of Thrones had the fantasy in spades, but even the other three shows managed to bring the heat with soap opera drama between the characters, filled with sex, nudity, and all the melodrama you could want. That assessment may seem reductive, but it’s just a fact that soapiness, as oft-parodied as it is, is juicy and addictive and still pulls in an audience like few other factors can. In tandem with the fantasy element, what you get from these shows is pure escapism from the downright depressing world you’re living in and it acts as a sort of cathartic release. The other thing to consider with these shows is length, pacing, and the fact that by the very nature of their being shows, the audience will get a break. It seems pointless to think about taking a break in a world where binging shows is considered normal behavior but when dealing with such heavy drama and violence, I do feel that the option to take that break is crucial to audiences, even if they don’t use it as often as they should.
Taking all this and applying it to The Northman, what we find is a completely different experience. Based on reviews and interviews with the director, it is very clear that this film is meant to be long and historically accurate. The film concerns the brutal murder of a young boy’s father, the taking of his mother, and that boy’s years-long journey to get revenge. Fantasy and escapism have no place in The Northman and given that it’s a movie in theaters, audiences will not have the opportunity to take a break from proceedings. It’s a big consideration, whether or not someone will want to sit through over two hours of bleak, hyper-real Viking vengeance, and generally, the answer to that is usually a no. Just look at the films that have been doing well over the past few months. Paramount’s slate has featured a fun and cheeky horror movie, a prankster film with “boys just being boys”, a light adventure-romantic-comedy, and a kid-friendly videogame adventure; all fantastical and escapist fare. Even The Batman, which has all of The Northman‘s hallmarks with gritty, dark, bleak realism and epic scale and length, still brings the escapism in the form of a giant comic book superhero movie about a man who fights crime dressed as a bat. I’m not saying The Northman is destined to fail as it does have the spectacle in its action and visuals. What I am saying is that it will be much more of an uphill climb.
Another thing that admittedly does not help these two titles is that they are also being released alongside The Bady Guys. The DreamWorks animated film is arguably coming out just at the right time to take advantage of the family audience which is showing up to theaters in droves, as proven by Sing 2 and Sonic 2. An interesting note about Sonic 2, the film is actually currently benefitting from extended days off and the continued presence of spring break across the country, which actually ended up contributing to its steeper than expected drop last weekend as several kids and families ended up seeing it this past Monday, boosting its grosses to $4 million that day ahead of Secrets of Dumbledore. In fact, throughout this week, between 15-20% of schools have been out, and so The Bad Guys actually does have something of a shot of pulling in a surprisingly strong opening weekend gross. It does have to contend with the presence of Sonic 2, but there looks to be a strong possibility that this film can take it on.
As for its relationship to The Northman and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, normally I wouldn’t really think anything of it as all three films are aimed at very different audiences. However, the fact that this is the first weekend in a while with three wide releases coming out at the same time, as well as the presence and continued strength of Sonic 2 and the surprising momentum of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once looks like it may create an even more splintered audience than usual this weekend. In particular, I get the sense that the male audience will be split across at least four movies which puts both The Northman and Massive Talent at a disadvantage as they compete with each other as well as Sonic 2 and Everything, Everywhere, assuming The Bad Guys itself doesn’t end up playing as more male-focused as well. At the end of the day, this weekend is going to be quite crowded.
With all that in mind, let’s get down to the brass tax of just how much everyone is looking to make. Surprisingly, I get the sense that there will be a battle for the number one spot this weekend, and not be between the movies you think. Normally, I would say that Secrets of Dumbledore was most likely to take it, even in spite of the film’s massive underperformance last weekend. It may get a reprieve, but I’m much more inclined to think that Secrets of Dumbledore will see a pretty large drop this weekend of around -55%. It could fall -60%, but given its pedigree as a Wizarding World movie and a surprising level of interest I’ve seen it from many other people, I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt. A -55% drop would see it grossing around $18.9 million and given how other films have been performing, that would’ve been enough to clinch first place. However, I personally think that The Bad Guys does genuinely pose a threat to Secrets of Dumbledore‘s crown. As mentioned above, it is a family animated film coming out at a moment in time where that audience is really showing its strength at the box office, and while it does have to compete with Sonic 2, it is a fresher title and has very strong reviews which suggest that it could very easily be “discovered” this weekend and have strong word of mouth to propel it to a higher gross. Industry estimates have come in around $15+ million for the weekend, but I do feel that there is a potential for The Bad Guys to grow to at least $18 million if it hits with audiences. Tentatively, I’m thinking that Secrets of Dumbledore may barely edge out the competition to take first place, but expect The Bad Guys to be right on its tail, ready to snatch first place if it falters.
With Secrets of Dumbledore and The Bad Guys battling it out for first and second, Sonic 2 looks to be a strong contender for third place. I was, and continue to be, impressed by just how well Sonic 2 has been doing this week in light of the number of schools that are still on spring break, further evidencing Paramount’s savvy when mapping out this film’s distribution plan. It’s taken the number one spot for daily grosses two days in a row this week and will be heading into the weekend with a likely $130 million domestic in tow. Given that momentum, I see the film holding by a steady -40% for a gross of $17.58 million. It could potentially hold even better, but given just how many people have been seeing the film over this week, between $17-18 million seems just right.
As for fourth place, I think that this is where The Northman will be landing this weekend with a likely $10 million. That might seem a bit strange given how I did spend an exorbitant amount of time detailing why the film’s commercial prospects aren’t great, but my reasoning for this is rooted in one very specific factor: IMAX. Currently, industry projections have the film opening somewhere in the range of $8-12 million, a pretty dismal opening for a $65 million film, let alone a $90 million film. I saw a discussion recently comparing the release strategies of Focus Features (The Northman‘s distributor) and A24 in relation to A24’s recent success with Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, and the time was taken to mention that Focus, as a subsidiary of Universal Film Group, is subject to Universal’s deal with AMC Theaters (and other chains) that allows their films to head to the rental market after a 17-Day theatrically exclusive release window. As a result of this, Universal and Focus have been releasing their films wide instead of platforming potential arthouse hits as A24 just did, largely in order to expedite their film’s transition into ancillary revenue. In other words, they are not taking the time to nurture their arthouse properties and instead treat their theatrical runs as glorified marketing campaigns for “riskier” titles. I bring this up because The Northman fits squarely into this category.
A cinephile’s dream, The Northman was always going to struggle at the box office for all the above-mentioned reasons that I laid out. While it could’ve likely done better had Focus decided to do a platform release and start with a limited run, especially with it working so well for Everything, Everywhere, the price tag on The Northman is clearly too high to take that gamble so instead, Focus is going for a blow-out event release. This includes IMAX screens where The Northman is very likely to play well given its rich visuals and intensely choreographed battle sequences, which movie aficionados will be more than willing to pay through the nose for. Meanwhile, the general audience will be privy to this buzzy film thanks to its wide release thrusting it into the mainstream conversation, and while they might be hesitant to see it in theaters, it will likely do very good business in the next 17 days when those same people decided to circle back and check it out on rental. Whether or not that strategy will generate the revenue that Universal is looking for with this picture is beyond me, but the logic is clearly there. In any case, a wide release allows for the film to be “eventized” in the way the recent anime movies like Jujutsu Kaisen 0 were, drawing in a more niche but extremely passionate fanbase, while IMAX screenings will likely drive up profits nicely and push the film a bit past the $10 million mark. As with all predictions, I could be wrong (maybe the film will catch on and majorly overperform), but for now, with knowledge of Universal’s operations and knowing the commercial viability of the picture, I’m sticking to my guns with The Northman taking in $10 million in fourth place.
Fifth place is most likely to be the home of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. The film is being projected to have a $5-7 million opening this weekend and, personally, I think that’s right on the money. In fact, I’d go even further to say that $6 million is where Massive Talent will specifically land. Why? Because it’s a Nicolas Cage movie, literally…like he’s not just staring in it, he’s playing himself. The sole appeal here is your interest in Nicolas Cage, and thanks to box office metrics, that appeal is quantifiable at almost exactly $6 million dollars. Cage hasn’t been a major movie star since at least 2012 and since then, discounting his direct-to-rental films, films that have relied solely on his star power to drive box office like that of Drive Angry and Left Behind have consistently opened in the $6 million range. Maybe there is some special factor here (Massive Talent did receive great reviews out of SXSW) or maybe Lionsgate will give the film one last push as the weekend begins but at this moment, there’s nothing here to suggest that Massive Talent will open really any higher than $6 million. We’ll see by the end of the weekend if the film pleasantly surprises.
As for the rest of the top ten, expect many of the usuals to stick around. With a likely drop of around -35%, given that it’s the only movie in the market directly targeting older women, I’m seeing The Lost City coming in sixth place with around $4 million. Everything, Everywhere, All at Once is going to take its first drop this weekend, as it has nowhere left to expand to, and if it drops like Ex Machina, it should see a -40% drop for a gross of $3.7 million in seventh place. In eighth place, I’m predicting Father Stu which, despite its minuscule opening last weekend, should still hold well given its faith-based appeal with a -45% drop for a gross of $2.97 million. Morbius will likely come in right behind it with a drop of -55% for a gross of $2.12 million in ninth place. The only intriguing title to keep an eye out for is that of The Batman given the fact that it officially debuted on HBO Max this past Monday and is thus no longer theatrically exclusive. Now, given that it has already done quite well stateside and didn’t have a huge number of people stream it on opening day (Samba TV reported 750K households tuning in) which tells me many have already seen the film in theaters. I’m not expecting the film to see a massive drop-off; rather, I find it more likely that the film will gross about $2 million, a roughly -45% drop in line with what we’ve been seeing for it already. Still, I’ll be very intrigued to see how this weekend shakes out for it and if HBO Max does at all eat into the film’s profits.
Finally, as for the specialty market, keep an eye out for two specific titles: The Duke, from Sony Pictures Classics, and Petite Maman from NEON. The Duke, which ironically looks more like a Focus Features release, stars Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren and tells the real-life story of Kempton Bunton, an elderly London pensioner who stole Goya’s portrait of Duke Wellington from the National Gallery of London and held it for ransom to get fellow pensioners paid more. The trailer promises a fun and jaunty atmosphere along with two charming performances from Broadbent and Mirren so maybe The Duke could platform and become a sleeper hit. Meanwhile, the industry will likely be laser-focused on Petite Maman, Celine Sciamma’s follow-up to her critically adored Portrait of a Lady on Fire (which is genuinely very good) which follows a young girl coping with loss and reconnecting with her mother. NEON is distributing, so at the very least, expect a lot of media coverage for the film.