This weekend is an odd one as Lightyear‘s demise creates a bit of a vacuum in the market. Which film will rise to take advantage?
I skipped out on last weekend, 1) because I’d had a long week and I was tired, and 2) because, to be honest, I had absolutely no interest in Lightyear. I fully admit that said movie idea sounds really good on paper, but in practice, personally, it just didn’t appeal to me. I’ve never been a massive fan of the Toy Story series (my favorite Pixar movie is Ratatouille) and even less a fan of Buzz Lightyear. As a whole, I think the appeal of Toy Story lies squarely in the characters and their dynamics with each other (Toy Story 2 is my favorite of the bunch for this reason) and not only taking Buzz Lightyear out of that context but also placing him back into the specific “Space Ranger” personality that the movies have consistently made fun of seemed to me like it wouldn’t be as entertaining as another regular Toy Story installment.
Clearly, I was not the only one who thought this as Lightyear itself did end up severely underperforming this past weekend with a $50 million opening; way lower than the expected minimum of $70 million. Now there has been a lot of online chatter about just why it underperformed. Some say the film was too “kiddie”, others say it was too “adult” and cerebral (I saw one comparison made to Interstellar, which is wild if that’s true). Many felt the logic of it being “the film that made Andy want to buy a Buzz Lightyear toy” to be too convoluted and contrived. Then, of course, there’s been all the conversation about the film featuring a prominent lesbian character who kisses there spouse onscreen, a scene which caused the film to be banned in 14 different countries and has resulted in more liberally minded commentators on Twitter to lambast conservatives for (potentially) using the film’s box office performance as an excuse to justify homophobic attitudes while more conservatively minded commentators lambast liberals for accusing them of using the film’s box office to justify perceived homophobic attitudes……………..and rinse, and repeat.
If that confusingly structured sentence didn’t illustrate the point well enough, the discourse surrounding Lightyear‘s performance over the past week has been confusing, cyclical, cynical, and exhausting to say the least. Personally, while I don’t think the lesbian kiss tanked the film, I definitely don’t think it helped as a ban in 14 countries undoubtedly contributed to its depressed overseas grosses. I think the bigger factor in all of this is some variant on my feelings towards the film, not many people were all that interested in seeing it. It also didn’t help that, last we left Pixar theatrical releases, they were in the middle of a slump with Onward which did terrible business, made even worse by its release at the very onset of the pandemic within a week of its release (a damn shame as its a fantastic Pixar movie). Since then, the last three Pixar movies, Soul (really good), Luca (okay but sweet), and Turing Red (pretty good with an amazing ending) have all been released directly to Disney+, all with great fanfare, but also, in some ways, deprioritizing Pixar movies as theatrical events. Throw in the fact that Lightyear‘s reviews, while good, were not really that great, and you have a situation where there was very little incentive to see the film at all.
I mention all of this not only to catch up on last week but also to set the stage for a weekend at the box that looks to be mildly depressed. We’ve discussed several times before how a healthy box office environment is one in which multiple audiences are being served and co-existing. Earlier this year, we witnessed this with Sonic 2, Sing 2, and The Bad Guys all catering to “kiddie” audiences, The Lost City and Dog roping in adult women, The Batman and Uncharted targeting guys 18-34, and Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, as well as RRR for that matter, drawing in big numbers from the arthouse crowd. All of these films’ theatrical releases generally coincided, and their strength at the box office set the stage for a diverse and thriving market that had something for everyone, thus incentivizing a larger audience to head out to theaters in general. One would think that this weekend would prove to be the same with two crowd-pleasing blockbusters, Jurassic World: Dominion and Top Gun: Maverick, being joined by a big-budget, adult-targeted musical biopic in Warner Bros’ Elvis and an under-the-radar, potentially sleeper-hit horror feature in The Black Phone. However, the underperformance of Lightyear last weekend looks much more likely to create an imbalance in the audience which I see potentially affecting grosses.
One can already see this in the surprisingly muted projections for Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic. Starring Austin Butler in the titular role, the film was admittedly always a tricky prospect as Luhrmann himself is quite hit or miss. Known for his widely polarizing maximalist style, his (arguably) two most famous movies, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, were both critical darlings and pretty big commercial hits, but his more recent efforts, the bombastic Australia and the underrated Leonardo DiCaprio-led adaptation of The Great Gatsby, have been pretty expensive flops. Combined with the casting of a much lesser-known talent in the lead role (Butler won the role over Harry Styles, among others), it would’ve seemed that the only thing this movie really had going for it was a nearly unrecognizable Tom Hanks playing Colonel Tom Parker to pique audience curiosity. To be fair, reviews for the film are actually pretty good, praising Butler’s performance as the King while complimenting the film’s emotionality and perspective on Presley’s legacy, even if the overblown style and Hank’s performances are receiving mixed reviews.
It’s abundantly clear what Warner Bros is going for with this film, trying to replicate the enormous success of Bohemian Rhapsody which grossed over $960 million worldwide in spite of production troubles and mixed reviews. That film succeeded largely on the strength of Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury as well as the atmosphere the film created, making the audience feel as though they were attending a live Queen concert with expertly crafted recreations of famous performances like Live Aid. In hiring Luhrmann, Warner Bros. is certainly ensuring spectacle, and given that Elvis‘ reviews are notably stronger than Bohemian Rhapsody’s, plus the film being focused on one of the most famous people in history, you’d think that they’d be all set. That is why it was surprising for me to see Elvis’s projections come in at around $20 million for its opening weekend. That number is being touted as a major win for Warner Bros. and the biggest opening for an adult drama (specifically an adult drama of this length as Elvis is reportedly 2 hours and 39 minutes long) in the pandemic era, but that just doesn’t fly. The Lost City has already nabbed the biggest opening for an adult-targeted film in the pandemic with $30 million, and while, sure, it’s a comedy and stars Sandra Bullock, that film is not based on an existing brand and is built off of nothing more than her (and Channing Tatum’s) star power. Meanwhile, Elvis is built off of Elvis Presley, one of the biggest “brands” ever. In a perfect world, there would be an argument to be made for Elvis outperforming Bohemian Rhapsody with its opening weekend but even in a pandemic-addled world, I think that Elvis should be tracking much better.
There is a silver lining here. Thursday grosses did come in with Elvis roping a cool $3.5 million in previews. It may not seem like a lot, but Bohemian Rhapsody took in $3.9 million before grossing $51 million upon opening. This makes me more inclined to believe that Elvis has the potential for at least a $40 million weekend but it does have one thing standing quite imposingly in its way. As mentioned above, there are already two widely popular blockbusters that are currently gripping the market, one of which does have an older-skewing appeal that conflicts with Elvis: Top Gun: Maverick. Yes, despite all odds, Maverick is performing like a juggernaut, with phenomenal holds from weekend to weekend and towering daily grosses that have nearly pulled it past $500 million domestically(!) and $900 million worldwide(!!). It’s genuinely on its way to becoming a billion-dollar grosser and such a performance makes me think it will hold exceedingly well this weekend, at least by -25% for a gross of $33.5 million. That creates a challenge for Elvis as it will have to pry away moviegoers from seeing Maverick for potentially the third or fourth time in a row, but the gross I’m seeing with its previews suggests to me that the capability exists. Even if just by sheer curiosity, I have a hard time believing that Elvis will not make its presence felt. Boldly, I’m gonna say that the film will take in $40 million this weekend, which would see it topping the box office, ahead of Maverick in second place. I could be very wrong here as Elvis‘s style and over-exuberance could prove majorly polarizing in typical Luhrmann fashion, but fortune favors the bold so will keep my fingers crossed until the very end.
Following Elvis and Top Gun, I’m expecting to see Jurassic World: Dominion take third place. So far, the film looks to be performing very much like its predecessor, Fallen Kingdom, which would mean that at -55-60% drop is highly likely. Given that Dominion is, by default, the most family-friendly film in the market at the moment (and by that I mean it legitimately appeals to pretty much all ages), I’m predicting it to fall on the lower end of that spectrum for solid gross of $26.6 million in its third weekend. You might be thinking, “isn’t Lightyear the most family-friendly movie on the market?”, but I would counter with the fact that it severely underperformed; in essence, tripping out of the gate. While a gross of $50 million would be great for most films on opening weekend, Lightyear’s status as a Pixar movie sets it up for unfavorable comparisons to fellow Pixar underperformers like The Good Dinosaur and Cars 3, both moderately well-received by critics while still falling behind commercially. The two of these films fell -61% and -55% in their respective second weekends and given the distinct lack of enthusiasm for Lightyear commercially, I’m expecting a drop of around -60% to strand it in fourth place with about $20 million at best.
As for fifth place, it’s likely to house The Black Phone, our other new wide release this weekend. Telling the grim and scary story of a young boy who is kidnapped by a masked assailant (played by Ethan Hawke) and must escape his imprisonment with the help of the ghosts of his kidnapper’s victims, all of whom communicate with him by calling him on a broken rotary phone in the kidnapper’s basement, I’ve actually been anticipating this movie for a while. It was previewed in September of last year at Fantastic Fest and has received nothing short of raves from horror fans in the lead-up to this weekend, so much so that I actually included it on my own watchlist of potential 2022 “Sleeper Hits”. Fascinatingly enough, the film is also tracking alongside Elvis for a $20 million-ish debut, which is a pretty big show of strength for this Universal/Blumhouse thriller. However, I am beginning to worry about it as, while reviews are excellent, the audience reaction I’ve heard as of yet has been much more mixed. I want to wait until we get to the end of the weekend, but I am curious to see if this horror film from director Scott Derrickson (who left Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness party to work on this film) will play more like upscale artsy horror than commercially viable horror. For now, I’m going to keep my predictions at $20 million because I think it has potential, but we must keep a close eye on this title.
As for the rest of the potential top ten, it is here we see the effects of an unbalanced movie ecosystem really take effect as the major blockbusters take up most of the real estate, leaving the rest of the top ten with under $1 million grosses. The only film that looks likely to escape this is Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness which is likely to hold by -35% and gross at least $2.89 million in sixth place, though its recent arrival on Disney+ has the potential to alter that gross. Meanwhile, holdovers The Bob’s Burgers Movie, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, The Bad Guys, and Downton Abbey are all on their last legs. While I expect each to pull off decent holds between -35-55%, none of them are coming all that close to $1 million, especially since Everything, Everywhere officially dropped off from that marker last weekend. I predict a $702K gross for Bob’s Burgers in seventh place, Everything, Everywhere to gross $612K in eighth, The Bad Guys to pull in $454K in ninth, and Downton Abbey to bid the top ten adieu with a final gross of $372K.
Closing off, the major arthouse title to look for this weekend will be Marcel Shell WIth Shoes On, which is based on a popular web series and looks poised to melt hundreds of hearts this weekend. I’m rooting for it to take the top per-theater average!