To the shock of no one, The Hollywood Reporter is reporting that an August with few big new releases and a September with even fewer big releases has resulted in a cumulative box office for the ninth month of 2022 ($328.7 million) lower than any such September (save for 2020) since 1996 ($326.7 million). If you merely count in-month releases, it’s the lowest September since 2001 for… obvious reasons. Either way, it’s a raw (non-adjusted-for-inflation) figure reminiscent of the late 1990s when a September smash like Rush Hour or The First Wives Club was unexpected and a welcome surprise. Once again, the problem is the lack of new big or big-ish movies opening between Bullet Train in early August and The Woman King in mid-September.
Blame Covid-related post-production delays for the likes of Salem’s Lot and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. Blame a streaming > theatrical mentality that saw films like (for reasons both mercenary and legal) Hocus Pocus 2 and Disenchanted, as well as Hellraiser and Prey debuting on Disney+ or Hulu sans even a token theatrical run. Blame various commercial flicks avoiding August and early September because they wanted an awards-friendly festival debut. Blame two years’ worth of copious studio programmers being leased or sold to streaming platforms. Even if studios have suddenly realized that making money from theatrical revenue is good, see: Armor Wars going from being a Disney+ series to a theatrical MCU movie, that’s not a light switch that can be quickly turned on.
In relatively good news, Parker Finn’s Smile (review) topped the domestic box office on Friday with $8.2 million, setting the stage for an over/under $19 million debut weekend. That will make the fifth weekend out of six (save for Labor Day when Top Gun: Maverick topped again) where a non-sequel/non-franchise, female-led, adult-skewing studio programmer has debuted atop the weekend box office. It’s the third weekend in a row where the newbie earned around $19 million (The Invitation and Barbarian topped with $7 million and $10 million). If this were happening amid conventional tentpole debuts and related holdover business (three of these titles were fronted by Black actresses, natch), that would be a best-case-scenario kind of theatrical recovery. But now everyone’s just waiting for Michael Myers and Black Adam.
As for Smile, ParamountPARA +3% scored yet another relative theatrical win. This continues a great year (Scream, Jackass Forever, The Lost City, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Top Gun: Maverick) of unthinkable theatrical recovery for the oft-struggling major. Okay, so an original, well-reviewed, well-marketed chiller (sans a marquee director, no less) opening with around $20 million might have been par for the course even a few years ago; think Don’t Breathe and Lights Out in the summer of 2016 or Happy Death Day in late 2017. But on a ‘waves arms around at everything else going on’ curve, it feels like a genuine victory when The Black Phone or Smile opens over/under $20 million. Will pre-Covid norms feel like ‘back to normal’ anytime soon?
The high-concept chiller concerns a young psychologist who (vague spoilers) gets essentially cursed by an evil that threatens to end her life in a matter after it drives her crazy via scary images and creepy smiling faces. It’s a riff on the J-horror craze of the mid-2000s (The Ring, Dark Water, The Grudge, etc.). The reviews (75% and 6.5/10 on Rotten Tomatoes) tilt positive, and its B- Cinemascore grade is typical for horror. The main trailer, with a killer final gag involving an upside-down grin, played in front of Top Gun: Maverick, which undoubtedly helped with exposure and awareness. Paramount also had a few folks standing in crowds at sporting events so they could be caught on camera standing still and flashing scary smiles. Neat.
In grimmer but not very surprising news, Universal’s Bros opened with a whisper. The Billy Eichner/Luke Macfarlane rom-com earned just $1.84 million on Friday (including $500,000 in previews), setting the stage for a likely $4.7 million weekend. The $22 million release, written by Eichner and Nicolas Stoller and directed by Stoller, is technically the first mainstream, wide theatrical release rom-com starring a same-sex couple. Alas, the marketing and much of the media coverage emphasized its importance and social value over whether the film is funny. To be fair, I think the film falls into the same trap, thriving when it’s ‘just’ a rom-com but stopping dead in its tracks to congratulate itself on its existence and hit every LGBTQIA discussion point.
The film earned an A from Cinemascore and has 91% and 7.18/10 on Rotten Tomatoes, so (like Smile, which I felt was a warmed-over, inferior riff on its cinematic predecessors), I’m clearly in the minority. I loved Amsterdam, so maybe I’m devolving into a bitter contrarian. Fair or not, the film should have existed 25 years ago, coming off the successes of The Birdcage and In and Out. Hollywood ignored its late-90s inclusive success stories (Waiting to Exhale, Rush Hour, Anaconda, etc.) and spent the 2000s and most of the 2010s chasing four-quadrant ‘white guy discovers he’s the special and saves the day while getting the girl’ action fantasy franchises. That we’re only getting films like Bros or Love Simon now is tragic.
It’s a shame in terms of the time lost, careers unfulfilled and the new normal whereby studio programmers have far less theatrical potential than they did in pre-streaming times. Anyway, Bros will probably end up with over/under $12 million domestic in the end, with the hope that PVOD will ride to the rescue. At least Universal is trying to keep the theatrical live-action comedy alive with the likes of Marry Me, Easter Sunday, Bros and Ticket to Paradise. But audiences still must make the proactive choice to buy a ticket if they still want more of its ilk. Still, Eichner is not a star, Stoller is not a marquee director and the only marketing hook this one had was ‘the first mainstream LGBTQIA theatrical romantic comedy.’
Mani Ratnam’s Tamil-language period action epic Ponniyin Selvan I opened yesterday in 510 theaters. The first film in a two-part adaptation of Kaiki Krishnamurthy’s 1955 novel stars the likes of Vikram, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Jayam Ravi, Karthi and Trisha. Despite little domestic media attention (I’ll confess to having missed it), the picture earned $2.14 million yesterday for a likely $4.11 million opening weekend. That’s a whopping $8,059 per-theater average and a gross on par with Disney’s Brahmastra Part One: Shiva ($4.5 million in 810 theaters) with much more coverage and marketing. It’s a slightly larger per-theater average than RRR ($9.5 million in 1,200 theaters last March). It is a damn solid debut for a comparatively (at least from where I’m sitting) under-the-radar Indian release.