“Every now and then, you get it right. Every now and then, you get it wrong. And then every now and then, you get it absolutely right.”
That’s the astonishingly spot-on explanation Warner Bros. domestic distribution president Jeff Goldstein gave for It‘s massive opening weekend. However, he’s not wrong. From the studio perspective, the box office must sometimes feel like a bit of a crapshoot. You win some. You lose some. And then sometimes you really, really win, and other times you really, really lose.
Lately, there’s been far more losing than winning, with the industry still struggling to shake off one of the least-attended and lowest-grossing summer movie seasons in decades. It got so bad it was beginning to seem like there was never going to be another truly big movie ever again. Of course, that’s complete bullshit because at the very least Thor: Ragnarok and Star Wars: The Last Jedi are guaranteed hits. However, sometimes the failure can be so pronounced and long-lasting the concept of a genuine hit movie seems like the stuff of history and not the future. Sometimes you forget people still like to go to the movies, even if they’re getting pickier and pickier about which movies to go see.
So, it feels like we all really needed It. We all needed a big movie to get behind and experience together in the theater. The world ached for the cathartic escape of a horror movie about a scary clown that’s actually secretly about the fight against fear itself. The studios longed for a reminder that sometimes they actually know what they’re doing. They truly can catch lightning in a bottle through sheer force of will and lots and lots of smart choices on both the filmmaking and film marketing sides of things.
On that last point, Goldstein was again simple in his explanation: “The source materials is really creepy and really fun. And let’s give kudos to our marketing group.”
Yes, kudos to marketing because look how well their efforts paid off:
To put those numbers in perspective, It is now the record holder for biggest opening weekend for both the Fall and the month of September, and it’s not even remotely close. It more than doubled the prior record holders, Hotel Transylvania 2 ($48m) for September and Gravity ($55m) for Fall. So, this isn’t one of those “well, if you adjust for inflation” situations where a new box office record isn’t nearly as impressive as it sounds. No, you should officially be impressed with what It just did.
Other records include:
- Biggest opening for an R-Rated horror movie (besting Paranormal Activity 3‘s $52m)
- Biggest opening for any horror movie, regardless of rating
- 2nd biggest opening for an R-Rated movie (behind Deadpool’s $134m)
- Biggest opening weekend for a horror movie in the U.K. ($12.3m), Russia ($6.7m), Australia ($5.9m), Brazil ($5.6m), Netherlands ($1.4m) and Poland ($1.15m).
In the States, this was fueled by an audience that was 51%/49% female/male and 65% over the age of 25.
The questions now become how did this happen and how high could It possibly go (with a secondary question being how fast can WB crank out the sequel). The answers are complicated, as it’s unlikely other studios will be able to study WB’s playbook and replicate their success since so much of it seems dependent on timing. After all, not every big movie can receive an unexpected boost from an unrelated, but monster hit of a Netflix series (Stranger Things) that does a lot of the same things nor can every big movie have a beloved mini-series in its background that adults loved as kids and are ready and willing to experience all over again. And not every marketing department can quietly benefit from (or secretly orchestrate) something as random as the sudden and disturbing appearance of scary clowns throughout the country.
However, there are several simple lessons that can be learned, such as the utilization of social media to spread scary imagery from your movie, the importance of an effective group of trailers that spook first, explain later, the reinforcement of the ability for early tastemaker preview screenings to build word-of-mouth and the wisdom of simply lying to the world about your intentions to split a beloved book in half. Sell them a movie; don’t sell them a “Part 1.” The book readers will know better (because they know there’s no way you can condense Stephen King’s 1,088-page epic into 1 movie) but forgive you; the filmgoers won’t know any better. If you do your job on the filmmaking end, everyone will be on the hook for the sequel, regardless of the slightly deceitful marketing.
Or so we hope.
In truth, we don’t know, and it can’t be assumed everyone loved It and/or is forgiving of the film’s non-resolution since it’s secretly a Part 1 of a two-part story. For however much it matters, It‘s CinemaScore (B+) is not as good as either of The Conjuring movies, but better than both of the Annabelle movies, which suggests It might be heading for a second-weekend decline in the -55% to -58% territory. Either result would be acceptable and would already catapult It to 2nd place on the list of highest-grossing R-Rated horror movies, surpassing Get Out ($175m) but trailing The Exorcist ($232m in actual dollars, $917m in inflation-adjusted dollars).
Of course, it’s not all positive. Hollywood continues to operate on a boom or bust cycle, with the middle continually wasting away and box office increasingly dependent on the kindness of blockbusters. For example, It accounted for 75% of the total domestic box office this weekend. That can’t be good for the overall health of the industry, not with the way this keeps happening. This summer’s sins can’t simply be erased by It‘s stunning performance here at the start of the Fall nor the likely huge performances of next summer’s blockbusters like Infinity War, Deadpool 2, Han Solo, The Incredibles 2 and so on.
But, as the fella once said, “Every now and then, you get it absolutely right.” And when that happens, it deserves a round of applause. So, to WB I give the Meryl Streep salute: