By Brent Lang
LOS ANGELES, Sept 18 (Variety.com) - Some things aren't worth the wait.
"Blair Witch" and "Bridget Jones's Baby," sequels to films that first hit theaters a generation ago, both stumbled in their debuts this weekend, earning a meager $9.7 million and $8.2 million, respectively. They were easily overpowered by "Sully," the Clint Eastwood drama about the so-called "Miracle on the Hudson" emergency plane landing that features Tom Hanks as Capt. Chesley Sullenberger. The Warner Bros. release topped the domestic box office for a second consecutive weekend, earning $22 million and pushing its stateside total to $70.5 million.
"It's just a well-made story," said Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros. distribution executive vice president. "The word-of-mouth is sensational."
The weekend's other wide-release launch, Oliver Stone's "Snowden," was also over-shadowed by the aeronautical heroics, picking up $8 million from 2,443 locations for a fourth-place finish. The look at Edward Snowden stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and got a warm reception at the Toronto International Film Festival, with some calling it a return to form for Stone, a director whose recent work such as "The Savages" has failed to capture the renown of earlier efforts like "Platoon" and "JFK."
However, the NSA leaker remains a controversial figure in American politics, a whistle blower to some and a traitor to others, which might have limited the picture's appeal. Open Road is distributing the film domestically, and if it continues to attract some awards heat, it's possible it could chug along to a respectable gross. "Snowden" cost a reported $50 million to produce.
It's a disappointing result for "Blair Witch," which fell short of tracking. Heading into the weekend, some rival studios expected the film to earn $20 million, potentially toppling "Sully" from its throne. A lot went wrong, starting with some bad reviews and a D CinemaScore. Moreover, younger moviegoers may not have been familiar with the horror franchise. The first film in the series revolutionized theatrical distribution and kicked off the trend of "found footage" stories when it hit theaters in 1999. Made for a mere $60,000, it rode some eerie marketing to a $248.6 million global gross. A poorly received follow-up hit theaters in 2000, when it was pulverized by critics and made a fraction of the first film's massive haul.
Lionsgate produced the latest sequel for an economical $5 million and pushed it out over 3,121 locations. It debuted the film at Comic-Con to generate buzz, screening it under its working title "The Woods" and surprising fans who had no idea they were watching a new "Blair Witch." But there are a lot of horror films in theaters, with "Don't Breathe" and "When the Bough Breaks" already scratching the itch to be scared and leaving little room for "Blair Witch" to break through.
At a corporate level, Lionsgate is undergoing a transition and could use some new film franchises. The studio has wrapped up its "Hunger Games" films and is moving the "Divergent" series to television. It also announced Friday that Rob Friedman, the motion picture group co-chair and one of the guiding forces behind the "Twilight" saga, is stepping down. The studio is earning strong buzz on "La La Land," a musical that is expected to be an Oscar player, "Hacksaw Ridge," a World War II drama from Mel Gibson, and "Deepwater Horizon," a true-life action tale with Mark Wahlberg.
"Bridget Jones's Baby" is another exercise in diminishing returns. It has been 15 years since Jones (Renee Zellweger) first captured audiences' attention in "Bridget Jones's Diary" with her romantic travails and 12 years since "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason" caught moviegoers up with her on-again, off-again relationship with dashing Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth). The romantic comedy is backed by Universal, Miramax, StudioCanal and Working Title, and cost $35 million to produce. It's faring better overseas, where it opened in first place in 24 territories and racked up $29.9 million, but moviegoers probably shouldn't expect a part four.
Universal's domestic distribution chief Nick Carpou said he thinks the film will fare well in the coming weeks as counter-programming. He noted that future films such as "The Magnificent Seven" and "Storks," don't cater to the female consumers who support "Bridget Jones's Baby."
"We love these characters, we love the actors playing them, and we're confident in how it will play out," said Carpou.
Sony's "Don't Breathe" rounded out the top five, nabbing $5.6 million to bring its domestic total to an impressive $75.3 million after three weeks.
Among newcomers, Pure Flix courted the faith-based set with "Hillsong: Let Hope Rise," a documentary about the Australian Christian group that made $1.3 million from 816 locations.
"The Disappointments Room," Relativity Media's first release since the studio emerged from bankruptcy protection in April, continued to flounder. After debuting last weekend to an anemic $1.4 million, it plunged 71%, eking out $400,000 and pushing its gross to $2.2 million. The horror film about a house's haunted past stars Kate Beckinsale and cost roughly $15 million to produce. Its release was frequently delayed as Relativity's financial problems worsened. At one point, in Chapter 11 filings, the studio estimated that "The Disappointments Room" would earn $72.6 million over its lifetime, a figure that factors in estimated home entertainment revenue along with theatrical grosses.
It's failure is unwelcome news for Relativity, which still faces questions about its longterm viability. The studio has been trying to come up with a plan to service its debts and raise more working capital. It has announced plans to remake "High Noon" and will back "Hunter Killer," an action film with Gerard Butler. Relativity has other films hitting theaters this year, including the comedy "Materminds" and the thriller "Kidnapped."
In milestones, Illumination Entertainment and Universal's "The Secret Life of Pets" crossed $800 million globally. It's a huge hit; one that has already spurred a sequel. Illumination, the animation label behind the film and the "Despicable Me" series, also debuted "Sing," its upcoming Christmas release about an "American Idol"-style talent competition, to strong reviews at Toronto.
Overall ticket sales couldn't compete with a year-ago period that saw the debuts of the Johnny Depp gangster film "Black Mass" and a sequel to "Maze Runner." Revenues dropped 21% to just under $90 million.
"This is what we typically see in September," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with ComScore. "The summer movies have ended and this is the after-party."