Ben Affleck's success aside, it wasn't a good weekend for the accountants.
Early projections had Affleck's new thriller "The Accountant" opening around $15 million, giving it only a slight edge over Kevin Hart's latest comedy concert film, "Kevin Hart: What Now?", predicted to open around $14 million.
But once the beans were counted, it wasn't even close. "Accountant" enjoyed a windfall opening estimated at $24.7 million, while "What Now" underperformed with an estimated debut just $16,000 shy of $12 million. (In fact, weekend estimates had it less than $10,000 ahead of last weekend's winner, "The Girl on the Train," so it's possible that final figures released on Monday could push "What Now" into third place, below "Girl.")
At least both new films did much better than this weekend's other wide release debut, "Max Steel," which couldn't crack the top 10. The toy-turned-superhero saga, which sat on the shelf for years, debuted in 11th place with an estimated $2.2 million, less than half the already modest $5 million pundits had predicted.
Still, not even Affleck's new movie could help the fact that this was the second worst box office weekend of 2016 so far, with total sales failing to crack $95 million. So it's worth looking at how "Accountant" drove up its numbers in the midst of the current slump. Here, then, are five lessons from this weekend's box office.
1. Reviews Matter -- to a Point
Like "Girl," "Accountant" succeeded despite weak reviews -- scoring just 51 percent "Fresh" at Rotten Tomatoes. While both movies are thrillers that cater to adults -- who still supposedly care what critics have to say -- "Girl" and "Accountant" also suggest that grown-ups will ignore reviews if the movie fills a niche that's otherwise lacking. "Girl" was a rare psychological thriller centered on a female lead, while "Accountant" is an old-school, shoot-em-up, action-fest. Critics found both films predictable, but their familiar storytelling devices were selling points to escapism-minded viewers.
If anything, these movies suggest that, even for grown-up audiences, word-of-mouth still matters more than reviews. After all, once paying customers actually saw "Girl," they gave it a weak B- at CinemaScore, and the movie fell 51 percent in its second weekend. But "Accountant" earned a very good A grade at CinemaScore, and that word-of-mouth helps explain why the movie outdistanced predictions.
2. Star Power Matters
Affleck does well in these sort of action thrillers. They're what audiences expect from him, when he's not wearing a superhero costume. "The Accountant" bested the "The Town" ($23.8 million) and "Argo" ($19.5 million), while "Gone Girl" opened at $37.5 million. Given how much Affleck is playing to his box office strengths, it's hard to see why, minus reviews, that predictions for "Accountant" were so low.
3. Concert Movies Aren't Box Office Gold
Hart is also playing to his strengths. The top-earning comedian in America, according to Forbes, Hart is also the only one currently scoring in theaters with the kind of concert specials usually relegated to cable. Even after one weekend, "What Now" has already joined Hart's first two concert films among the top nine highest-grossing live stand-up films of all time.
Still, that's not such a high bar. Hart's first concert movie, "Kevin Hart: Laugh at My Pain," grossed just $7.7 million in theaters five years ago. His 2013 movie "Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain," opened with $10.0 million in 2013, on the way to a $32.2 million total. "What Now" premiered on 2,567 screens, about three times as many as "Let Me Explain," yet no one expected it to open three times as big. That it opened less than 20 percent higher suggests that there's a ceiling to how much these concert films can earn. Hart supposedly wanted to challenge Eddie Murphy's "Raw," the highest-grossing comedy concert film ever, which earned $50.5 million way back in 1987.
As successful as Hart is in selling out arenas, he does a better job selling out the multiplex as a standard leading-man comic actor. His live-action movies routinely open around $30 to $35 million, a range that's about how much "What Now" is likely to earn over its entire run.
4. Know Your Audience
Both "Accountant" and "What Now" are R-rated movies that skewed heavily toward adults. "What Now" is certainly not suitable for kids who enjoyed Hart's voice role as Snowball in this summer's smash "The Secret Life of Pets," and "Accountant" drew an audience that was mostly 25 or older. Nothing wrong with that, especially during the fall season, when kids are in school and studios release prestige movies hoping for Oscar glory.
Nonetheless, it should be clear from this post-summer slump that marketing to adults alone isn't going to bring in the bucks. For one thing, the market gets oversaturated, as it is now, with "Accountant" and "What Now" competing for mature viewers against "Girl," "Deepwater Horizon," "The Magnificent Seven," "Sully" -- all still jostling for elbow room in the top ten. Not that the current handful of family films (including "Storks" and "Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life") are doing much better. Tim Burton's "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children," marketed in part toward's Burton's adult fanbase, is succeeding somewhat with family audiences. But there's nothing in theaters right now with teen appeal.
5. If You Build it, They Will Come
This has been one of the most dismal fall seasons in recent memory, largely because there's been no big hit like "The Martian" or "Gone Girl" to raise the tide for all the other movies currently at the multiplex.
The thrillers and action movies targeted to adults haven't been that satisfying, and even the awards hopefuls (most notably, "Birth of a Nation") haven't lived up to the hype. Given the choice between some just-okay movies at the theater and baseball playoffs at home, it's no wonder Hollywood hasn't been able to lure adults out of their armchairs. It seems like an obvious truism that if the studios would just make movies people wanted to see, they'd go see them. But so far this fall, the distributors simply haven't done that.
We may be well into November, with movies like "Doctor Strange," "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," and "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," before there's enough excitement at the multiplex to end this slump.