This weekend, the box office gave us a battle between two sequels and one prequel that no one really asked for.
Yep, that's the way Hollywood works now. It's unusual to get three sequels opening in wide release at the same time. Of the three, Cruise's "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" was expected to do the best, having the most star power and the kind of action-hero plot that makes for blockbusters at any time of year. Even so, the 54-year-old star isn't the draw he used to be, at least not in America. So predictions for "Never" hovered at a debut near $20 million.
Perry's "Boo! A Madea Halloween" was supposed to follow close behind. Perry's drag comedies about the gun-toting granny have done very well, at least until the last one, "Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas," three years ago. The writer/director's last movie, "Tyler Perry's The Single Mom's Club," was also an atypical box office disappointment two and a half years ago, and the usually prolific filmmaker hadn't directed another movie since. Given the apparent loss of momentum, Perry was expected to trail Cruise.
As for "Ouija: Origin of Evil," no one expected it to match the $19.8 million debut of the original two Octobers ago. Neither critics nor audiences liked it very much, though it still managed to earn $51 million domestically and a similar amount abroad. Still, the new one is the only new horror movie in theaters this Halloween season, so it was supposed to come in a close third with about $17 million.
As it turned out, however, it wasn't that close. "Madea Halloween" ran off with most of the candy, opening in first place with an estimated $27.6 million and showing the kind of strength that the first six "Madea" movies enjoyed. "Jack Reacher" also did better than anyone expected, with an estimated $23.0 million, nearly $8 million more than the debut of the original 2012 film, yet it still had to settle for second place. "Ouija" opened to an estimated $14.1 million, almost $6 million less than the 2014 film, to premiere in third place. But considering the film's $9 million dollar budget, that's a respectable debut.
Why are sequel-nomics working so much better for Perry than for Cruise or the "Ouija" franchise? Here are five factors that were at play over the weekend:
1. A Crowded Multiplex
The ongoing fall slump began to rebound this weekend, with total ticket sales up 24 percent, to about $123 million. So having all these sequels open wide turned out to be a good thing overall, though the films didn't share the wealth equally.
In fact, there were four wide releases this weekend, including the Zach Galifianakis spy comedy "Keeping Up With the Joneses," whose low expectations going into the weekend proved justified when it opened in seventh place with a terrible $5.6 million. There were almost five wide releases until faith-based drama "I'm Not Ashamed" scaled down its release to just 505 screens. (Its distributor's pessimism was also justified, as the movie opened at No. 16 with just $900,000 in estimated sales, or a dismal $1,782 per theater.)
"Jack Reacher" had to compete against last weekend's champ "The Accountant," which lost a better-than-expected 43 percent of its first-weekend business, coming in fourth with $14.0 million. It seems unwise that Paramount sandwiched the "Reacher" sequel between "The Accountant" and next weekend's "Inferno," but given how much the success of "The Accountant" has surprised analysts, maybe the studio didn't consider the Ben Affleck thriller much of a threat. Oops.
2. Star Power
Cruise is still huge overseas. 2012's "Jack Reacher" opened with a disappointing $15.2 million, but it eventually made $80 million domestic and a total of $218 million worldwide. Already, "Never Go Back" has earned $31 million abroad, for a worldwide total of $54 million. Since the movie cost just a modest (for an action spectacle) $60 million to make, a third "Reacher" already seems inevitable.
As for Perry, he's used to openings above $20 million, especially for his movies featuring Madea, so the $16.0 million debut of 2013's "A Madea Christmas" was a shock. An even bigger shock was that "Single Mom's Club" opened with a meager $8 million, on the way to a total gross of less than $16 million. And then, after having averaged a movie release every six months or so for the previous decade, his assembly line shut down for two and a half years. So it's no wonder that box office pundits figured his star power had dimmed enough to keep "Madea Halloween" from opening above $20 million.
Fortunately for Perry, his audience has neither forgotten nor deserted him. If anything, he's crossing over beyond his core audience of churchgoing African-Americans. They used to make up 80 or 90 percent of his ticket sales, but this weekend, they were only 60 percent, indicating that Perry is drawing a bigger non-black audience than ever before.
By the way, the reason no one expected much from "Joneses," besides the comedy's weak reviews, is that Galifianakis isn't a box office draw, as is evident from his flop "Masterminds" just three weeks ago.
3. The Teens
Younger audiences weren't expected to line-up for either Cruise or Perry; rather, they were supposed to go see "Ouija." But Perry might have stolen some of the horror movie's thunder. "Boo!" is unusually teen-friendly for a Perry movie, with frat-party scenes, comic riffs on familiar horror staples, a tonal balance that includes more jokes and less of Perry's usual preachy moralizing, and a cast that features rising teen actress Bella Thorne and several YouTube stars.
Plus, it seems "Ouija" studio Universal underestimated the indifference of its target audience to the franchise.
4. The Reviews
But how can that be? The first "Ouija" was a sleeper hit. Critics loathed it, but they're expected to hate horror movies. "Origin of Evil," however, has been a shocker in that critics actually like this horror sequel -- a lot. It has a healthy 81 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, making it far and away the best reviewed of the five major releases this weekend.
But of course, not everyone cares what critics think. Perry's hits have been impervious to criticism, and so have horror movies that cater to young viewers. Older viewers do still care a little, which is why the poor 40 percent RT rating for "Jack Reacher" may have kept Cruise from scaring up more sales than "Boo!"
Here's where "Ouija" really stumbled. It earned only a C grade at CinemaScore, just like the first movie, indicating that paying customers weren't going to recommend the movie to friends. It's weird for critics to be so much more enthusiastic about a horror film, especially a sequel, than audiences, but then, it seems like "Origin of Evil" was made with more of an eye toward what the studio and even critics cared about than what audiences wanted.
"Joneses" got a weak CinemaScore grade, too (B-), while "Never Go Back" earned an okay-but-not-great B+. "Boo!" earned a strong A, suggesting that Perry delivered what his audience expects and likes, in a way that his competitors this weekend did not.