This was supposed to be a coronation weekend for "Patriots Day."
The thriller about the capture of the terrorists behind the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing expanded wide to 3,120 screens in its fourth weekend, after an awards-season qualifying run on just seven screens. The team of star Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg was expecting the kind of all-American January hit they achieved four years ago with "Lone Survivor." So was the industry, which saw the film tracking at No. 1 in online sales this weekend at Fandango. Analysts expected the drama to make around $20 million this weekend.
Yet "Patriots Day" didn't even crack the top five, finishing instead in sixth place with an estimated $12.0 million. This suggests that the film will be lucky to recoup its reported $45 million budget plus a similar amount in marketing and distribution costs.
In fact, of the three new wide releases and three expanding-into-wide-release movies, only one finished in the top five. That was "The Bye Bye Man," a low budget horror movie with no stars, which nonetheless debuted with nearly twice the $7 million it was projected to earn. In fact, at an estimated $13.4 million, it's within $400,000 of both "Sing" and "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," for a virtual three-way tie for third place. (Indeed, when final figures are released Tuesday, it could end up ahead of those holdover hits.)
How did this underdog succeed where Wahlberg and Berg's epic stumbled? Here are five ways.
1. Been There, Done That
"Patriots Day" is Wahlberg and Berg's third collaboration, and their formula is apparent, with Wahlberg playing a real-life ordinary-grunt-turned-hero who shows all-American grit and determination in the face of a cataclysm or disaster. Audiences may have found the formula too familiar, since the star and director's "Deepwater Horizon" came out just four months ago.
That drama opened moderately well, at $20.2 million, but it topped out at $61.4 million, suggesting that viewers were already starting to tire of the formula before "Patriots Day" followed fast on "Horizon"'s heels.
2. No Awards Bump
Despite its decent reviews and awards-season angling, "Patriots Day" has been a non-factor during the Golden Globes and Oscar races so far. Not that that should hurt it with audiences -- in fact, "Patriots" scored a rare A+ at CinemaScore from paying customers.
Still, every little bit of positive buzz helps. Look at "La La Land," which scored a record seven Globe wins last Sunday. It jumped into second place this weekend, after six weeks of release, and earned an estimated $14.5 million, for a total of $74.1 million to date.
3. Not Enough Appeal to Female Audiences
Aside from "La La Land," the only movie catering to them was "Bye Bye Man." Horror movies do tend to do well in January, since they're usually the only releases targeted at young women during this season of awards hopefuls and holdover holiday blockbusters. The Friday the 13th opening date was a marketing bonus.
4. Too Much Appeal to Older (Male) Audiences
Some pundits suggested that "Patriots" did well on Fandango because it appeals to an older, affluent audience that is more likely to buy tickets online in advance.
"Hidden Figures" showed its broad, cross-racial appeal last weekend when it edged out "Rogue One" for the top spot. Nonetheless, it should have been clear that young people weren't going to show up in great numbers for "Patriots Day" after the film's Thursday night preview. It's a given that older viewers aren't going to see a late-night Thursday movie but will wait for the weekend, but the Thursday take of just $560,000 indicated that young people weren't coming either.
Especially young women. Did you happen to catch Wahlberg's visit to "Conan" this week? The star's fellow Bostonian noted that it's been a quarter-century since Wahlberg went from pop star to Calvin Klein underwear model to movie leading man. These days, the pop star-turned-Klein skivvies model is Justin Bieber.
At 45, Wahlberg has aged well out of boy-band fan appeal, and the "Patriots" clip screened on "Conan" made him look not much younger than co-stars Kevin Bacon and John Goodman. As an aging action hero, he's not Liam Neeson yet, but he's getting there.
5. Multiplex Pileup
There's nothing wrong with relying on an older male demographic... except on a weekend like this one, where several other new or newly-wide releases are competing for the same audience. January is often a movie desert, but this weekend's six new wide movies made for a ticketbuyer traffic jam.
Jamie Foxx's crime thriller, "Sleepless," and Ben Affleck's nostalgic gangster picture, "Live by Night," chased the same viewers. Berg and Wahlberg can console themselves that their movie did a lot better than those rivals; "Sleepless" finished eighth with an estimated $8.5 million, while "Live by Night" was way down at No. 11 with an estimated $5.4 million.
Not to mention Martin Scorsese's "Silence," which has also come up empty as an awards contender despite strong reviews, and whose expansion into 747 theaters led to a take of just $1.9 million, for a sixteenth-place finish.
The real disaster of the weekend was new kid film "Monster Trucks," even though it finished seventh with an estimated $10.5 million, about what was expected. Paramount notoriously delayed the film's release twice and then, after the movie had sat on the shelf for nearly a year, the studio took a $115 million write-off in anticipation of its box office failure. Woof. That move is unheard of in modern studio age, pointing that the studio knew they had a waste of space on their hands.
Nonetheless, the studio went ahead with a costly 3,119-screen release, only to see the "Monster" flounder against holdover kid hits "Sing" and "Moana."
Given the movie's reported $125 million cost, it looks like the accountants' dismal predictions were correct. Compared to that belly flop, "Patriots Day's" weekend doesn't look so bad.