The "Fast and Furious" franchise may be starting to run out of gas after eight installments, but it still had a few laps left in it this weekend. Even after losing 60 percent of its business from last week's debut, and even with five new wide releases opening, "Fate of the Furious" still motored to an easy victory this weekend, with an estimated $38.7 million.
If anything, "Fate" won again, not because it was so beloved, but because the battle was so bitter among the also-rans and the non-threat of new releases. Here's why none of them could pull ahead of the pack for a clear win, or even a serious challenge to "Fate."
1. The Crowded Field
Five new wide releases is really too many for the multiplex to handle, especially with three holdover blockbusters ("Fate," "The Boss Baby," and "Beauty and the Beast") already sucking up much of the oxygen. It's no wonder that these new movies all but cannibalized each other, or that none of them was able to open higher than fourth place. That was Disney's "Born in China," which sold an estimated $5.1 million in tickets and averaged $3,413 per screen.
That's a just-okay average, but it's way better than its four new rivals, none of which managed even a $2,000 per-screen average. Which means that most of the new films spent the weekend playing to largely empty theaters.
2. Wide Releases, Disappointing Movies
"Unforgettable" was widely expected to be the top new movie, since it was opening on the most screens. Even so, its theater count was just 2,417. They couldn't really have booked many more. The top three movies had more than 11,000 screens already taken. Add "Going in Style" and "Smurfs: The Lost Village," and you'll see that the top five holdovers were hogging an average of 3,423 screens each.
The five new releases were able to book only half that many, averaging 1,768 screens each. Even if "Unforgettable" had enjoyed as high a per-screen average as "Fate" ($8,936), it still couldn't have grossed more than $21.6 million.
3. Female Audiences Stayed Away From Theaters
"Unforgettable" was also supposed to serve as counter-programming to "Fate," the idea being that the female-driven thriller would attract women put off by all the testosterone of the action sequel. Unfortunately, nearly everyone else had the same idea.
Historical epic/wartime romance "The Promise" was also best suited for female viewers, and so was found-footage sci-fi/horror film "Phoenix Forgotten." Even "Free Fire," a crime caper marked by wall-to-wall macho gunplay, had as its biggest star the feisty Brie Larson. Of course, it's possible that, rather than let any of these movies compete for their ticket dollars, female viewers just went to see "Beauty and the Beast" again.
4. Rotten Tomatoes Scores
To the extent that these movies, particularly "Unforgettable" and "The Promise," were depending on older viewers, they needed to earn strong reviews. Judging by their aggregate scores on Rotten Tomatoes, they did not. But the dismal 25 percent fresh rating for "Unforgettable" and the weak 45 percent score for "Promise" don't really tell the whole story.
Remember, RT is a measure of consensus opinion, not of what critics thought of a particular movie's strengths and weaknesses. It counts all reviews as either positive or negative; it has no way of accounting for nuance or middling reviews. This polarization effect really hurt "Unforgettable" and "Promise."
For "Unforgettable," positive and negative reviews were divided largely along gender lines. Male critics dismissed it, while female critics appreciated its camp value and the willingness of its female writer and female director to explore the issue of domestic violence against women. But since male critics far outnumber female critics, the consensus score measured by RT was overwhelmingly negative.
For "The Promise," the first mainstream, big-budget Hollywood movie to address the Armenian genocide of 1915, critics were divided between those who felt its well-meaning take on history made up for its listlessness as a drama, and those who did not. The appreciation of the film as a flawed-but-noble work is the sort of half-hearted endorsement that RT scores are not built to acknowledge.
5. Audiences Didn't Want Whatever "Free Fire" Was Selling
Male critics seemed to have missed the satirical intent of "Unforgettable." Critics also seemed to miss the satire of "Free Fire," with some panning the film for its over-the-top, non-stop gun violence. Of course, that's the whole point of the movie, as it was with the similarly satirical "Shoot 'Em Up" 10 years ago. No wonder both movies were tough sells.
6. The Trolling Problem
Even 102 years after the systematic massacre of the Armenians, the Turkish government and many Turkish nationalists still won't acknowledge the genocide as a historical fact. Indeed, there's evidence that such denial was behind the apparent trolling attack on the IMDb scores for "The Promise" that began within moments of the film's premiere screening last fall at the Toronto Film Festival. The movie received tens of thousands of downvotes from people outside of Canada who clearly could not have seen the movie yet.
It's not clear to what extent such trolling -- and such artificially low scores at audience-polling sites like IMDb -- discourage opening-weekend moviegoers. (Or encourage them, as in the case of "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," which received a suspiciously large number of high scores early on from apparent DC Comics partisans.) But with a number of movies having been affected over the past year or so -- most notoriously, "Ghostbusters" -- Hollywood is acknowledging that there's a problem here, one that could be having an impact at the box office.
7. Lack of Star Power
None of these movies had much. Katherine Heigl is certainly not the box office draw she was at the height of her rom-com successes of a few years ago. "Free Fire's" Larson is still unproven, even after the very modest success this spring of "Kong: Skull Island," whose true draw was the big gorilla.
As for "The Promise," Christian Bale isn't a box office draw when he's not driving the Batmobile. His co-star Oscar Isaac may be the Internet's boyfriend, but the dashing "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" flier has never opened a movie on his own. "Phoenix" had a cast of unknowns. And apparently, nobody in any of these movies had the box office appeal of the adorable pandas in "Born in China."
Was late April the right time to release any of these movies? It worked for "Born in China," in part because this weekend was Earth Day, and in part because Disney has been releasing nature documentaries on Earth Day weekend for nearly a decade, priming a ready audience to expect them at this time of year.
On the other hand, "The Promise" might have done better in the fall, when an awards-season campaign for Isaac or Bale could have boosted the film's profile. But its makers chose this weekend because it marks the anniversary of the beginning of the genocide.
9. Everyone's Saving Their Money for Baby Groot
The other reason not to release a film at the end of April is that moviegoers are holding onto their money until the summer movie season starts with the May 5th release of "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2." No wonder this weekend saw total box office receipts fall 36 percent from a week ago. In fact, it was the second least lucrative weekend of 2017 so far. (Look for next weekend, the last weekend in April, to be similarly bleak.)
Even with "Fate" and other hit movies still playing, even with five new wide releases, there was not a compelling draw at the multiplex this weekend. Forget fast cars, baby pandas, and Katherine Heigl finally letting her psycho flag fly; we're all holding out for the talking raccoon and the ass-kicking sapling.