Hollywood got two truly terrifying frights this weekend. One came from horror spinoff "Annabelle: Creation," which scared up an estimated $35.0 million in ticket sales to top the box office chart. The other fright was from the chart as a whole, which marked this as the lowest-grossing weekend of an already dismal summer.
"Annabelle," the fourth movie in the successful "Conjuring" franchise, performed as well as pundits had predicted. But its chief rival, cartoon sequel "The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature," opened in third place with only an estimated $8.9 million, underperforming even the most pessimistic predictions. This despite the fact that there hasn't been an animated hit in months, that kids are still out of school, and that "Nut Job 2" opened on 4,003 screens to become one of the widest independent releases of all time.
And then there's wannabe awards hopeful "The Glass Castle," which opened way down in ninth place with an estimated $4.9 million. That's just a tad below predictions, and since it only opened on 1,461 screens, that makes for an okay $3,337 per theater. ("Nut Job 2" earned just $2,232 per screen.) Still, it's pretty weak for a drama that hopes to last long enough to ride into the fall season as an Oscar banner-waver.
How did "Annabelle" manage to pull fans into theaters during a dog-days summer season? Here are some of the factors behind this weekend's good-news-bad-news box office.
Hollywood tends to ignore women audience members at the box office, but at least half of this weekend's top 10 movies feature female stars -- or predominantly female casts -- and cater to majority-female audiences. These include "Annabelle" (horror movies tend to draw more women than men), comedy "Girls Trip," Halle Berry thriller "Kidnap," "Glass Castle" (an adaptation of Jeannette Walls' best-selling memoir of her Dickensian childhood), and Charlize Theron spy thriller "Atomic Blonde." There's also "Nut Job 2," whose audience turned out to be 57 percent female.
Since "Annabelle" was always going to be the strongest draw of these films, it may have drawn much of the female audience that might otherwise have made hits out of the other new releases -- and already has, to varying degrees, for holdovers "Girls Trip," "Kidnap," and "Atomic Blonde."
"Glass Castle" was always going to skew older; it's a period piece for a literary audience, one that probably read Walls' book back in 2005 when she published it. Surprisingly, "Annabelle" skewed older as well, drawing 54 percent of its viewers from the 25-and-over crowd. Even more surprising was that half of the "Nut Job 2" viewers were over 18, which suggests that the audience contained as many parents as kids.
Reviews, once again, continue to dictate in part box office spending. Critics were unusually kind to "Annabelle," giving it a 69 percent "Fresh" at Rotten Tomatoes. Then again, distributor New Line went out of its way to cultivate their good will. Most horror distributors ignore critics, figuring that they can either avoid screening the film for reviewers or just pay no mind to the reviews because horror fans usually don't care what the critics think.
New Line, however, actually booked "Annabelle" in film festivals to get positive early buzz among a handful of critics, which then spread among their colleagues. That, in turn, could explain why older moviegoers came out for this one, since they actually do still read reviews.
The paradox is that the critics actually liked "Annabelle" better than paying customers, who gave the horror prequel a meh B grade at CinemaScore once they saw it, after being lured to the theater by strong buzz. "Nut Job 2" actually got a better CinemaScore grade (B+), and that's still pretty bad for an animated movie. (Critics gave "Nut Job 2" just a "Rotten" 12 percent at Rotten Tomatoes.)
"Glass Castle" may have been trolling for awards, with its prestige source material and prestige cast, led by recent Oscar-winner Brie Larson. But its reviews have been middling, just 49 percent fresh at RT. After a summer of Hollywood complaints about how low RT scores are driving customers away, here at last is some proof. An awards-hopeful drama seeking an audience of older viewers really does depend on critics' good will in order to succeed at the box office, and "Glass Castle" didn't have it.
Just as it's hard to be a female-targeted movie at a time when there's a glut, it's also good to be the first acclaimed horror movie in a summer that's barely seen any horror releases at all. And it's not good to be a poorly-reviewed cartoon two weeks after another disappointing cartoon ("The Emoji Movie") left audiences feeling burned.
It's also hard to be an Oscar-seeking movie in August. Sure, "Glass Castle" pretty much has the field to itself right now; distributor Lionsgate may not have wanted it to compete against easier-sell prestige movies that tend to proliferate in the fall months. But it didn't get the reviews it needed to succeed now, and it may peak too early in the awards conversation, to be superseded by newer, stronger films as the end of the year approaches. ("Dunkirk" took the same risk with its July release, but at least it's cleaned up at the box office, with $153.7 million earned so far, which will help voters remember it later.)
No one really expects much from the multiplex in mid-August. The hyped, would-be blockbusters have usually all come out by this time, and there's not much to look forward to until after Labor Day. That's why it was such a surprise this time last year when "Sausage Party" became a hit (it opened with $34.2 million, nearly as much as "Annabelle: Creation" this weekend).
This weekend last year also saw the releases of "Pete's Dragon" (a kid movie reboot that disappointed at the box office), "Florence Foster Jenkins" (a period biopic whose critical and commercial response were analogous to "Glass Castle," though Meryl Streep's performance was still memorable enough to earn her an Oscar nomination), and "Hell or High Water" (another indie Oscar-hopeful that rode its strong reviews to a Best Picture nomination.) Still, despite the similarities, last August also had two big late-season hits: comic book film "Suicide Squad" and horror smash "Don't Breathe."
Nothing like those films has opened (or is likely to open) this August. No wonder this weekend's box office total of about $118.2 million is the lowest of the summer, and that the summer as a whole has come in about 10 percent below last summer's take up to this point.
Along with Rotten Tomatoes, that's been Hollywood's other scapegoat for poor summer sales. It certainly explains the lack of enthusiasm for "Nut Job 2," whose 2014 predecessor wasn't that beloved to begin with. Then again, new franchises ("The Dark Tower"), original-screenplay comedies and horror movies ("The House," "Wish Upon"), and non-franchise prestige dramas ("Detroit") haven't done that well either. About the only movies that have done well this summer are superhero franchise movies.
At least "Annabelle" proves that you don't have to wear spandex to have a successful franchise. Sure, "Creation" has the lowest opening of the four, but they've all been in the same ballpark. (The highest was the original 2013 "Conjuring," with $41.9 million, just $6.9 million more than "Creation.")
Worldwide, the franchise has earned a shocking $967 million after just four movies, making it the fourth biggest horror franchise of all time (after "Alien," "The Mummy," and "Resident Evil"). With more sequels and spinoffs on the way "Conjuring" will continue to be one of the few non-superhero franchises that doesn't give studio executives nightmares.