Why did everyone think this weekend's box office race was going to be close?
Most pundits expected it to be neck-and-neck, with last week's champ, horror prequel "Annabelle: Creation," and new action-comedy entry "The Hitman's Bodyguard" both expected to finish around $15 million. After its hefty $35.0 million debut last week, "Annabelle" was supposed to have a slight edge over "Hitman," even with a projected 55 percent drop from its premiere weekend business.
Instead, however, "Hitman" surprised with a big win, debuting with an estimated $21.6 million. That's better than the recent openings of such anticipated action movies as "The Dark Tower" ($19.2 million) and "Atomic Blonde" ($18.3 million).
Meanwhile, the heist comedy "Logan Lucky" premiered in third place with just an estimated $8.1 million. That's at the low end of expectations, which were modest to begin with. Even so, it's curious that "Logan Lucky" wasn't considered a stronger rival to "Hitman." Both feature all-star casts, both walk the line between action and satire, but "Logan" also had a name director (Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh) and excellent reviews (93 percent "Fresh" at Rotten Tomatoes).
Why, then, did "Hitman" outperform expectations and earn a decisive box office win? And why didn't "Logan" pose any real threat? Here are seven reasons:
1. Star Power (and Chemistry) Matters
Both "Hitman"and "Logan" have impressive casts. "Hitman" features Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) and Nick Fury himself, Samuel L. Jackson, along with Salma Hayek. The "Logan" ensemble includes Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and Daniel Craig. But it's not enough to have a bunch of A-list names on the poster.
"Hitman" drew most of its strength from the mismatched-buddy interplay between Reynolds and Jackson, both of whom have reputations among audiences for their wisecracking, R-rated senses of humor. Meanwhile, "Logan" asked viewers to believe that Tatum, Driver, and Riley Keough were siblings. Not that that diverse combination couldn't work, but it's not obvious, while the Reynolds-Jackson partnership makes instant sense to viewers watching the movie's trailer. Also, both films were targeting the same adult audience -- and they flocked to the seemingly more appealing two-hander combo of Jackson and Reynolds than the entertaining mismatch of "Logan Lucky's" ensemble.
2. Even Auteurs Like Soderbergh Have Limits
Soderbergh has many strengths as a filmmaker; indeed, he often writes his own screenplays, serves as his own cinematographer, and edits his own films. This time, however, he also took on the distribution and marketing of the film -- something he'd tried once before, with mixed results.
Back in 2006, Soderbergh's film "Bubble" was an experiment not just in storytelling but in its release pattern; it was the first serious attempt to release a movie in theaters and via video-on-demand on the same day. "Bubble" flopped (it was too weird to be an effective test case), but same-day theatrical-and-VOD release is now not only standard for independent films but essential, since the theatrical market for indie features has all but dried up.
For "Logan," Soderbergh tried something different. He financed "Logan" through foreign pre-sales, and he hired independent distributor Bleecker Street on an unusual commission basis (rather than a static percentage of the receipts, Bleecker Street got a flat fee up front of less than $1 million, and it will get paid a percentage of both theatrical and home video receipts only if "Logan" meets certain box office benchmarks -- which it's not likely to do). He also oversaw all the marketing, which turned out to be unwise, because...
3. You Have to Spend Money to Make Money
Both "Hitman" and "Logan" cost about $29 million each to produce. But Lionsgate spent $30 million marketing "Hitman," while Soderbergh penny-pinched with just a $20 million spend on "Logan," a marketing budget limited by what he was able to drum up in non-theatrical pre-sales. Unfortunately, that just wasn't enough to generate awareness in the marketplace.
He might have been able to do so had he started earlier (three weeks before the film's release, he'd spent just 15 percent of his marketing budget, compared to the standard 40 percent at that time in the release cycle) or landed the film a spot in a spring festival. He also held off on really pushing the film until the week before release, to target audiences.
4. Getting Sports Fans at the Box Office
"Hitman" leveraged its macho camaraderie by screening early for some other key influencers: pro and college athletes, including members of the Denver Broncos, the Chicago Bears, the Cleveland Browns, the Los Angeles Rams, the Miami Heat, and the UCLA Bruins, as well as individual sports stars such as Ray Allen, Anthony Davis, and Clay Matthews.
"Logan" is set in part at a NASCAR track and features several real-life NASCAR drivers playing themselves. Soderbergh took advantage of this by advertising in NASCAR country (the Midwest and the South) while largely avoiding major cities in the rest of the U.S. Aside from an attempt at a viral video featuring Tatum attending a race, however, there was little visible effort to market the movie specifically to NASCAR fans.
For what it's worth, the strategy did yield an audience that was 70 percent white. "Hitman," however, made a point of targeting African-American and Hispanic audiences, and they attended in numbers greater than their proportion among the populace at large. The "Hitman" audience was just 49 percent white, 21 percent Hispanic, and 16 percent African-American.
5. Social Media Can't Always Turn Movies into Hits
Social media has proved increasingly essential for creating buzz among potential audiences, which is another reason why star power matters. Tatum's total following on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter is about 43 million, more than the followings of Reynolds, Jackson, and Hayek combined.
But the message put forth has to be clear, and according to social media monitoring firm RelishMix, "Logan"'s was not. As the movie's release date approached, online chatter indicated confusion as to whether the movie was primarily an action film or a comedy. It's trailer advertising, which Soderbergh approved without testing it with a focus group, apparently didn't make the movie's genre and tonal mix as clear as "Hitman"'s advertising did.
6. Reviews Still Matter, but...
Here's another case where, despite Hollywood's whining about how low Rotten Tomatoes scores are depressing audience turnout, the opposite proved to be true.
"Hitman" earned just a 38 percent "Rotten" at RT, while "Logan" earned a 93. Since both films were targeting older viewers, the ones who still read reviews, that disparity should have worked in "Logan"'s favor. But audiences disagreed with the critics, judging by the movies' CinemaScore grades. The CinemaScore curve is steep, so the B+ that "Hitman" earned means decent word-of-mouth, while the B that "Logan" earned indicates far less audience enthusiasm.
7. Timing Is Key
With two action comedies targeting the same older demographic, it makes sense that one would suffer, and that the one with the bigger marketing budget and the bigger release pattern (3,377 screens for "Hitman" to 3,031 for "Logan") would win out.
What's more, "Hitman" took advantage of an especially uncompetitive season at the box office. Late August is typically a dead zone at the multiplex, more so this summer than ever. The whole summer is down about 12 percent from the same time last summer, and this weekend's total sales of about $95.2 million marked the lowest grossing weekend of 2017 so far.
With numbers like that -- and with a release schedule for the rest of August that looks like nothing special -- "Hitman" could remain on top through Labor Day.