At last, we got a real race.
In this weekend's box office competition, "Kingsman: The Golden Circle" was widely expected to win a second time. "IT" was finally expected to slow down in its fourth weekend. And Tom Cruise's new "American Made" was expected to fall short of the others and open around $16 million.
What happened instead was a photo finish, with the three movies estimated to finish within $310,000 of each other. As of Sunday, "IT" had regained the top spot and was due to enjoy its third week at No. 1 with an estimated $17.3 million. "American Made" did slightly better than expected and claimed to have edged past the $17 million mark by just $16,000. Which meant that "Kingsman," with an estimated $17 million even, was just a hair behind in third place. (Of course, all these numbers and positions could change when actual weekend tallies are released on Monday.)
That's pretty exciting, especially since there was another wide release, "Flatliners," that underperformed its already modest predictions and debuted in fifth place with just an estimated $6.7 million.
How did we end up with a nearly three-way tie at the top of the chart involving one new release while the other new release flatlined? Here are some of the factors at play.
1. Star Power
Tom Cruise is a curious case. He was king of the box office for two decades, and while he still sells well overseas, his movies outside the "Mission: Impossible" franchise open poorly at home. The dismal domestic performance of his "The Mummy" this summer is why no one expected much from "American Made." Plus, while Cruise is usually tireless in promoting his films, he didn't do much to plug this one, since he's been busy working on a sixth "M:I" installment.
Still, he's a bigger draw than "Flatliners" stars Diego Luna and Ellen Page, or any of the many well-known stars in "Kingsman," or any of the unknowns in "IT." (He's not bigger, however, than "IT" author Stephen King.)
Cruise supposedly poisoned his own well 12 years ago with his advocacy of Scientology and his antics while he was courting Katie Holmes, but all that may be too long ago for today's young moviegoers to remember. They simply may not care about Cruise because he's a 55-year-old action star whose biggest hits are now nostalgia pieces.
Then again, nostalgia may explain why older viewers haven't yet abandoned him. Cinemascore reported that only 9 percent of "American Made" viewers were under 25 (PostTrak had the figure at 18 percent). Still, put Cruise in the cockpit of a 1980s airplane, and memories of "Top Gun" will send older viewers (especially older men, who made up nearly half the audience for "American Made") to the ticket window.
The nostalgia factor backfired with "Flatliners." The movie was ostensibly a sequel to the 1990 movie of the same name, but only Kiefer Sutherland from that film returned, and there was no indication that he was playing the same character. The cast was clearly meant to appeal to younger viewers, but those viewers weren't even born yet when the first film came out. Besides, the original wasn't so beloved that older viewers would have been eager to see a sequel. So who was the new "Flatliners" for?
If you have a crowd-pleasing horror smash like "IT" still in theaters, why would you go see "Flatliners"? Maybe Sony thought the three weeks between their releases was enough time so that "Flatliners" would be safe? Guess not.
As for "American Made," it's coming out just one week after spy thriller "Kingsman" and two weeks after similarly titled international thriller "American Assassin." (By the way, if you're wondering where all the teen and young-adult moviegoers were, it was at those films and "IT.")
3. Screen Count
"American Made" and "American Assassin" are playing at an almost identical number of theaters (3,024 vs. 3,020), but the newer film averaged $5,627 per screen, better than any other wide-release film this weekend, while "Assassin" earned just $1,101 per screen. (It totaled an estimated $3.3 million, good for seventh place.) So "American Made," which is playing on about 900 fewer screens than "IT" and 1,000 fewer than "Kingsman," could have beaten both of them if it had been playing in just 53 more theaters.
"American Made" also tops all other current nationwide releases with its Rotten Tomatoes score. Its 87 percent fresh rating indicates overwhelmingly positive reviews. To the extent that the older viewers "American Made" targeted still care what critics say, that score must have given the movie a boost.
Horror movies are usually critic-proof, but when a movie gets a rare 0 score at RT, even horror fans have to take notice. Sony must have known critics wouldn't like "Flatliners," as the studio declined to screen it for them in advance (a common marketing tactic for horror movies), but it also didn't preview the movie for audiences on Thursday night. Between that omen and the unanimously bad reviews, savvy horror fans had to have guessed that "Flatliners" would be DOA.
5. The Season
Curiously, the same production company, Cross Creek, helped finance both of this weekend's new wide releases. Maybe Cross Creek saw them as smart counter-programming to each other, with little overlap between their likely audiences (older and male vs. younger and female). Maybe the timing is a coincidence of distribution over which Cross Creek had no control.
Still, neither movie on its own was enough to drum up much interest in theatrical moviegoing this weekend. The total domestic box office for all movies this weekend was about $90.6 million, making this the third lowest-grossing weekend of 2017 to date. It also makes the bigger box office totals of the last three weeks, driven by "IT" and "Kingsman," look more like a brief reversal in the long slump that began in July than a permanent upswing. (Who knows, the pendulum could swing back again when "Blade Runner 2049" opens next weekend, but otherwise, October doesn't look like a strong sales month.)
The fact is, audiences need a good reason to get off the couch and spend big bucks on movie tickets and popcorn. Right now, the best reason to do that is still that creepy clown in the sewer.