Hey, moviegoers, do you want to see badass women in a realm of opulent wealth? Cartoonish fun suitable for kids? Manly heroism in a geopolitical context? Well, if you wanted those themes, then you had to settle for their treatment in this week's meh new wide releases: "Fifty Shades Freed," "Peter Rabbit," and "The 15:17 to Paris."
Box office analysts are so ready to see "Black Panther" blow everything out of the water next weekend that they may not give enough credit to this weekend's new releases, all of which did surprisingly very well by February standards. Indeed, if it weren't for the looming Marvel blockbuster, pundits would be crowing about what a great weekend this was, with overall sales up 44 percent from a week ago. You can credit that to three new movies that, together on the marquee, seemed to offer something for everyone.
Of the new films, "Fifty Shades" seems to have received the least credit from the experts.
It opened with an estimated $38.8 million, about what was predicted. That's a steep drop from the $85.2 million debut of "Fifty Shades of Grey" three Februaries ago, and a modest dip from the $46.6 million premiere of "Fifty Shades Darker" last February. You could blame waning interest in the franchise -- or you could argue that the first movie's gross was inflated by lookie-loos outside of the best-selling books' voyeuristic fan base, and that only those core fans stuck around for the second and third films.
It's also the case this year that Valentine's Day falls on a Wednesday, so there wasn't that extra incentive to make a weekend date night out of an evening spent watching "Freed."
In any case, the "Fifty Shades" trilogy has never gotten much respect from the industry. Mostly because the movies aren't good. Like, at all. But that didn't stop the target demographic from seeing the third and final movie. According to tracking service PostTrak, "Freed" drew a crowd that was 81 percent women. And most of them, some 59 percent, were older women (that, is, older than 25). That's the demographic that Hollywood understands and caters to the least. (To its credit, "Freed" studio Universal seems to appreciate women over 25, enough to generate such hits as "Bridesmaids," "Trainwreck," and "Girls Trip.")
"Freed" has had the biggest opening weekend of any movie so far this year. It's in the top 20 of all February openings ever and the top 50 of all R-rated debuts in history. The series is popular not just throughout America (even in the supposedly more puritanical middle-American states) but around the globe. Worldwide, the three movies have earned $1.1 billion to date, an especially huge number considering they cost just $150 million total to make.
Industry folk may scoff at the series for its poor reviews, lack of demographic range, or declining sales, but I bet Universal wishes E.L. James had written a fourth "Fifty Shades" book so that it could keep adding to a billion-dollar franchise that's earned back more than seven times its modest cost.
If "Freed" cornered the women's market this weekend, then Sony's "Peter Rabbit" did the same for kids, opening slightly above predictions with an estimated $25.0 million.
Based loosely on the classic Beatrix Potter children's tale, the live-action/animated hybrid had the advantages of brand recognition and star power, in the form of human karaoke machine James Corden as its lead and most tireless promoter. The reviews were just okay (58 percent at RT), but families were apparently ready for something new, even with Sony's own "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" still going strong and with "Paddington 2," "Ferdinand," and "Coco" still in theaters. A saturation marketing campaign, including bunny-themed events at malls and libraries, helped a lot.
That left the Older Guy market, a niche that Clint Eastwood's "The 15:17 to Paris" seemed designed to fill. It underperformed a little, debuting in third place with an estimated $12.6 million.
As we noted when "12 Strong" opened three weeks ago, the war-movie subgenre of War-on-Terror tales of real-life heroism has done well, particularly in the winter months. The all-time classic example, of course, is Eastwood's own "American Sniper." No other movie in the subgenre has come anywhere near that movie's $350 million domestic take, but that hasn't stopped Hollywood from trying.
Indeed, "Paris" studio Warner Bros. tried just last month with "12 Strong," which is still playing in 1,901 theaters and earned $2.7 million this weekend, good for 11th place. You'd think Warners wouldn't want to cannibalize the success of the earlier film, which has earned about $42 million to date, but the temptation to counterprogram something macho against "Fifty Shades Freed" must have been too strong to resist.
Nonetheless, "Paris" did only a third as well as "Freed." A lot of that may have to do with the quality of the film. Eastwood cast the three real-life American heroes, who thwarted a terrorist attack during a 2015 train ride, as themselves. That novelty factor, however, wasn't enough of a draw to overcome the movie's reviews, which were poor (20 percent "Rotten" at RT).
Critics felt that the amateur actors were, well, amateurish. And judging by the movie's lackluster B- grade at CinemaScore, audiences didn't warm to "Paris" either, perhaps feeling that the movie had too much backstory and not enough action. Critics usually like Eastwood's movies, and his fan base is an older one that still reads reviews, so they had to notice that critics felt he'd stumbled this time.
At least Eastwood keeps his budgets low ("Paris" cost a reported $30 million), so there's still a chance the film will make a profit.
The good news continued further down the chart, as "Jumanji" and "The Greatest Showman" proved they both still have legs as long as "Showman" star Hugh Jackman's. After spending several weeks, off and on, in first place, "Jumanji" may finally be out of the top spot for good. Still, it slipped just ten percent from last week's business, earning an estimated $9.8 million and coming in fourth.
With $365.7 million earned over eight weeks, it's within $8 million of overtaking "Spider-Man 2" as the second biggest domestic grosser in Sony's history. (The biggest is 2002's "Spider-Man," with $403.7 million, a number that's not out of reach for "Jumanji.")
"Showman," in fifth this week with an estimated $6.4 million, also held on to most of last weekend's business, with a drop of just 17 percent. It's earned $146.5 million to date, which makes it the sixth biggest musical of all time. Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, who composed the score, are within $5 million of overtaking their hit from last year, "La La Land," to become the fourth most lucrative musical.
All told, this weekend's movies brought in about $137 million, thanks to a slate of films that seemed to leave no moviegoer ignored.
Try to remember that next week, even though "Black Panther" is expected to open with a figure greater than this weekend's entire take.