Box Office: Will Smith's Lost 'Focus' and the Oscars Effect
The narrative going into this weekend was that "Focus" would mark a comeback of sorts for Will Smith. His first lead role since the career stumbling block two years ago that was "After Earth," "Focus" was supposed to be an easy lay-up for Smith, a sleek, star-powered caper comedy that would face little competition in the doldrums of February. Pundits predicted a debut in the low $20 millions.
Nonetheless, when the snow flurries cleared on Sunday, "Focus" hadn't even crossed $20 million; estimates had the film's weekend premiere scoring just $19.1 million. That's the first time, since Smith's Oscar-baiting prestige drama "Seven Pounds" in 2008, that he's failed to crack $20 million on an opening weekend. (Even "After Earth" pulled off a $27.5 million debut.)
With two relative flops in a row (three if you count his rare supporting role in last year's "Winter's Tale"), it's officially time for pundits to start wondering if Smith has lost his box office magic and has started to turn into Johnny Depp. But such hand-wringing seems premature; there are plenty of reasons why "Focus" may have failed. Among them:
The R rating. Smith's movies do well at PG-13, hitting the blockbuster-demographic sweet spot. But with an R rating, he loses a lot of the youth audience he's come to rely upon. According to studio polling a full 88 percent of "Focus" filmgoers were over 25.
The genre. Smith's a versatile actor who's proved he can handle romantic comedy and straight drama as well as his usual science fiction spectacles and action comedies. He's even played a convincing con man before, in the 1993 drama "Six Degrees of Separation." But a romantic-drama/caper-comedy like "Focus" is very hard to pull off, since it's an exercise more in style than plot or character. It's not clear that Smith and co-star Margot Robbie, for all their good looks and charm, were able to do that.
The reviews. An R-rated movie, in a genre that depends on sophistication, depends on an older audience, so it needs strong reviews, since older viewers still read those. But the ones for "Focus" have been decidedly mixed, earning mediocre grades of 56 out of 100 at both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. And worse than that...
The word-of-mouth. The film got a middling B grade at CinemaScore, indicating that moviegoers aren't recommending it enthusiastically to others.
The casting. Sorry to say, but in the supposedly post-racial America of 2015, there are still some viewers out there -- some black, some white, some neither -- who may bristle at watching an interracial romance unfold between Smith and Robbie.
The IMAX bookings. It makes sense for a Smith sci-fi opus to play on the giant screen, but there's little about "Focus" that suggests the viewing experience will be enhanced by seeing it in a more expensive IMAX venue. As a result, the film's IMAX bookings accounted for a meager 11 percent of its gross.
The weather. Even if everything else for "Focus" had gone right, the heavy snowfall in many parts of the country may have kept viewers away from the multiplex.
It's worth noting that even Smith's supposed failures have been overstated, thanks largely to overseas audiences, which continue to flock to see Smith, even in movies considered flops at home. "After Earth" earned just $61 million domestically, but it earned three times as much in foreign markets. "Seven Pounds" was an unusually heavy drama, yet it made $70 million in North America (on a reported budget of $55 million) and another $98 million abroad. There's no reason to expect that "Focus" won't enjoy similar international success. So Smith has a long way to go before his career appears to be in Johnny Depp-like freefall.
The one truly troubling thing about "Focus" is that Smith used to have unerring taste. He used to be able to pick exactly the right project to showcase his gifts, no matter the genre. Even entries in untried areas like romantic comedy ("Hitch") or weepy melodrama ("The Pursuit of Happyness") seemed tailor-made for him, and he was able to bring his audience along to such unlikely films. That sense of what his public will buy (at least, his American public) seems to have deserted him in his last three films. If even Smith's nose for hits is no longer dependable, whose is?
In other, Oscar-related news...
By the way, remember the Oscars? Sure, they were just a week ago, but their impact already seems to have dissipated, at least at the box office. "Birdman" may have won Best Picture and other top prizes, but it got only a minor bounce from its Academy Award victories. In the wake of its wins, it tripled its theater count (to 1,213) and earned a weekend take that was 125 percent bigger than last week's, but that amounted to just an estimated $2.0 million, for a total of $40.3 million after five weeks in theaters. Other big Oscar winners, including "Whiplash," "Selma," and "Big Hero 6," added less than $700,000 each to their totals this weekend, according to estimates. "Boyhood" added just $21,000. The movie that benefitted the most from the Oscars, "Still Alice" (starring Best Actress winner Julianne Moore), rose a modest 24 percent over last week, with an estimated $2.7 million (for a seven-week total of $12.0 million), breaking into the top 10 at No. 9.
Oh, and don't shed any tears for "American Sniper," which was nominated for Best Picture, Actor, and Adapted Screenplay but went home only with Best Sound Mixing. It's earned $331.1 million in 10 weeks, more than the other seven Best Picture nominees combined. This week, it placed seventh and earned an additional $7.7 million. Had it won every prize it was up for, "Sniper" still wouldn't have needed an Oscar bounce and probably wouldn't have gotten one.
Why was the vaunted Oscar bounce so meager for most of these movies? Because, with the exception of "Alice," they've all been in theaters for at least two months. Their theatrical lives are almost over, and any money they earned as a result of the Oscars is gravy. It's the Oscar nomination, more than the win, that's worth the big bucks, since it comes five weeks earlier in the film's run. So yeah, it really is an honor just to be nominated.