In my last article, I counted down World of KJ’s Top 10 most impressive box office opening weekends of all time, as of the March 2012 release of The Hunger Games. Naturally, a great many movies that deserve recognition for their impressive openings missed the top 10 for one reason or another. In this follow-up article, I want to honor some of the most impressive opening weekends that missed our top 10. We’ll do this in 10 key categories, naming multiple films in each category. Thanks to KJ’s Thegun for the format suggestion.
The ink was still drying on my top 10 most impressive openings article when summer 2012 was kicking off with Marvel’s masterpiece The Avengers. No one expected anything short of a big blockbuster performance from this film, but holy smokes, no one expected the performance it actually delivered. Out of the gates, it served up $18.7 million in midnight business, a new record for a comic book adaptation, sneaking past The Dark Knight with the help of 3D ticket prices, but without the full summer advantage. A solid start to be certain, but how front-loaded would business for the film be? Fans had known this was coming for many years – a masterful marketing strategy had been employed by Marvel, revealing the build-up to the team formation and cranking up the anticipation through several successful and critically acclaimed films focusing on the individual superheroes in the team, each with easter-egg endings after closing credits revealing a tease of things to come. Through it all, Iron Man from 2008 had remained the most popular film by most accounts, including having reached the highest domestic gross among all the avengers of $318 million. Its sequel would open the highest of all at $128 million but fall just short of the original's total.
The team synergy was electric and paid off in spades. Avenging Marvel’s previous record set by Spider-man 3, which had been quickly taken back a year later by DC favorite The Dark Knight, The Avengers stirred up a whirlwind of business, smashing past the $200 million mark for the first time in history on opening weekend, obliterating the previous record of $169 million set by franchise finale Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 less than a year previously. Potter had the boost of 3D and IMAX ticket prices as well, giving The Avengers no advantage over it in that regard, and in fact being not a strictly summer opener nor as front-loaded of a franchise gave it more of a disadvantage – besides the fact that Potter had been a known series finale whereas The Avengers are seemingly just getting warmed, up as a team anyway.
It would be the largest percent margin by which the opening weekend record had been beaten since Marvel’s own Spider-man had quickly taken the record from franchise opener Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone – giving us a glimpse of history repeating itself. This spectacular number has many pondering how this opening ranks in all-time impressiveness – by most accounts it easily deserves a spot on the top 10, with many suggesting it should even be #1. Numerical landmarks like surpassing an all-time record and surpassing a big multiple such as $200 million, coupled with the fresh excitement of seeing the film, may inflate opinions, however it cannot be denied that the level of business The Avengers brought is truly marvelous and historical.
As we noted, Spider-man 3 had the opening weekend record once as well. It now appears to be a Marvel middle-child of sorts between our #2 most impressive and record-shattering Spider-man, and current weekend record-smasher The Avengers, but that certainly takes nothing away from its accomplishment. Following up two supremely popular predecessors, the film was the hotly anticipated summer kick-off of 2007, and it delivered, at least on opening weekend, breaking the $150 million landmark for the first time and going on to squeak by as the yearly box office champ.
Marvel films began impressing even before Spider-man amazed in 2002. A hat-tip is deserved for X-men from 2000. It is remembered for having jump-started the 21st century era of comic book superhero films, after the Batman franchise had tragically crumbled in the mid 1990’s, despite Batman Forever’s record-breaking opening. X-men would out-gross that film in unadjusted dollars and pave the way for Spider-man’s record-shattering success. It would also spawn its own highly successful franchise, with five entries and counting.
Outside of Marvel’s two top brands, Spider-man and X-men, things were much less guaranteed. The Blade and Fantastic Four franchises had found success, but known names from the comic giant had failed to impress again and again, whether with their openings or failures to successfully seed a sequel. Eventually, it became time to finally give Iron Man a shot. Considered at best a second-tier comic book figure largely unrecognized in mainstream pop culture, everything needed to be done just right to make it work - and done right it was. A brilliant casting decision was made in resurrecting Robert Downey Jr., a superb origin story was crafted, and a terrific marketing campaign was converted into a crescendo of positive buzz. The film transcended niche comic book origins and created a very mainstream phenomenon, rocking the charts to just short of a $100 million opening, followed by superb word-of-mouth. The unimaginable would be accomplished for the character – a franchise whose success would astonishingly surpass that of the X-men, and the anchor of the record-breaking Avengers team to come.
2. A Galaxy Far, Far Away
In my previous article, I discussed how Jaws changed the public interest in box office and altered the cinematic paradigm of release schedules. After seeing every record of the day swallowed, perhaps the box office would be satiated for awhile? Two years later, a space opera influenced heavily by a 1950’s Japanese film called The Hidden Fortress would be released. Initially, very few in Hollywood had thought there would be much interest in the project, certainly not enough to justify the resources it would take to complete. As such, upstart filmmaker George Lucas was just barely able to get it completed after a tense and troubled production. He was able to secure sequel rights and most of the merchandising rights, which no one thought would amount to much. A good move for Lucas, it was.
The final project was called Star Wars. Initially targeted for the lucrative Christmas time frame in 1976, production difficulties pushed it back to a Memorial Day 1977 release. Distributor Fox lacked faith in the film, and fearing Smokey and the Bandit might damage its opening prospects, positioned the film for release on the Wednesday before Memorial Day weekend. Lucas was more confident in his film than most, but not as confident as friend and Jaws director Steven Spielberg - Spielberg thought Star Wars would beat his upcoming film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a thought not shared by Lucas, and the two filmmakers made a substantial bet that the other’s film would win the box office contest.
Fox had trouble securing a very wide release initially for Star Wars. It would open in just 32 theaters, expanding to just over 40 for the extended weekend. It was not the type of film that people were used to seeing, but they seemed to like it – a lot. Word spread, and the film expanded in kind, grossing more and more each weekend as a phenomenon took root. By the end of summer, the film had finally expanded to over 1000 theaters, and on the 11th weekend, the sleepy weekend of August 5th, Star Wars broke the opening weekend and single film weekend record held until that point by Jaws. The Force was strong with this one. Interestingly, when Star Wars was re-issued in theaters the following summer in 1978, it would break the opening weekend record that had just been set by Jaws II. This is the last time a re-issue would ever, or could ever, break the record. But it wouldn’t be the last time Star Wars would impress even in re-release form – the Special Edition continues to hold the opening record for a reissue even in unadjusted dollars, and the level of ticket sales is unlikely to ever be beaten by a reissue.
From there on out, it’s history. Star Wars would go on to shatter the total box office gross record that Jaws in turn had shattered, and becoming what would forever remain the most-attended film of the post-television era and one of the most popular films of all time by any reckoning. Box office would never be dull again. The sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, was able to secure over 100 theaters on opening weekend (imagine that!). Debuting in a whopping 126 theaters and sticking with the pre-Memorial Day Wednesday release in 1980, the film would manage a slightly higher per-theater average than its predecessor upon opening. Word-of-mouth would soon see it expanding to a nation-wide debut of $10.8 million, just short of the opening weekend record held by fellow genre entry Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But Empire would own the year by more than doubling its 2nd place competition. For point of reference, the number of tickets it sold that year is comparable to the number of tickets sold by Avatar, which currently ranks as a stand-alone #1 on the list of the highest grossing movies of all time.
That brings us to the third film in what is now referred to as the original trilogy: Return of the Jedi. The extraordinary success of the first two films was finally enough to secure Jedi a wide release opening at last, in just over 1000 theaters in 1983 (moderately high for the time, but by no means a record). A limited release would have caused riots – this seems to have been the most anticipated film of all time up to its release. Starting on the traditional Wednesday before Memorial Day, Jedi set a record, with just its 3-day weekend (not counting the initial two days of release), that is highly unlikely to ever be broken: it broke the opening weekend record, held then by fellow genre sequel Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and set just one year previously, by over 60%! To put this figure in perspective, no other record breaking opening has ever broken the record by even 40%, including Friday openers - truly astonishing. In addition, it holds another record that has never been beaten – the highest per-theater average in opening weekend attendance for a wide release, and again that is just for the 3-day portion. Jedi would go on to win the year by an epic margin – grossing more than 2.5 times the 2nd place competitor of 1983, a record that was only barely beaten by 1997 release and box office legend Titanic, and no film has come anywhere near that mark since. Jedi missed the KJ Top 10 list by just one spot, though in my personal opinion, it surely deserves a spot in the top 10 considering the margin by which it broke records.
It would not be the last time that Star Wars set records either. Cut to 16 years later, and Lucas’s much talked about and anticipated prequel trilogy would get under way with Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, in 1999. It stuck with the traditional May Wednesday release, this time moving back a full week from Memorial Day. There was not a shred of doubt about who would own the summer box office that year – no big film even dared open for three straight weeks starting with the weekend of Star Wars, nor even a week before. No big film had ever opened on the first weekend of May before – it was considered a dumping ground and treated as such. Giving Star Wars a wide berth, The Mummy opted to risk it, and became the first blockbuster ever to open on the frame, and from that point on the frame became a traditional summer kick-off.
The Phantom Menace had fans camped out in front of theaters for days in order to be among the first to see the film when it finally opened. The film really ushered in a new box office era – the midnight premiere. It is the first for which midnight box office figures are widely known. The opening Wednesday record would be set with great ease, along with the opening day record for even a Friday start, in both ways beating out the mighty Independence Day which made the #7 spot on our most impressive openings list. After this Wednesday became much more established as a day for anticipated blockbusters to open in order to satiate demand from rabid fans, get word-of-mouth started, and clear the way a bit for more mainstream audiences on the bigger Friday-Sunday weekend. The Wednesday opening is the only reason The Phantom Menace failed to take the weekend record from The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which had Thursday night previews but opened wide on a Friday on Memorial Day weekend in 1997. Menace's top 3 days out of its first five exceeded The Lost World's opening. The prequel would arrive at the $100 million mark faster as well, and easily have the best 7 day opening ever. Lucas jedis and Spielberg predators were battling it out once more at the box office 20 years later - history repeats again.
The second film the prequel trilogy, Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, had more trouble setting records. It did not have 16 years of anticipation, and was following The Phantom Menace, which for many hadn’t quite succeeded in living up to the legacy of the original trilogy. The released moved to Thursday for the first time in the franchise’s history, though keeping to the week before Memorial Day as started by its prequel. The Thursday move may have been done with hopes of being able to set a weekend record, as Menace had been unable to do with a Wednesday start, but if so, such hopes had been shattered by Spider-man’s Friday start two weeks previously, which also blocked Clones from setting the opening day record. A Thursday start was a bit unusual, enabling Clones to at least set the Thursday record with extreme ease – Thursday starts would become much more common after this. The middle child in the prequel trilogy would become the only film in the six-film franchise not to win the year of box office – it would have to settle for third place among a remarkable 2002 lineup including first place Spider-man.
The film that many had really been waiting for in the prequel triology was Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith. Anticipation rivaled that of Return of the Jedi – after all, this is the film that would show what had happened in the Star Wars universe that led to the events of the original trilogy which had begun 28 years previously! Sith had less trouble breaking records. Though again it opened on a Thursday, this time it was able to shatter the opening day record once again, posting the first ever number in excess of $50 million for one day while obliterating the record for a midnight premiere – this would really put the midnight premiere event on the collective radar as a significant box office force. Unfortunately it missed Spider-man’s Friday-starting 3-day opening weekend record once again, but it would handily win the year, and currently retains not only the Thursday record but the third best-seller over a four-day frame, after the previously discussed The Avengers and the #5 film on our impressive openings list, The Dark Knight. All in all an extraordinary resume for the Star Wars franchise.
3. Mr. Spielberg, Please
Some movies seem simply destined to set records. We’ve seen that Batman films are the undisputed opening weekend champs, with an astonishing 4 out of 6 films breaking the opening weekend record (thus far). We’ve seen Star Wars dominate, setting numerous weekend and daily opening records. We’ve seen Marvel rise as a new box office champ with records that have shocked and awed. We’ve seen Harry Potter cast the ultimate spell on the record books with the premiere and final entries in its franchise. And we’ve seen Superman and Star Trek trade records twice. But there is one man who dominates the record books from behind the camera like no other: Steven Spielberg.
The original Jaws has come up many times in this impressive box office discussion - the film really is ground zero of the box office blockbuster era in Hollywood, so much so that a half-decent sequel could almost coast to top of the record heap by drafting off the title alone, which it did. Spielberg did not direct Jaws II, but the film no doubt benefitted from his name anyway, in addition to others, including actor Roy Scheider, who gave the film some semblance of continuity with the first. Spielberg would return to his killer predator roots in 1993 with Jurassic Park, a hotly anticipated summer film that promised to show ‘real’ dinosaurs for the first time in history – much-evolved from claymation, rubber suits, drawings, inanimate models, and so on. Despite a (rare) Thursday preview opening, the film managed to stomp the opening record set one year previously by Batman Returns (which naturally it took from Batman – the only time a franchise has broken its own opening weekend record consecutively), on its way to owning the year in box office by a healthy margin and securing a spot in the top 20 theatrically best-selling films of all time. It remains the definitive dinosaur movie by almost any standard.
Batman would snatch the record back, as Batman is want to do, from the dinosaurs in 1995 with Batman Forever, but the dinosaurs didn’t take too kindly to it, and Spielberg’s sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park, with immense good will from its predecessor, would viciously retrieve the record in dominant fashion, much like Jaws II had viciously taken the weekend record from the 11th weekend of Star Wars. This would be the end of the trade-off between the two franchises, which owned the record for 13 straight years. Lost World failed to live up to its predecessor, earning a fraction of its total ticket sales and settling for ‘only’ third place for the year, yet it held tenaciously to its opening weekend record. It set a hyper-record that has never been beaten – it held the weekend record for 4.5 years, until the boy wizard broke the spell. The amazing Spider-man record came close to this feat, but no cigar. It was a relatively long era, when dinosaurs ruled the box office.
The Jurassic film duo actually constituted a Spielberg repeat three-peat, to the extent that he helped Jaws II succeed despite not being attached to the film. Spielberg is by far the highest grossing film director of all time. No one has matched the popularity of his films sustained over such a prolific length of time, particularly during the 1980’s and 1990’s. After E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial broke the all-time box office record in 1982, Spielberg was the undisputed king of Hollywood directors. As we noted, in 1983, the opening weekend record would be shattered to greatest extent of all time by Return of the Jedi, which at the time must have seemed like quite an imposing figure to beat. There was one sure way to do it. Raiders of the Lost Ark had become a smash hit in 1981, directed by Spielberg and written and produced by the man behind Star Wars himself, George Lucas. What about a sequel to that movie with these filmmakers? That was what it took. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom took the record from Jedi a year later, using the Star Wars tradition of a Memorial Day weekend release – now the 2nd record-breaker to start there. Indy’s third outing, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with the same core filmmakers, would take the opening record once more from the sequel to Beverly Hills Cop, the top grosser of 1984 and the most popular R rated comedy of all time, judging by ticket sales. Thus Indiana Jones would join the elite group of franchises with multiple entries in the progression of opening weekend records at the box office. It seems hard to imagine that any film director will ever knock Spielberg from the top of the opening records list, but time will tell.
4. The Kings of Comedy
Speaking of Beverly Hills Cop II setting the opening record, there is an elite group of sequels to comedies that rose to the ranks of blockbuster openings. Incidentally, Beverly Hills Cop II is the only R rated film to ever hold the opening record, and it seems very likely that that will forever remain true, making this feat really stand out. In our list of the top 10 most impressive openings, only one comedy snuck in - under the guise of an animated family film – and that was Shrek II. Underlying its more obvious animated family appearance was the fact that Shrek II was really a comedy sequel to a very popular comedy with plenty of adult cred, one of the (voice) stars of which was Eddie Murphy himself, who drove the first two Beverly Hills Cop comedies to their blockbuster levels.
Comedies are often easy sells to a comedy audience, especially if they have popular comedy stars, but that audience is fairly limited compared to genres that more consistently produce blockbusters, and the comedy genre struggles to cross over well into those genres. Further, the comedy audience is more likely than with most other genres to see a comedy beyond opening weekend and in some cases only if they hear positive word-of-mouth first, and thus the comedy blockbuster opening is a rare breed - a significant ‘it’ factor must be present in order for it to exist. Since comedies rarely have what most would call blockbuster openings, the best way they achieve it is via a sequel to a comedy that achieved blockbuster or ‘it’ factor status through word-of-mouth, and such status is rare almost by definition.
The success of Shrek is owed in no small part to lead voice actor Mike Myers, who entered the franchise hot off the phenomenon of Austin Powers. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery was a very niche-appeal kind of movie, but it was loaded with catch phrases that made it a teen viral hit. The first film had good staying-power, but only grossed $54 million domestically – not bad for a satire or spy comedy, but nothing too impressive overall. Cut to two years later in 1999. The sequel, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, with a great marketing tactic (If you see only one movie this summer, see Star Wars…), out-grossed the entire run of the original on opening weekend alone. This is a very rare accomplishment indeed. In fact, its total gross in the end nearly quadrupled that of its predecessor, and the only sequel to ever exceed that level of improved success was Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The Austin Powers franchise would see a similarly remarkable finale with Austin Powers in Goldmember, becoming the best opener and overall grosser of the franchise. The two sequels would not only own the satire and spy comedy genres but both rank in the top 5 comedy openings of any kind.
Yet another Saturday Night Live alum scored a massive hit with the Sci-Fi / Horror trappings comedy Ghostbusters – Bill Murray. Ghostbusters is neck-to-neck with Shrek II as the best-attended comedy of all time in the sci-fi or fantasy genres, and in terms of sci-fi or horror comedies, no other film has ever come close. Much as Jaws II had done, Ghostbusters II drafted heavily off of the good will of the first film, which allowed it to set the opening weekend record at the time, but the much-inferior film collapsed after that. Notably, it was the last time a comedy would ever set the opening record.
A comic superstar who wasn’t hired on to the Saturday Night Live cast is Jim Carrey. It was their loss. Carrey got on the radar quickly with his zany hit Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. It had a run similar to the first Austin Powers movie – it started rather small but became a teen viral hit with fun catch phrases. The troubled sequel Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls was not met with the same level of demand as the Austin sequel but still tripled the opening of the first Ace, a nod to the popularity of the character and Carrey’s rising star. Carrey’s manic Riddler assisted Batman Forever to an opening weekend record, and he would go on to carry How the Grinch Stole Christmas to the top of the charts in 2000 – the film remains by far the best-attended Christmas film of all time. For comedy openings, his best is 2003’s Bruce Almighty, which crossed over into the realm of superpower movies. Its opening ranks as the highest original comedy opening of all time. Carrey is the king of the ‘What-if’ comedy as well, whose top two successes are Bruce and Carrey's 1997 hit Liar Liar.
Another comedy franchise that achieved enormous success out of the blue is Rush Hour. The first film raised eyebrows by easily bringing in the most money ever for a martial arts film on opening weekend. The chemistry between stars Jackie Chan and comedian Chris Tucker endeared audiences to make it the most popular martial arts film since the Karate Kid series of the 1980’s. But the jaws would really drop with Rush Hour 2. Its $67 million rush weekend debut in 2001 was the 2nd best comedy opening of any kind at the time, after Men in Black (which was aided by superstar Will Smith and big sci-fi effects). In terms of all-time opening weekend ticket sales among comedies, only Goldmember outranks it to this day.
Finally, you can’t talk about impressive comedy sequels without talking about ribald young adults. For example, The Hangover shocked with its opening of $45 million, doubling average expectations, and then having one impressive hangover after another to become the highest grossing R rated comedy of all time. The stage was set for The Hangover Part II, which opened the Thursday before Memorial Day in 2011 but still brought in a record-shattering $86 million for an R-rated comedy over the 3-day weekend – in fact only The Matrix Reloaded (also opening on a Thursday) has a higher R-rated opening at all. A distant second in ticket sales, but still quite impressive, in the R comedy opening category is American Pie 2, which more than doubled the opening of the first Pie. Another notable entry is Jackass 3-D, which shocked box office observers by setting the October opening weekend record in 2010 and earning a sizable fraction of the total grosses of the previous two entries in the series. Lastly, though not a sequel per se, we must include Scary Movie in this category. Capitalizing off the success of the Scream horror franchise and other big hits of the day (like The Matrix), it took the pure parody genre to a stratospheric high when it shockingly set the R-rated opening record in 2000, and spawned a successful franchise (not counting the numerous copy-cats with titles of the form ‘Genre Movie’). No other R-rated movie that could be called a horror-comedy or a parody has ever sold even half as many tickets.
5. Rock Star Status
The term ‘rock star’ (obviously originating from the music world) has become a metaphor for high success and popularity in any field, including music itself in general (regardless of genre). Icons of pop culture are not revered in any realm in quite the same way they are revered in the world of music. Nobody generates mania the way a rock star does. I’ve talked about genre and demographic crossover a fair amount – meaning when categories collide and overlap. But what happens when media worlds collide? What happens when genuine rock stars enter the movie realm?
Results may vary, as the warning goes. The variability of success is high, but on the positive end of that spectrum, the unexpected may occur. Going back to 1980, even though openings were still fairly small compared to totals, it nevertheless seems notable indeed that Dolly Parton’s film-acting debut in 9 to 5 drove that film to the 2nd highest gross of the year, pretty stellar considering it was second only to The Empire Strikes Back. A similar debut happened when Whitney Houston turned the somewhat run-of-the-mill premise of The Bodyguard into a smash hit, aided by a chart-owning song (originally written by Parton). International action star Jet Li’s best non-ensemble opener in the U.S., Romeo Must Die, was aided by pop star Aaliyah, and previously-discussed Austin Powers in Goldmember was aided by the first film appearance of Beyonce.
Pop stars have often been a key ingredient in unpredictably good openings, but they usually fail to carry a film on their own. A notable exception occurred in 2002 when Eminem carried 8 Mile to a $51 million opening. This was extremely impressive and unexpected – rap music had never even come close to generating that level of business. In fact, its opening alone has out-grossed every other entry's total in the genre, and by a healthy margin at that. Its opening was the second-highest R opening at the time, and it became the top R rated film of 2002. As with the successes of 9 to 5 and The Bodyguard, it was accompanied by an enormously best-selling music single.
These days, youth has taken the box office by storm, as we shall see in the next section. On Superbowl weekend in 2008, one of the biggest anomalies in box office history occurred when a newly minted pop star arrived on the big screen in Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour. Among concert films, it sold more tickets for the first weekend than any other ever has, but the real kicker is this – it did it in only 683 theaters. Besides setting the opening record for Superbowl weekend (a record it still retains), and setting the record for the fewest theaters of a #1 weekend debut, it also set the record for the highest per-theater average ever for a wide release! Despite higher ticket prices for the event than a typical film and a relatively low theater count for a wide release, that is still a remarkable fact. It had actually held this record until very recently when The Avengers finally took it down (in 4,349 theaters). In today’s dollars, its per-theater average does beat The Avengers, but is 2nd to Return of the Jedi. Some very impressive company to keep.
Pop stars have impressive entries in the documentary genre as well, by cheating a bit and crossing over into the concert realm. Besides our #8 most impressive opening Fahrenheit 9/11, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never is easily the best opener in the genre. Tupac: Resurrection had the genre’s opening record by far when it debuted in 2003. Likewise, Madonna: Truth or Dare, easily got the record in 1991, and held it until Tupac came along. Imagine: John Lennon had one of the earliest entries in the genre for which box office is known, and its opening ticket sales remain in the top 2% among documentaries as well, in a field over 800.
We would be remiss not to give a brief hat-tip to music and dance films as well, while we’re on a similar subject. These films often impress box office followers as well with their numbers, since there are relatively few released per year. Though not entirely unexpected, High School Musical 3 nonetheless set an impressive opening record for the musical genre – succeeding two movies that appeared on television only. The opening ticket sale record in the genre had been held for no less than 25 years by The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, once again starring Dolly Parton, and the impressiveness of that is boosted by the relatively smaller openings of decades past. Speaking of which, we absolutely have to mention Grease, whose 1978 opening not only still ranks in the top 10% of musicals in ticket sales, but whose total gross has still never been beaten in unadjusted dollars. The 1965 classic The Sound of Music is actually the third theatrically best-selling film - of any kind, of all time.
In the realm of dance, the John Travolta career-starting film Saturday Night Fever sold more tickets than any other dance film in history, and the sequel Staying Alive held the opening weekend ticket sale record for the genre for 18 years, until Save the Last Dance in 2001 – and that record has yet to be broken. It demonstrates how some phenomena can be very era-specific and defining, and not have a lot of strong competition either. The five best-attended in total from the genre are from 1977-1987, and only 2 of the top 10 are from after that period. It may be worth noting here that 1995 entry Showgirls remains the top grossing NC-17 rated film by a large margin, despite 17 years of inflation. Showing how dominant it is in the embarrassing MPAA rating’s roster, it has grossed more than a quarter of all the NC-17 rated films ever released, combined.
6. Eternal Youth
I discussed the rise of young adult readership at some length in my top 10 most impressive openings article, in the entries for the #9 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and #1 The Hunger Games. In both instances, I discussed how the ‘young adult’ genre had quickly evolved from the niche tween and adolescent demographics to older audiences, notably with the rise of Potter in both book and film. I may have been more right than I knew by stating that Sorcerer represented a new era in box office. In some regard, it might be said that the growing young adult book genre represents more than another section to skim for good books – it sort of represents the actual fountain of youth itself. As people are fond of saying, 40 is the new 20, x is the new y, blah blah, etc. etc. Annoying catch phrases to some, but in a way, eternal youth is not so much a shallow fantasy as a legitimate goal of life – after all, we all want to survive, and aging is rather synonymous with approaching death. The life span of the average human being in the developed world has doubled within just one century – a most impressive fact. So in a way, 40 really kind of is the new 20, at least in terms of the relative life expectancy of a century ago. People are catching up to this reality and are partaking in the pleasures of the young adult at increasingly older ages.
I digress a bit from box office openings; my point is mostly how rapidly the phenomenon has taken root. Movies have only just begun to catch up to this blossoming young adult era. The Harry Potter film franchise took the fairly niche genre of fantasy to fantastical heights via young adult readership, and was followed in close succession by The Lord of the Rings films. It seemed that fantasy novel adaptations were very hot all of a sudden, and filmmakers rushed to overpopulate the void as technology was now good enough now to make good-looking fantasy films, and young adult novels were hotter than ever. A couple other classics have since been dusted off with notable success - The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Alice in Wonderland (2010) converted well to blockbuster films, but for the most part the newer fantasies (a.k.a. Potter wannabes to many) found only a small fraction of that audience.
Then came Twilight. The first film impressed indeed with its opening, and though clearly not in the same league as the ultra-consistent Potter, with less than two-thirds the rush audience, it was still very notable given its complete dominance over its pronounced genres of teen, dramatic, and fantasy romance and even over its stronger but less relevant genre of vampire/horror. Not completely without precedent, Interview With the Vampire had had quite the luxurious opening of its own in 1994, especially for an R rated film in horror trappings, complete with heartthrobs Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. The source novel had been quite popular with a very broad range of readers, including young adults. That film dominates the period horror film to this day in terms of box offce. Filmmakers had jumped the gun on pure fantasy – they had been ignoring other genres with a large young adult reader fan base. A year after Twilight’s premiere, The Twilight Saga: New Moon hit theaters. Would it be like Potter and retain a consistent audience? Hardly – quite the opposite in fact. Combined with record-setting midnight premiere business, the opening doubled that of the first film, getting the third highest opening of all time. No one in their right mind guessed that level of improvement based on the run of the first film alone. Something was going on in the realm of young adult – something big.
Vampire romance simply exploded in the literature and on television in the wake of Twilight. As had happened with Potter in film, the evolution of the young adult reading section at the book store branched off into a peculiar species – the previously noted Teen Paranormal Romance section. It seems that the genre itself had become emblematic of the broader young adult movement – here we had characters who could remain not just undead but forever young. No longer were the undead horrific, evil, or monstrous characters. They could be multi-dimensional – brooding, sure, but they could also be superheroes, sexy lovers, or whatever you wanted.
No doubt many books in this genre were hoping to cash in by drafting off of Twilight’s success. But again few would really explode, and opportunities to find a successful niche were missed again and again, but Susanne Collins hit, and hit big, with her novel that would become our #1 most impressive film opening ever in March 2012, The Hunger Games, which I discussed at length in my previous article, and which like New Moon scored the third highest opening of all time, but without the help of a previous film in the series. It will be very interesting indeed to see where this young adult phenomenon goes. How many Twilight and Hunger Games copycats will there be that fail to catch fire the same way that all the Potter copycats did? What will the next epic box office franchise spawned by a young adult book series be, and how long will it take to arrive? At any rate, we can be assured that neither young adult books nor female audiences are ever likely to be ignored again by Hollywood.
7. Ladies’ Night
As we’ve just discussed, females, particularly teen females, have come into their own as a film-going demographic in recent years. It’s a two-way street – more films are being made for female demographics simultaneously as female demographics are going to more films outside of being dragged by their male dates. In May 2011, Bridesmaids was getting fairly low expectations due to tracking numbers – numbers that many translated into the low to mid-teens opening range. The impressiveness was audible when the film opened to $26 million - quite a difference percentage-wise from early guesses. The low expectations may have stemmed from the film being a ribald R-rated film targeted to women. To be fair, good comparisons to Bridesmaids were in limited supply, but that seems in retrospect to help explain why it did so well – there is an audience who wants that type of film. Not only did it open strongly, but it would go on to become the top-grossing film in the Judd Apatow brand (of R rated comedies he wrote, directed, or produced) – the other films in the category have much more prominent male contingents.
The vast majority of female-targeted movies featuring weddings have been heavier on the flowery romantic comedy than on the raunchier LOL’s. Certainly there is a sizable audience for that too, but it has been somewhat overpopulated. There are two entries here that must be brought up. Sweet Home Alabama, after a whole decade, remains the highest-opening September release, and the 2nd best-selling opener ever in the wedding category. But most notably of all, My Big Fat Greek Wedding is to many box office analysts the single most impressive box office run of all time, having been a platform release that opened quite unimpressively in limited release with a per-theater average barely over $5k, but then week after week after week retained the same level of audience - a temporal anomaly that resembled a release of 25 years in the past. It did not even maximize its per-theater average until its fifth month in release – not just unheard of in the modern era, but unimaginable. It made money for an entire year, becoming the top-grossing film that never hit #1 for the weekend (a record still held by a comfortable margin), and #5 for the year 2002, behind only juggernauts from franchises we’ve already discussed at length, three of which were sequels. Among romantic comedies, it is easily the highest grosser, with only 1990’s Pretty Woman selling more actual tickets. This film was in a category all its own. It must have really set filmmakers rethinking their approach to the female demographic.
Speaking of Pretty Woman, there have been very notably successful films with a dominant female contingent containing raunchier material as well. The R-rated Sex and the City in 2008 broke out with a very impressive $57 million weekend, well in excess of expectation, out-selling any other film debut in the rom-com genre’s history, a record held since 1999 by Runaway Bride. The 1998 R-rated There's Something About Mary appealed somewhat equally to both genders but was one of the most successful crossovers between romantic comedy and raunch comedy ever. As an R-rated rom-com it ranks only below Pretty Woman in overall ticket sales and ranked third in gross for the year. It did not explode out of the gates as filmmakers are fond of; rather, it was a major word-of-mouth hit. In fact, no R-rated comedy since has topped its ticket sales, not even runaway hits The Hangover (and its sequel) or Wedding Crashers, which featured weddings and appealed to both genders equally but had less romantic angles. American Wedding, the third film in the American Pie franchise, has not been topped by another film in the wedding genre in terms of opening tickets sales since its release nearly a decade ago. The R comedy genre in general is littered with much less successful films targeted to young men primarily – there’s just so many however that there isn’t room for many to break out.
In 1997, a largely female contingent drove Titanic to become by far the highest grossing film of all time (remaining so for the next 12 years), being the first film to surpass not only the $500 million but also the $600 million mark. It resembled in some ways the romantic epic of Gone With the Wind, which by many accounts is the best-selling theatrical film of all time when adding up ticket sales over the course of many reissues. As we’ve noted, The Sound of Music is the third best-attended film, and Titanic ranks fifth on that list. One begins to wonder why the female demographic would ever be ignored in the filmmaking process. It’s clear that the vast majority of Hollywood filmmakers that control what gets made – producers, directors, and writers - are men. It seems reasonable from that perspective that most films would therefore target men, given that people tend to make the kind of things that they themselves like. When there are fewer films for females, that leaves more room for the ones that are made to break out. From a financial viewpoint though, that leaves a significant void to be filled.
Historically, female demo film break-outs have been defined on more of a long-term (total gross) basis, but things have rapidly changed recently, especially with the rise of young adult. The Twilight franchise can almost be said to have created a new movie-going demographic – the fangirl – the counterpart to the fanboy. Fanboys have been around awhile – defined mostly as coming from the 'geek' culture of comic books, science fiction, fantasy, video games, and movies themselves, especially as movies have become more and more high tech. They have long awaited and rushed out to see films based on characters and stories from these media and genres. But girls had traditionally not done this so much, outside of the horror genre. But times have dramatically changed. With advent of the Twilight era, fangirl films have shown that they can be the most front-loaded films of all. Other romantic dramas, especially those based on popular books, have become more front-loaded than in the past as well, and have produced very impressive openings – examples include this year’s The Vow and similar film Dear John from 2010, both of which easily exceeded average expectations. Titanic was the first film in the genre to open, in today’s ticket prices, north of $40 million. After this, a flood of ‘rom-drams’ quickly hit theaters hoping to capitalize, and many actually did quite well despite all the competition, but it took heavy genre crossover to beat Titanic’s opening, which Pearl Harbor succeeded in doing in 2001 (clearly a Titanic-inspired project). Most of these genre films flamed out fairly quickly, and the genre again went cold again until the Twilight era.
As with young adult, it will be interesting to see what the future holds in film for the female demographic now that blockbusters are beginning to emerge from it more rapidly. It’s safe to assume that filmmakers like money, and this combination should hold good tidings in store for prospective female filmmakers and fans of all kinds.
8. Standing Room Only
Not all films get released nation-wide on their first day of release – in fact, the vast majority do not. Most theatrical releases in fact never obtain a wide release (usually defined as a minimum of 500 theaters). Many films that do attain a wide release are called platform releases – which means that they debut in a limited number of locations with the hopes of drawing positive reviews and exceptionally good buzz and word-of-mouth, so that they may be able to succeed in wider release. As we’ve discussed, this was the model that essentially all films once followed, including the mighty Star Wars and The Godfather, due to issues such as distribution logistics, the slower spread of information, and the unpredictability of success.
Today, films with sizable production value are pretty much guaranteed a wide release, depending on how they debut in tracking surveys (usually 4 weeks from release). However, many films with clear commercial potential open in limited engagements first anyway, for reasons ranging from mere tradition to kick-starting positive buzz in bigger cities. Whatever the reason, their opening weekends are very small by blockbuster standards simply because they open in only a handful of theaters. But some of these releases pack the few houses they play in tightly (usually at significantly higher than average ticket prices). Some of these deserve recognition in any fair discussion of impressive opening weekends, even though the openings that tend to impress us most are the ones with the biggest total numbers.
We did honor The Blair Witch Project in our top 10 list. It was the sole limited opener that made our list. Despite the film’s huge popularity, the ‘found footage’ genre went completely vacant for the next 8 years, after which a few entries began steadily trickling in. Finally, a decade after Blair, a potential true successor arrived in Paranormal Activity. The film used a clever marketing tactic, opening very limited like Blair had but going a step further and opting to show midnight screenings only. The resultant buzz led to a remarkable opening weekend in wide release, and in its 2nd weekend wide, easily toppled the opening of the sixth Saw movie, making that film the worst opener of its franchise. Saw was history, and new horror franchise was born.
The king of the limited opener is Walt Disney, a brand whose films occupy 11 of the top 12 spots on the all-time per-theater opening ticket sales list. The king of the charts, unlikely to ever be beaten, is The Lion King, which in today’s dollars would have averaged $1.5 million in each of two theaters (El Capitan in Los Angeles and Radio City Music Hall in New York) over the weekend – and it didn’t even open on a Friday. It’s hard to imagine the size of the crowds there must have been at those locations in the days before the film expanded wide. The film would eventually take a close 2nd for the year only to Forrest Gump, but more than doubling the gross of the third place film - showing how remarkable the year 1994 was with two such massive hits, and it is still the best-attended animated film of all time nearly 20 years later. The film Anastasia deserves mention for having the highest opening average outside of the powerful Disney brand.
The more theaters you open in, generally the lower your average, as business gets spread thinner per theater and theater sizes generally get smaller and have lower ticket prices, in comparison to the large, glamorous theaters that showed The Lion King. Looking at films that debuted in at least 10 theaters, the impressiveness award goes to Precious, opening in 18 theaters in 2009 to over $100 thousand per theater, making it the only film in the top 30 per theater opening ticket sellers to opening in double-digit theaters. In terms of theater counts, those movies that open in the range of 100-1000 theaters or so, in modern times, are the ones that generally do the poorest. Studios don’t have the confidence in them to build positive buzz in more limited release, nor the confidence in their potential audience size to open them wider. That makes for some genuine surprise openings. One key example (and this is the official title), is Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. It generated lots of political controversy despite rave reviews from critics, raising the buzz to must-see levels. As a mockumentary, it couldn’t be expected to be terribly successful, as no such film had ever grossed $20 million, and was given a middling release of 837 theaters to test the waters. But this was 2006, the era of Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ. Borat doubled the rosiest of opening weekend expectations, beating out all other films in its genre in just two days, and becoming one of only three films to rank #1 for the weekend while in fewer than 1000 theaters since 1992 – other two being Fahrenheit 9/11 and Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour.
9. Master of their Domain
Some films don’t have the ability to open large, or so it seems, due to the fact that they fall into genre categories that simply do not have a very large fan base. Clearly, some genres have much more ‘opening power’ than others. For example, adaptations of popular source material (from comic books, novels, etc.), sequels, and films with star-studded casts have a noted advantage over other films, at least on opening weekend, because they have a core fan base that is much more likely to be aware of and anticipating the film. We’ve already honored many films that have heavily impressed despite seemingly numerous limitations, but let’s take a look at a few more openings that we haven’t mentioned yet that were very impressive given their ostensible handicaps.
The pirate film (not to be confused with pirated film) had been nothing new in Hollywood – there were decades worth of seafaring swashbucklers ripped from or resembling pulp fiction and cheap romance novels. But aside from Captain Hook of Peter Pan fame, pirates didn’t exactly sell at the box office. In fact, the 1995 film Cutthroat Island, perhaps hoping to capitalize on the most recent and successful incarnation of Captain Hook in Spielberg’s Hook, ended up generating one of the most embarrassing financial losses in film history, and few were eager to revisit the treacherous pirate territory, understandably. Those that took the risk did not meet with much commensurate success. As discussed in the top 10 article with the risk involved in making The Passion of the Christ, it seemed it would take some crazy landlubbers to pool their resources into another pirate film with any sizable budget. After a number of years, the risk was finally taken – a high-budget pirate film was made using the brand recognition of Disney’s famous Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl was released in the summer of 2003, and the pirate genre was revitalized instantly. Helped by some filmmaking clout including star Johnny Depp, the film became the outstanding runaway hit of late summer. Despite a Wednesday opening, the film tripled the best opening weekend put up by a leading pirate up to then. Captain Jack Sparrow then steered the sequel Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest to a shocking opening weekend record in July of 2006, trouncing the record of Spider-man four years previously (ending that film's chance of a record-long record-holding), tripling the pirate opening record once more, and grossing over 40% of the already impressive total haul of its predecessor in a single weekend.
There is one genre that is particularly known for its struggle at the domestic box office – the foreign language foreign film, as discussed with The Passion of the Christ. This category is a double dose of box office poison, regardless of how undeserved it may be – films in the category only get a wide theatrical distribution about 1% of the time (and that is when they get theatrical distribution at all). One man thus deserves a respectable nod – international action superstar Jet Li. Li is the king of the charts in this regard – having the top 2 slots by both the theater count and opening weekend gross. Aided in large part no doubt by the critically acclaimed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which became by far the top-grossing foreign film with subtitles in 2001, and generated one of the all-time most impressive box office runs of any kind, the subtitled film gained lots of respect from Joe popcorn in the U.S. This no doubt helped Jet Li’s historical film Hero get a wide release in 2004, nearly tripling the domestic opening record for a foreign, subtitled film. In 2006, Li’s Fearless would claim the #2 spot on the list, both in release size and opening gross. The top four openers in the category are all Asian martial arts films, no doubt owing a good measure of success to the American film career of the legendary Bruce Lee.
Box office analysts were blind-sided in 2009 on the huge weekend of the release of The Twilight Saga: New Moon. With all the focus and excitement on the performance of that film, which was indeed phenomenal, another film slipped under the radar: The Blind Side. Notably, this was a football drama with a female star – which doesn’t exactly scream blockbuster. In fact, there’s hardly any precedent for a female star carrying a film about a male-dominated sport. Yet Sandra Bullock helped the film to the third best football opening ever, behind only two Adam Sandler comedies, and among sports drama, scored the best opening off all. In terms of ticket sales, it would go on from there to easily out-sell every other football movie and in fact every drama centered around any sport outside of the Rocky series.
Another film that seems worthy of recognition, despite its lead superstar, is I Am Legend. Prior to The Hunger Games, it had for over four years owned the best opening in the genres of post-apocalypse and the near future, let alone future dystopia. It also still holds the record among sci-fi horror and sci-fi remake films, despite tough competition. Additionally, despite opening more than a week prior to Christmas in far less lucrative mid-December, it still holds the December opening weekend record, surpassing the opening of even all-time highest grosser Avatar.
10. R is for Riches
Many films that we’ve discussed already were R rated, but there is good reason to take a second look at the category. The R rating from the MPAA – a stamp requiring (in theory) that all kids under 17 must be accompanied by a ‘parent or adult guardian’ before a ticket for a film with the rating can be sold to them. So long as theaters enforce the rating, and it seems clear that most do, an R rating is going to prevent a whole lot of ticket sales – there’s no getting around it. Compared to films with no enforced rating restrictions (G, PG, PG-13) on ticket sales, the fact is that R rated films make less money on average than their less restrictive counterparts, and the trend in recent years has been that the opening weekends of R films are making less and less relative to the less restrictive. There are many possible reasons for this, but it’s hard imagine that the number one reason is anything other than studios selecting more financially lucrative projects, which means they are decreasingly willing to take a chance on putting resources into a film with R rated content. This an interesting trend, as R films openings used to be right on par with films of other ratings – the trend seems to have taken root in the late 1990’s, which suggests that the industry had begun to struggle to compete with DVD and the burgeoning home market.
The difference between R rated grosses and less restrictive grosses can be seen most clearly at the top. In the top 20 opening weekend ticket sellers of all time, only one film makes the list – The Matrix Reloaded – and it is #20. The top 100 is less sparsely populated, but still R films account for only 7% of them, despite R films accounting for about a third of all wide release films. Quite a discrepancy. It does however make the bigger R rated successes like Reloaded really stand out. Reloaded was the hotly anticipated sequel to the 1999 hit The Matrix, which had capitalized nicely on its timing with the fast growth of dvd, becoming the fastest film to sell 3 million copies in the format. Reloaded was helped by a very ‘soft’ R rating – little to none in the way of sexuality, blood, or language, but more for stylized violence, which is isn’t as big an issue for most moviegoers. While no R rated film has yet reached a $100 million opening, both Reloaded and our #3 most impressive The Passion of the Christ would have reached the mark had they opened on a Friday, and also would have reached it with ease with today’s ticket prices. The same is probably true of The Hangover Part II, which also opened on a Thursday. The top R opener that actually opened on a Friday was 2007’s 300, which awed with its then-record March opening just north of $70 million. Expectations were much lower on average based on epic battle films like Gladiator and Troy, which had bigger names attached, at least in front of the camera. As with The Matrix however, a comic book audience, some viral marketing, and slick, ground-breaking film techniques drew a sizable crossover audience.
A genre rife with R-rated entries is horror, and thus it often gets overlooked in the realm of impressive openings. Following the success of genre-transcending Scream, which had one of the all-time best runs for a horror film, Scream 2 had a truly phenomenal opening. At the time, it easily doubled the best opening of any previous slasher film, and no film in that genre to date has scored more ticket sales on opening weekend. Speaking of horror, we would be quite remiss to not mention Hannibal, the sequel to the rare R-rated film to sweep the Oscars, Silence of the Lambs, which was also a big commercial and word-of-mouth success. Anticipation had clearly been high, as Hannibal posted an opening far and away higher than any R-rated serial killer film ever had, in fact breaking the record for the R-rated opening overall at the time. In terms of opening ticket sales, it towers over the genre, with only its sequel Red Dragon opening to even half the amount.
Another film to break the R opening record in dominant fashion was Terminator 2: Judgment Day, as it did so despite opening on a Wednesday over the early July holiday period. Its total gross, like the film itself, is the very epitome of what the science fiction film can do. It reigns supreme as the film sequel whose gross most exceeded that of its predecessor, grossing over five times that of The Terminator. James Cameron has not been a stranger to box office impressiveness during his career. Speaking of which, another film he had a hand in is Rambo: First Blood Part II, as a screenwriter. It also broke the R record and is now third on the list of most improved box office sequels, being one of only 3 sequels to more than triple the gross of the previous (in wide release).
Well I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip down box office memory lane, either remembering or newly discovering some of the most impressive box office openings of the past. Every film deserves to have its box office numbers analyzed in a fair light, judging them by movies in their own distinct genres, by expectations set before tracking numbers spread all over the internet, and by other standards as well such as release date, star power, etc. 2012 has already given us two of the most shocking and awe-inspiring box office openers of all time. It’s exciting to think of what surprises and thrills the box office may have in store for us in the future, even yet this year, and how those numbers will stack up in time against the legends of the past. Be a part of the excitement - get your tickets early, grab some prime seats, and enjoy the show.