Box Office Guy: Straight Outta the Past

Patrick Reardon

Before the dog days of late August / early September kick in there are a pair of new wide releases opening this weekend, each trying to become the last big hit of the summer. Both films are period pieces, but they cover wildly different eras. Before we visit 1960’s Cold War Europe, let’s take a visit to Compton in the late 1980s.

After years of development and several false starts, the N.W.A. biopic “Straight Outta Compton” is finally hitting theaters. Universal has been having a record-breaking year at the box office and I think they have another big hit on their hands. Considering everything happening in the country right now in places like Ferguson and Baltimore (among others), this feels like the right film, at the right time, with the right director (F. Gary Gray). The film is going to strike a nerve with audiences which should propel it to a very solid opening weekend. However, the film has a few factors working against it.

-Runtime and screen count. A nearly two and a half hour runtime means it won’t have as many screenings per day that shorter movies enjoy. And even though it’s going out wide it will only be playing at 2,700+ locations, which is on the softer side for a wide release. These two factors may combine to hold the grosses down a bit.

-No recognizable stars. Aside from Paul Giamatti in the role of former N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller, the cast is filled with unknowns. However, I don’t think this matters. The N.W.A. brand is strong and the marketing has been effective thus far, so I don’t think audiences will care about the untested lead actors. Plus, when portraying such visible figures as Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, it would have been distracting to cast these roles with “stars.”

-Security concerns. Based on the reported “triple security” at the red carpet premiere here in Los Angeles on Monday night and the film’s overall subject matter, there seems to be a perception that the film could attract violence this weekend. This could keep some older, more conservative moviegoers away. But I hope these concerns end up being a moot point so people who want to see the film can enjoy it in safety.

-Musician biopics are hit and miss. There aren’t a lot of hip-hop biopics to compare “Compton” to. While “8 Mile” (a loose biopic of Eminem) was a smash ($51.2m opening, $116.8m domestic total), “Notorious” faded quickly after a strong start ($20.5m opening, $36.8m domestic total).

However, these are all pretty minor quibbles. The excitement level is high for the film and strong reviews may draw in some of the uninitiated. Look for “Straight Outta Compton” to open up in the low-mid 40s and have a great run through the rest of August due to the lack of competition.

Also opening wide this weekend is Warner Bros.’ attempt to turn the old TV show, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” into box office gold. The TV show ran on NBC for four seasons from 1964-1968, so the property is largely irrelevant to moviegoers under the age of 60. In order to modernize this Cold War spy tale, Warner Bros. cast a pair of rising young leading men (Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer) and hired a director (Guy Richie) who has had a lot of success with updating an old property (the “Sherlock Holmes” franchise).

The film looks like it could be fun. The marketing is selling the film as sort of a hip, retro James Bond action-adventure (James Bond author Ian Fleming was reportedly involved in the initial development of the TV show). But despite the slick campaign I think it will have a hard time catching on with audiences. The business of turning an old TV show into a movie is always risky. For every, “Mission: Impossible” or “Charlie’s Angels,” there are a dozen movies like “I-Spy” or “Land of the Lost.”

In addition to the thankless task of attempting to sell a 50-year-old TV show to younger moviegoers, neither of the leads has proven that they can carry a movie. Hammer’s first attempt at carrying a big blockbuster was the hugely disappointing, “The Lone Ranger,” while Cavill has yet to prove he can open a film in which he doesn’t wear a cape and big letter “S” on his chest. And outside of the “Sherlock Holmes” franchise (and its Robert Downey Jr. safety blanket) Richie hasn’t been a reliable box office draw either. Overall, this movie feels like a placeholder to sate spy movie fans in between “Mission: Impossible” and “Spectre.” Look for a modest opening in the mid-teens.

Even though there are three weeks left in our summer season at Fantasy Movie League, this is the week to make a bold move. After this weekend the remainder of the summer offerings are quite lackluster. If you’re trying to make up ground in your leagues you may need to go all in on “Straight Outta Compton.” At $FB420 (very clever of the FML pricing gurus), it’s expensive but it has a lot of upside. For those of you trying to protect a lead, “Mission: Impossible” is the safe play. The “M:I” films only drop an average of 39% in their third weekend. If “Rogue Nation” continues this trend it will end up in the $17m+ range which is decent value at $FB162.

Weekend Picks

My picks for this weekend’s top 5 in total box office (this week’s cost in FML Bux in parentheses):

1. Straight Outta Compton (FB$420)
2. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (FB$162)
3. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (FB$201)
4. Fantastic Four (FB$128)
5. The Gift (FB$75)