Box Office Guy: Spider-Men, Mules and Cities on Wheels

Patrick Reardon

Unless you count the smallish release of "The Possession of Hannah Grace" there hasn't been a new wide release since Thanksgiving weekend. That changes this week as three new contenders enter the fray. Up first is the most famous web slinger in the world universe.

Over the years I've been critical of the way Sony has handled the Spider-Man franchise. Specifically the end of the Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi era (that emo "Stayin' Alive" sequence will still haunt me when I'm 80) and the "too-much, too soon" iteration with Andrew Garfield (and a horde of forgettable villains). Sony semi-corrected their course with the successful launch of "Spider-Man: Homecoming" last year (finally biting the bullet to team up with Marvel Studios to bring Spidey to the MCU was a smart idea), but it looked like they were about to repeat past mistakes with yet another version of "Spider-Man" (this one being animated). So it comes as genuine surprise that the buzz I'm hearing for "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" is shockingly good.

This animated take from Phil Lord & Chris Miller (plus a slew of others) centers around Miles Morales, who becomes the Spider-Man of his own reality. He then teams up with the Spider-Men from other realities so they can save ALL reality. Trust me, it makes some sort of sense when you watch the trailer.

Reviews have been stellar thus far (currently sporting a 99% on rotten tomatoes with a 100+ review sample size) and there is talk that it could give "The Incredibles 2" a run for its money when it comes to the Academy Award for Best Animated Film. Most tracking I've seen over the past week projects an opening in the low-mid $30s. However, I think it's going to zoom past those projections. Between the ultra-wide theater count (an estimated 3,800+, many with 3D surcharges), accessibility for younger viewers (while not alienating teens), "Ralph" and "The Grinch" finally slowing down and no real direct competition for a week, I expect "Spider-Verse" to gross north of $40m this weekend and will have a strong run through New Years. At FB$571 I think it's a safe anchor for your FML lineups.

While Spider-Man has been around since 1962 he's got nothing on Clint Eastwood. Clint has been around since 1930. Yes, at 88 years old he's still directing and starring in major motion pictures. Truly remarkable. Eastwood latest starring/directing vehicle, "The Mule," is based on a true story of a nonagenarian who became a runner for a Mexican drug cartel.

With the release of "The Mule" Warner Bros. is using their typical Eastwood strategy. For years Warner Bros. has added Clint's directing vehicles into a mid-late December slot at the last minute to make a play for awards and/or box office glory. Sometimes this strategy produces award nominations but not a lot of business ("Letters From Iwo Jima" $13.8m domestic gross, "Invictus" $37.5m domestic gross). Other times it has delivered big business but no major awards ("Gran Torino" $148.1m domestic gross). But a couple of times the strategy has worked to perfection in delivering awards nominations and huge box office ("Million Dollar Baby" $100.5m domestic gross, "American Sniper" $350.1m domestic gross).

My gut tells me "The Mule" is headed for modest business but no awards love. The fact that it has been shut out from all major awards bodies thus far and is still under a critic embargo as of Wednesday morning tells me that Warner Bros. believes the film is best suited to pull in modest business as opposed to an expensive awards campaign. And of all the previously mentioned Eastwood films, "Invictus" was the only one that didn't use a platform release. "The Mule" is opening in an estimated 2,600 theaters so it's clear that Warner Bros. wants to strike quickly before word of mouth and major Christmas competition hits.

I expect "The Mule" to open up in the mid-teens this weekend, mainly due to an effective advertising campaign and the narrative that this might be the last on-screen appearance of Clint Eastwood. He's only appeared on camera five times this century and his most recent acting hiatus was the longest of his career (six years). Although I wouldn't be shocked if Eastwood was still appearing in films when he's 106, I also wouldn't take it him granted. As for its FML propects I don't love the way it's priced. To screen it I'd need to be convinced that it could at least get to the high teens (or higher). I'm not convinced it can, especially with the shroud of secrecy that's been surrounding it.

The final wide release this weekend is "Mortal Engines" from writer-producer Peter Jackson (from the looks of this film they probably could have used Jackson's directing help). In our Fantasy Movie League award season preview a few weeks ago I predicted that this would be the biggest bomb of the season. And two weeks of relentless TV spots (each worse than the previous one) have done little to dissuade me from my forecast.

This is one of those films that's in no man's land. Too cheesy to appeal to teens/20 somethings, yet too dark to bring in younger children. Honestly, CGI cities on wheels battling each other? Who is the audience for this? The FML pricing gods are practically daring you to play it at FB$171 but I'm sticking with my gut. This film will likely end up in a pile alongside films like "Monster Trucks," "Geostorm," "Valerian…" (and countless others) that make you ask the following questions: "what were they thinking?" and "they lost HOW much money?"

Also of note this week is the release of "Once Upon a Deadpool" which is essentially of PG-13 re-release of "Deadpool 2" (which grossed $318.5m earlier this year) but with some new footage (i.e. spoofing the narrative lens of "The Princess Bride" with a kidnapped Fred Savage). I'm not sure that this PG-13 gimmick will be enough to pull in viewers who have already seen "Deadpool 2" (and seen it recently). This feels like more of an experiment by Fox to see if this sort of release is viable. It's reasonably priced at FB$76 and was released on Wednesday so you'll have two days worth of data to decide if you want to include it in your lineup.

Weekend Picks

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

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (FB$571)
The Mule (FB$235)
Dr. Seuss' The Grinch (FB$155)
Ralph Breaks the Internet (FB$127)
Mortal Engines (FB$171)

Bonus Pick of the Week: "The Favourite" (FB$52) The film expanded from 34 to 91 theaters last weekend and grossed $1.5m (a solid $16.5k per theater average). It's adding a reported 459 theaters this weekend. Between the theater count, word of mouth and awards loves (the Golden Globes and SAG awards have positioned it as a major Oscar contender) I expect "The Favourite" to be in bonus contention at FB$52.

Coming Attractions

Christmas week is typically the busiest movie-going window of the year and the studios are going to war with one another. Disney is launching "Mary Poppins Returns," Warner Bros. is sending "Aquaman" into battle, Paramount is rolling out "Bumblebee," and Universal will try their luck with "Welcome to Marwen." Hell, even STX is getting in on the action with the Jennifer Lopez rom-com "Second Act." My guess is Disney and Warner Bros. will be the happiest after this box office carnage.

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