Box Office Guy

Patrick Reardon

Ouch. Last weekend was not kind to sequels. Although I could see the "Dark Phoenix" debacle coming from miles away ($32.8m opening, worst in "X-Men" franchise history), the limp performance of "The Secret Life of Pets 2" ($46.7m, down 55% from its predecessor) was just as jarring. Were audiences trying to collectively send a message that they're tired of sequels that nobody really asked for in the first place and demand some original ideas? If that's the case then a couple of this weeks new releases could be headed into some choppy waters.

The biggest new release this weekend is "Men in Black International," a reboot of the action/sci-fi/comedy mash-up that began way back in 1997. In order to understand the MiB future, let's take a quick look at its past.

1997 - Men in Black

One year after "Independence Day" ($306.2m domestic total, highest grossing film of 1996) Will Smith cemented his A-list movie star status with another colossal, alien-infused blockbuster. Along with co-star Tommy Lee Jones and director Barry Sonnenfeld the film grossed $250.7m domestically and was the second highest grossing film of 1997. The highest grossing film that year was a little boat picture by the name of "Titanic." With these kinds of numbers a sequel was inevitable.

2002 - Men in Black II

Smith, Jones and Sonnenfeld reunited five years later but lightning didn't strike twice. It played like a lame cover tune of the first film. While the film didn't perform poorly ($190.4m domestic gross, 8th highest grossing film of 2002), it wasn't big enough to fast track a third installment.

2012 - MIB 3

So why was the MiB franchise on ice for a decade? Three words: first dollar gross. Smith, Jones and Sonnenfeld all had deals for varying levels of first dollars gross, meaning that the trio began taking a percentage out of each ticket sold from day one. This was great for the gross participants but it made it onerous for Sony Pictures to make a profit. "MIB 3" carried a reported budget of $225m and only grossed $179m domestically, a franchise low. Sony was able to save face since it grossed an additional $445m overseas. However, per The Hollywood Reporter nearly $100m of the films $624m worldwide gross went directly to Smith. When you factor in Jones and Sonnenfeld (not to mention executive producer Steven Spielberg) Sony didn't have a lot of dough to show for their pricey investment. Rather than go down this costly, unsustainable path once again Sony decided to make the MiB franchise younger (and cheaper).

Which brings us to the release of "Men in Black International" this weekend. Smith, Jones and Sonnenfeld are out. Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson and F. Gary Gray have taken their places respectively. This release will answer the question: for the previous MiB movies, were audiences there for the underlying concept or where they there for Will Smith? Unfortunately for "International" I think this weekend's box office is going to reflect the importance of Smith to the franchise.

Although Hemsworth and Thompson had great chemistry together in "Thor: Ragnarok" (and for a few minutes in "Avengers: Endgame"), their presence doesn't guarantee success. As I've stated numerous times in this column, Hemsworth's box office track record in films where he doesn't wield a hammer or an axe is incredibly shaky. And although Thompson has put together an impressive body of work in supporting roles, she's completely untested in a big starring role.

Plus my totally non-scientific gut feeling is not favorable here. I've been to a lot of movies in the theater this past month and I've seen the trailer for "Men in Black International" many times. Frankly I'm tired of it. I've haven't seen the trailer elicit any laughs or "oohs & aahs." Instead it's eliciting a lot of collective shoulder shrugs and minor chuckles at best. My feeling is that it's a film audiences wouldn't mind seeing (i.e. on a plane or on VOD) but it's not a film they NEED to see in a theater.

I think "Men in Black International" is going to struggle to break $35m this weekend and has a potentially disastrous floor. This floor makes it difficult for me to trust it at FB$536. Unless the Thursday numbers show signs of life or the film gathers some sort of social media buzz, I'm likely going to steer clear of "Men in Black International."

Also opening wide this weekend is "Shaft", which is a continuation of the 2000 version of "Shaft", which was actually a remake of the 1971 film "Shaft." Did you follow that?

Full disclosure, I am a huge fan of the original "Shaft" (I went through a blaxploitation phase in high school). I even owned copies of the Shaft trilogy on VHS. I know what you probably have two questions: there was a Shaft "trilogy?" Damn right, don't you dare short-change "Shaft's Big Score" or "Shaft in Africa." And your other question is probably: what the hell is wrong with you? I can't answer that. It's probably for a team of medical professionals to decide.

But between Isaac Hayes' theme song and (score) and the performance of Richard Roundtree I was a fan for life so of course I was down for the remake in 2000 which I saw on opening weekend. The 2000 version of "Shaft" (directed by the recently deceased John Singleton) opened up with a respectable $21.7m on it's way to a $70.3m domestic total (adjusting for inflation those numbers jump to $36m and $117m respectively). These numbers were good, but not good enough to warrant a string of sequels (international box office was pretty weak). But it's 2019; you know it's impossible to keep a potentially viable piece of intellectual property down.

This new version of "Shaft" brings three generations of John Shafts together. Original star Roundtree, 2000 star Samuel L. Jackson and Jessie T. Usher (as John Shaft III). Whereas the previous versions of "Shaft" were gritty detective movies (with dashes of dark humor and action) this new version is leaning heavily on a comedic tone and a lot more action (based on all the marketing that I've seen). My guess is that "Shaft" ends up somewhere in the high teens-low $20s this weekend which makes it too risky of a play at FB$334. Much like "Men in Black International" this feels like a film that people wouldn't mind seeing, but I don't expect people to cancel their plans in order to watch it. I need to see some good reviews or signs of life from Thursday night previews. Otherwise I think there are better values out there. Which pains me to say since I'm one of the few people in the world to own the original "Shaft" trilogy on VHS.

This weekend also includes the expansion of the Sundance hit "Late Night" starring Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson. The comedy opened up last weekend in four theaters in New York and Los Angeles and performed impressively with a $62k per screen average. The film is expanding into an estimated 1,500+ theaters this weekend.

Even though "Late Night" sold for a hefty $13m at Sundance this past January, that doesn't foretell box office success. Just ask the people behind the sales of "Hamlet 2" (sold for $10m, grossed $4.9m), "The Birth of a Nation" (sold for $17.5m, grossed $15.9m) or "Happy Texas" (sold for $10m, grossed $2m). "Late Night" will live or die based on whether audiences actually connect with the film. Based on reviews and word of mouth thus far "Late Night" apparently delivers the goods. But I don't expect it to shoot out of the gate this weekend.

This is one of those films that audiences need to discover (hence the initial platform release) and I don't see audiences rushing out to see it en masse. And since it's priced at FB$96 it's a risky play in Fantasy Movie League. At this price threshold I would need to be convinced that it can gross $7m+ this weekend and I'm not confident it can fly that high. Although I like the films long-term prospects I think it's going to be tough for it to stand out this weekend.

Since I'm not 100% sold on any of this weeks new releases I'm forced into a group of uninspiring holdovers. Even though it burned me last week I'm leaning towards "The Secret Life of Pets 2" once again. Neither "Men in Black International" or "Shaft" will be able to siphon away family audiences from "Pets 2." Plus families only have one week left until "Toy Story 4" hits so my guess is parents will want to squeeze it in this weekend before they're forced to take their kids to see Buzz and Woody multiple times.

This weekend's crop of films reminds me of those NFL weekends where there are no sure things on the slate. But there are no stay away weekends in Fantasy Movie League, so I'm going to roll the dice with "Pets 2" and hope for the best. The show must go on…

Weekend Picks

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

  1. Men in Black International (FB$536)
  2. The Secret Life of Pets 2 (FB$352)
  3. Shaft (FB$334)
  4. Aladdin (FB$271)
  5. Dark Phoenix (FB$205)

Bonus Pick of the Week: "The Dead Don't Die" (FB$28) Indie auteur Jim Jarmusch is hardly a box office darling. He's never had a film open north of $1m and his highest grossing film only grossed $13.7m. However, "The Dead Don't Die" is the most mainstream he's ever gotten. He's tackling zombies for god's sake. What's next? A slasher film from Whit Stillman? A found-footage flick from Mike Leigh? Even though it's only opening in an estimated 550 theaters I like the way it's priced at FB$28. If the past decade has taught me anything it's that people love all things zombie, so if it can get into the $2m neighborhood this weekend it should be in bonus contention.

Coming Attractions

"Toy Story 3" was the perfect way to end a trilogy. But instead of going out on the highest of notes Disney/Pixar is going back to the franchise that started it all with the release of "Toy Story 4." We shall see if they should have left well enough alone. And in a bit of counter-programming Buzz and Woody won't be the only dolls in theaters as UA is bringing a new version of horror movie staple Chucky back to life with a reboot of "Child's Play." Elsewhere in theaters the action movie "Anna' and the dramedy "Wild Rose" will be forced to battle for doll scraps.

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