Box Office Guy

Patrick Reardon

John Rambo is responsible for one of my fondest movie going memories. I was eight years old and I had a friend sleeping over. "Rambo: First Blood Part II" was opening that night and we were dying to see it. We begged my mom to take us but, in a moment of good parenting, she refused. However, we were persistent and eventually broke her down. But because it took us so long to get her to cave we got to the theater late and had to sit in the front row of the theater. And this was at a time when stadium seating was still years away so the front row was the worst seat imaginable. Didn't matter. Eight-year-old me loved every second of it and would have gladly stayed in my seat for the next showing (neck damage be damned). But I'm pretty sure my mom had her fill of John Rambo by that point.

The reason I brought up this story is because "Rambo: Last Blood" the fifth (and final?) "Rambo" movie is opening this weekend. I'm essentially the target audience for this film, so why am I not more excited about it? When I saw the first trailer for the film, I wasn't blown away. If not for a brief glimpse of Rambo's distinctive knife (and the fact that the film is titled "Rambo: Last Blood") there's no real indication that this is a "Rambo" movie. If not for the title this could easily pass as a Sly Stallone direct-to-VOD revenge movie.

For comps I'm going to stick to the lone 21st century "Rambo" movie since the others were way back in the 1980s. The aptly titled reboot "Rambo" was released in January 2008. It opened up with a modest $18.2m and finished with a mediocre domestic total of $42.8m (easily the lowest in franchise history even without adjusting for inflation). It couldn't even beat out the debut of "Meet the Spartans" for first place at the box office that weekend.

Although Stallone has recently cashed in on nostalgia in the two "Creed" movies, I don't think audiences have the same soft spot for John Rambo that they do Rocky Balboa. Whereas Stallone was a supporting player in the "Creed" movies working with and upcoming writer-director (Ryan Coogler) and rising star (Michael B. Jordan), he appears to be front and center in "Last Blood" playing his greatest hits. I don't think "Last Blood" is going to be able to improve much upon the numbers of its 2008 predecessor which makes it a very risky play at FB$294.

And if it seems like I'm down on "Rambo," it's mainly from a box office prospective. I fully intend to see "Last Blood" on a big screen within the next week so I can watch a seventy-three-year-old John Rambo mow down a drug cartel and I can feel like an eight-year-old again. I'm just not sure if there are going to be a ton of people in the theater with me.

Movie star driven outer space epics with autumn release dates have been a reliable box office draw this decade. In 2013 Alfonso Cuaron guided Sandra Bullock and George Clooney to $274.1m in "Gravity" (which won seven Academy Awards). The following year Christopher Nolan sent Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway to the stars in "Interstellar" which grossed $188m domestically. The year after that director Ridley Scott and Matt Damon teamed up for "The Martian" which hauled in $228.4m. This weekend Brad Pitt will try to join this lucrative club with an outer space epic of his own.

In "Ad Astra" Pitt stars as an astronaut who is sent into space on a dangerous mission where he must figure out why his astronaut father (Tommy Lee Jones) disappeared nearly thirty years ago. And oh yeah, the fate of the universe depends on whether or not Pitt's character is successful. Quite the pressure cooker.

Pitt is coming off one of the biggest hits (not to mention one of the best roles) of his career in "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" so I think his presence keeps the floor pretty safe for "Ad Astra." However, I don't expect similar box office returns compared to the films listed above. Those films were all helmed by A-list filmmakers with much more of a mainstream sensibility, whereas "Ad Astra" is written and directed by indie filmmaker James Gray.

The high water marks for James Gray's career were both achieved by the 2000 film "We Own the Night" ($10.8m opening, $28.6m domestic total). Of the other five features Gray has directed none have crossed the $10m mark at the domestic box office. Granted plenty of indie directors had made the jump to big studio movies with great success (i.e. Colin Trevorrow with "Jurassic World") but I don't get the sense that Gray is ready to completely abandon his indie sensibilities for a typical popcorn flick. Based on early buzz "Ad Astra" is more of a thoughtful, introspective type of sci-fi film. It feels like its tone is going to fall somewhere between sci-fi like "Solaris" and a fast-moving thrill ride like "Gravity." Look for an opening in the mid-high teens for "Ad Astra." If you think it can reach the high-teens (with a shot at clearing $20m) then "Ad Astra" is a potentially viable anchor at FB$220.

And last, but certainly not least, is the big screen adaptation of the popular TV series "Downton Abbey." This is a wild card for me because this is one of my biggest pop culture blind spots of the past decade, as I have yet to watch a single episode. I realize the show was popular (I've met many fans) but it's hard for me to get a gauge on just how big of a phenomenon this was.

There is a precedent for TV shows making the jump to the big screen with their core cast in tact ("Sex and the City" $57m opening, $152.6m domestic total, "The X-Files" $30.1m opening, $83.9m domestic total) so "Downton Abbey" is definitely a viable player. But are "Downton" fans as passionate as the SATC cult or conspiracy-minded "X-Files" junkies? Hard to say. Of the people I've met who are "Downton Abbey" fans I'd say they like the show more than they LOVE it and definitely aren't as devoted of a fan base as say the "Game of Thrones" worshippers. I have no doubt fans would fork out money for a "Game of Thrones" movie but what about the PBS crowd?

In 2016 the series finale drew an estimated 9.6 million viewers. If one of every five of those viewers bought a movie ticket (average cost of $9.01) that would translate into a $17.3m weekend. If two of every five of those TV viewers shell out cash this weekend we'd be looking at roughly a $35m opening. The FML pricing gods have priced "Downton Abbey" at an incredibly high FB$504 this weekend so they're clearly expecting the latter.

My gut tells me "Downton" ends up in the mid-high $20s this weekend. Enough to win the top spot but not enough to justify the cost of FB$504. And my surefire prediction is that on Monday morning there will be a lot of lazy articles out there with the following theme: "See, Old People DO Go To The Movies (If You Give Them Something They Want To See). Who Knew?"

This is going to be one of the trickiest FML weeks in a while since there are three viable newcomers and a pair of strong holdovers ("It Chapter Two," "Hustlers"). Of the newcomers I like "Ad Astra" due to its pricing and the fact that reviews have been largely positive thus far. Unless it's DOA in Thursday previews I'm leaning towards an "Ad Astra" heavy lineup. Now watch the rabid PBS crowd push "Downton Abbey" to Marvel movie numbers…

Weekend Picks

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

  1. Downton Abbey (FB$504)
  2. Rambo: Last Blood (FB$294)
  3. It Chapter Two (FB$271)
  4. Ad Astra (FB$220)
  5. Hustlers (FB$251)

Bonus Pick of the Week: "Angel Has Fallen" (FB$35) With the top five films likely to be bunched together this weekend I think the bonus will emerge from the filler options. "Angel Has Fallen" is priced very nicely (FB$35), has yet to drop more than 49% on any weekend, dropped a scant 25% last weekend and it could be the beneficiary of getting paired up with its Lionsgate studio mate "Rambo: Last Blood" at drive in theaters.

Coming Attractions

After a difficult three wide release weekend Hollywood is taking it easy on us with the animated family flick "Abominable" as the lone new release. Or maybe studios are cowering in fear with "Joker" looming on October 4th?

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