“It Comes at Night” and “Megan Leavey” earned strong reviews and hit the top 10 at the box office – but it’s their vastly different CinemaScores that may predict their long-term success.
The recent box office battles of “The Mummy” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” have studios clenching their fists at review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes for alerting audiences to negative critical consensus. (Or, as a freelance marketing executive observed at Vanity Fair“It’s a ridiculous argument that Rotten Tomatoes is the problem. Fuck you – make a good movie!”)
However, two films from specialty distributors in last weekend’s top 10 reveal another powerful critical voice at work. A24’s “It Comes at Night” hit No. 6 with $6 million, while Bleecker Street’s “Megan Leavey” landed at No. 8 with $3.8 million. Neither take is particularly impressive, but the key to gauging the films’ longer-term future may not lie in reviews from respected critics – on whose opinions indie films traditionally live and die – but from the humble CinemaScore, the 39-year-old opening night polling service that asks audiences to rate movies on an A to F scale.
READ MORE: ‘It comes at night’: Why A24 banked on a new filmmaker’s ambitious horror vision
CinemaScore ballots are known for results that seem to rank on a very generous curve; anything below B+ is considered mixed at best. And while “It Comes at Night” and “Megan Leavey” each have solid ratings from Rotten Tomatoes — 86% and 80%, respectively — it’s the CinemaScores of D and A that can predict their long-term prospects.
CinemaScore generally doesn’t have much resonance for independent films, which target niche audiences rather than the mainstream. However, when specialty distributors find the opportunity to go further, the court of public opinion may be the one that matters most.
For both distributors, their strategy was smart: aim for a date at the heart of the summer movie calendar with just one new studio release. “The Mummy” offered no threat, and distributors knew venues would be readily available.
Trey Edward Shults’ “It Comes at Night” received critical acclaim, though it fell short of other out-of-studio horror films like “It Follows,” “The Witch,” and “Snowpiercer” (with “The Babadook,” “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” and of course Blumhouse Prods’ “Get Out.” However, it still had independent credibility and a compelling cast led by Joel Edgerton and Riley Keough.
A24 produced it in-house for less than $5 million; the marketing expenses would be more than that, given its wide circulation (2,533 theaters). The campaign focused on targeted ads and a strong social media footprint. Still, results fell short of opening expectations of $7-10 million, and a hoped-for placement of at least #5. ‘opening.
The film, set in a remote woodland tale where a family escapes widespread disaster, received strong reviews as an effective psychological thriller and intense mystery. However, audiences found a claustrophobic tale filled with impending dread and a few conventional thrills. Rotten tomato, tohmato.
So what happened? A24 has been here before: After ‘The Witch’ garnered acclaim at Toronto and Sundance, A24 released it in over 2,000 theaters for an opening weekend of just under $9 million . Reviews were excellent, but CinemaScore was a terrible C- from an audience that expected real scares and found atmospheric tension. Still, it eventually grossed $25 million, with another $15 million overseas. Not bad for a $3 million production.
By comparison, “It Comes at Night” opened in an additional 500 theaters and a D-for-dreadful CinemaScore. It fell 15% on Saturday (in comparison, “The Witch” was down 2%) and opened about a quarter less than “The Witch.” The prognosis is for a quick run that likely won’t exceed two weeks in many theaters. CinemaScore suggests audiences didn’t get what they came for, and that’s a bad word-of-mouth formula. It also shows the risks of marketing that garners initial interest but clashes with the actual experience – and here it doesn’t matter how much critics liked it. Still, “The Witch” showed it’s possible to bounce back.
Shults drew attention to “Krisha,” which A24 also posted. On the burgeoning production side, the company showed undoubted talent by taking an independent director like Barry Jenkins and supporting him with “Moonlight.” But it was an arthouse film, a festival and awards. It’s a different challenge to create hits with a large audience.
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By comparison, “Megan Leavey” had a weaker opening weekend and an unremarkable 80% on Rotten Tomatoes — but its CinemaScore is a solid A. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (“Blackfish”), “Megan Leavey” is based on a true story about a Marine and the dog with whom she forms an unbreakable bond. Released in 1,956 theaters, it is by far Bleecker Street’s widest initial release. (Before that, “Eye in the Sky” held the record with around 1,000 theaters.)
The result was a lower per-theater average than “It Comes the Night” – but this mainstream story aimed at the heartland will have a healthier run. It has the same CinemaScore as “Wonder Woman,” and an A is rare for indie productions with little star appeal.
READ MORE: ‘Megan Leavey’ review: Kate Mara heroically saves patchy military biopic that can’t stop chasing its tail
Finally, its 19% rise on Saturday was the best for any new widescreen movie in four weeks, with Sunday gross slightly above the original estimate. This suggests that an older audience is discovering the film, and while initial numbers weren’t solid, it could make up for that by keeping it running for several weeks.
Acquisition details for the film, as well as its initial budget, have not been revealed, so gauging its financial success is anyone’s guess. That said, its US military subject matter should mean its appeal will be broadly national – though it could gross $12 million or more, if it holds up as top-rated Cinemascore films often do. It comes from LD Entertainment, whose previous films include “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, “Jackie”, “The Grey” and Anthropoid”, which Bleecker Street also released.
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