James “Whitey” Bulger ruled the streets of South Boston for decades.
He charmed little old ladies by carrying their groceries, intimidated petty hoods and buried his murder victims under highway overpasses and brilliantly manipulated the local FBI into letting him operated with impunity. In the process, Bulger became one of the most infamous criminals in history. Like Al Capone and Chicago, Bulger and his Winter Hill Gang are synonymous with the “City on a Hill.”
It’s no surprise then that “Black Mass,” a new Warner Bros. drama about the notorious gangster, did massive business in Boston and its environs when it debuted last weekend. Roughly 10% of the picture’s $23.4 million opening grosses came from the city’s theaters. Typically they account for 2.7% of a picture’s domestic total. Across Boston, “Black Mass” numbers over-indexed by 280%, the studio said.
Moreover, six of the top ten best performing theaters were in Boston, Warner Bros. reports. The three highest-grossing locations were all in Beantown and its surrounding environs — Loews Boston Common 19, AMC Assembly Row 12 in Somerville and Showcase Cinema in Revere.
“To have three of the top locations all be in Boston is definitely an outlier,” said Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros. distribution executive vice president. “We did well in the South and the Midwest, but we clearly over-indexed in the Northeast.”
The film also did well in New York, where it over-indexed by 25%, and Los Angeles, where it over indexed by 12%. New York had one of the top ten locations and Los Angeles had three of them. Reviews for the film and particularly for Johnny Depp’s performance as a silver-haired, dead-eyed Bulger have been strong, but the picture’s CinemaScore of B is mediocre. That may have something to do with a regional bias. CinemaScore tends to poll in the Midwest and the South, where the gritty story of Bulger’s tight relationship with FBI agent John Connolly did not resonate as intensely.
“Black Mass” drew an audience that was 56% male and 89% over the age of 25. Depp was the major reason that more than half the audience cited for buying tickets. The older nature of the crowd has Warner Bros. hopeful that ticket sales will remain strong in the coming weeks.
“Older audiences don’t tend to come out on opening day or opening weekend,” said Goldstein. “They find a movie over time.”
For Boston residents, Bulger, the murders he committed and the people he terrorized, aren’t distant history. His 2013 trial after nearly twenty years on the lam dredged up old wounds for the community and incited a media frenzy.
His story also inspired documentaries such as Joe Berlinger’s “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger” and fictionalized accounts like Showtime’s “Brotherhood” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.” But nothing has matched the profile of “Black Mass,” a $53 million production that was shot in the city and commands a cast that includes Joel Edgerton as Connolly and Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s brother and Massachusetts State Senate President William Bulger.
“This has a very local resonance, so it’s not surprising the film would perform well in Boston,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “It’s a very contemporary story and it’s very specific to that city. Everyone who lives there knows who Whitey Bulger is.”
Of course that awareness has drawbacks. In a mixed review in the Boston Globe, Ty Burr had some geographically specific criticisms.
“Since when have the FBI’s offices been located in City Hall or the Mystic River Bridge been visible from the banks of the Neponset?” he asked.
If you get those references, chances are you know a lot about the story of Whitey Bulger already.