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From ‘Fifty Shades’ to ‘Jupiter Ascending,’ It’s Feast or Famine at the Box Office

For the first month and a half of 2015, it’s been feast or famine at the multiplexes.

The hits have been huge, but the flops have been equally gigantic. Last weekend, “Fifty Shades of Grey” became the latest film to trump estimates when it debuted to nearly $100 million over the Presidents Day holiday.

That kind of expectations-shattering is becoming routine. “American Sniper” incinerated records when it bowed to almost $90 million last month, while “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water” bested projections by roughly $20 million two weeks ago when it kicked off with $55 million.

“You don’t see a lot of middle of the road performers,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “These movies are taking off quickly and becoming an essential part of the conversation. People are flocking to see them because if you don’t have an opinion on ‘Fifty Shades’ by the time works starts on Tuesday, you’re going to feel left out.”

Social-media sites are amplifying the chatter. Lately, it seems that everyone with a Twitter handle or a Facebook account wants to weigh in on whether the movie version of “Fifty Shades” did justice to E.L. James’ book or if “American Sniper” is a fitting tribute to U.S. servicemen and women.

Not every film is as fortunate. Pictures such as “Jupiter Ascending,” “Mortdecai,” “Blackhat” and “Seventh Son” didn’t create a sense of urgency around them, and the lack of buzz hobbled them at the box office even as “American Sniper” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” raced out of the gate. They also carried massive pricetags, all but guaranteeing rivers of red ink.

“Blackhat” and “Seventh Son” were both produced by Legendary Entertainment, which is facing $175 million in writedowns on the two films. “Mortdecai” ranks as one of the lowest grossing films of Johnny Depp’s career and with a $60 million budget hardly qualifies as an exercise in belt-tightening. “Jupiter Ascending” has made $92.7 million worldwide, but its $176 million budget and countless millions in promotional costs make profitability an impossible dream.

It’s hard to remember a pileup of duds on that level since 2013, when pictures such as “The Lone Ranger” and “R.I.P.D.” landed with such a thunk that the Fourth Estate began clucking about a summer of bombs. All that headline-wringing was for naught when the year ended up becoming the industry’s highest-grossing one in history.

“There were a lot of casualties,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “It was a record-breaking year, but you had to bust a few heads to do it. Some movies didn’t perform,mand there was a huge disparity among the highest-grossing films and the ones that didn’t make it.”

Dergarabedian is predicting that 2015 will end on a similar high note, becoming the first year in history to top $11 billion at the Stateside box office.

There’s a reason he’s so confident. It used to be that January and February were considered dumping grounds for troubled movies, but pictures like “American Sniper” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” are performing like summer blockbusters, not also-rans. It’s no longer the case that major productions need to debut from Memorial Day to Labor Day or between Thanksgiving and New Years. Sometimes it pays to plant a flag away from the competition.

“You don’t have to go where everyone else is,” said Eric Wold, a media and entertainment industry analyst at B. Riley and Company. “If it’s a great film, it can stand out any time.”

The wealth of quality films this winter is boosting ticket sales. The domestic box office is running more than 10% above where it was at this point in 2014. That’s surprising because many analysts predicted that this year’s crop of releases would have trouble matching the success of “The Lego Movie” and “Ride Along,” breakout hits that contributed to a robust first quarter last year.

“Films with modest budgets have resonated, and that’s contributed to a strong quarter,” said Eric Handler, a media analyst with MKM Partners. “The first quarter box office is always the most difficult to predict. It depends on smaller, less franchise-driven films.”

This year, bigger budgets didn’t translate into bigger box office. “Fifty Shades of Grey” was shot for an economical $40 million, while “American Sniper” was filmed for $58.9 million, roughly a third of what it took to bring “Jupiter Ascending” to the screen.

There’s another thing that’s worked in the movie industry’s favor. It’s impossible to draw a through line between “American Sniper,” “SpongeBob” and “Fifty Shades.” One is a military drama that appealed to audiences in the South and Midwest, another is a family film and the third is a picture that encourages female moviegoers to let their imaginations take a walk on the kinky side. It’s not just an endless array of comicbook movies pegged at teenage boys and the adolescent at heart.

“What’s got my attention is there’s a nice diversity of genres,” said Wold. “This variety of genres is attracting a variety of demographics that didn’t turn up last year. They’re genres that are for audiences that haven’t been particularly well served in the past.”

It’s also helped that “American Sniper” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” have attracted controversy. Detractors have slammed “American Sniper” for taking liberties with the truth and for valorizing sharpshooters instead of decrying the Iraq War as a military conflict waged on false intelligence. Likewise, “Fifty Shades of Grey” has been targeted for venerating bondage, which some critics say degrades women.

Instead of hurting business, the onslaught of opinion pieces and talk show debates intensified the buzz around the films.

“The controversy builds interest in the film and makes people think they should see it,” said Bruce Nash, founder of the box office statistics site the Numbers. “They’re divisive movies, and everybody wants to take a side.”

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