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‘The Martian’: Why Matt Damon’s Space Epic Soared at the Box Office

Three years ago, hoping to disassociate itself from Red Planet flops like “Mars Needs Moms” and “Mission to Mars,” Walt Disney Studios shortened the title of a bloated adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ outer space epic to “John Carter.”

Lopping the “of Mars” from the picture’s posters and credits couldn’t prevent a $200 million write-down. The move seems positively asinine in retrospect, particularly after Matt Damon’s “The Martian” soared to an unearthly $55 million opening this weekend. Not only did Damon’s stranded astronaut Mark Whatley help kill the so-called “Mars curse,” the fresh and funny thriller about a rescue mission to the fourth planet from the sun continues a steady stream of outer space hits.

At a time when NASA has put the brakes on moon missions, audiences looking for space travel have turned to the big screen in force. Their interest in space exploration helped make “Interstellar” and “Gravity” massive hits and changed Hollywood’s approach to science-fiction in the process. Like “The Martian,” these films revel in the practical details of inter-planetary journeys. They’re set, in some cases, in the future, but one that is recognizable to our own time — an age when knowledge of botany is a more potent tool for outer space survival than laser guns or teleportation devices.

“The realism resonates,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with Rentrak. “These movies are not fantastical. They don’t seem so outside the realm of possibility.”

It helped that life on Mars was very much in the news this week, after reports broke that water may have been discovered on the planet. Suddenly, a story about an astronaut using science to fashion himself into a space age Robinson Crusoe didn’t sound so far-fetched.

Exit surveys demonstrate that the outer space genre was one of the major reasons people went out and bought tickets to “The Martian.” When they saw it, they loved it. Word-of-mouth was electric, and the film easily eclipsed projections that had it debuting to $45 million. Seventy percent of people who saw the film said they would definitely recommend it, according to Rentrak’s post-track survey. Typical responses to that survey question run in the 40% range.

That response was mirrored on social media. More than half of the people who intended to write about the film on Facebook said their reactions would be positive, while roughly three fourths of people who planned to tweet about the film said their response on Twitter would be favorable, according to Rentrak. The good buzz could build. Although the film skewed older, it played better to audiences under 25, who gave it an A plus rating.

“There’s been lot of talk about social media and the impact it has on movies,” said Chris Aronson, Fox’s domestic distribution chief. “It usually refers to an impact that’s negative, but that cuts both ways. It can also be positive and when you have these types of exits and people under 25 reacting like they are, the same people who are predisposed to use social media, it means word-of-mouth is going to continue to soar.”

The recent flurry of space adventures is important in another respect — the vastness of space lends itself perfectly to cinema. Television has surpassed film in recent years in terms of offering up richly nuanced characters, intricate plotting and even bravura pieces of direction. But with the exception of “Game of Thrones,” it doesn’t do spectacle well.

That’s where film comes in. Pictures like “Gravity” or “The Martian” are transportive, making audiences feel what’s its like to float untethered in zero gravity, to land on distant worlds, and to gaze back at our own planet from an unimaginable distance. It also lends itself to 3D, and with it, higher ticket prices. In the case of “The Martian,” 3D accounted for 46% of receipts, while premium large format screens made up 11%.

“What 3D can do is bring people into these worlds,” said Anthony Marcoly, president of worldwide cinema for 3D-maker RealD. “It puts you on Mars. It brings you into space. There’s an immersion that happens.”

Thanks to “The Martian,” audiences might not have to wait long before they get their next chance to touch the stars. And studios won’t flinch before putting “Mars” in a film’s title.

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