“You’ll float too.”
The catchy tag line for the new film adaptation of Stephen King’s “It” might also apply to the egos of those behind the record-shattering box office hit (which must be about as inflated as Pennywise’s balloon). In its opening weekend, the R-rated horror film is expected to earn $117 million in North America. That’s the biggest opening ever during the month of September, and for a horror movie.
Jeff Goldstein, the distribution chief at Warner Bros., said he initially hoped for a launch around the film’s production budget — in the $30 million to $40 million range. “That would have been marvelous,” he told Variety on a call Sunday morning. “After we dropped the first trailer, we realized we had something special. It really took the zeitgeist by storm.”
The marketing certainly played a key role in establishing a memorable image (the clown and its big, red balloon), and building buzz — but there are other factors that also contributed to “It’s” box office success. For one, the month of August left audiences starved. Even King fans still had an appetite after watching “The Dark Tower” come and go. Then, for the rest of the month, few releases posed a threat to medium-sized hits “Annabelle: Creation” and “The Hitman’s Bodyguard.” The movie also centers on a well-known — yet seemingly universally terrifying — character, carries an R rating, and comes complete with King’s sign-off.
For a film that cost an estimated $35 million to produce, “It’s” domestic launch is already more than three times that. But it’s not just “It.” Horror films — which often require less special effects, and don’t lean on well-known actors — are known for reaping major returns. Earlier this year, Blumhouse made a major statement with two low-budget films, “Split” and “Get Out,” that did just that.
The first was redemption for director M. Night Shyamalan, who had struggled with big-budget flops “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth.” “Split,” even more so than 2015’s “The Visit,” played to the director’s strengths — a compelling, terrifying story (even while carrying a PG-13 rating), with twists and turns, made for very little. The movie went on to earn $138.2 million domestically off a $9 million budget. Then, “Get Out,” which was a different set-up with a similar outcome. From first-time director Jordan Peele, the R-rated horror film, with a dose of comedy, caught the zeitgeist and made $175.5 million off a $4.5 million budget. And that’s without even accounting for international appeal.
To be clear, a horror release in 2017 is far from a sure thing. The July release “Wish Upon” was a relatively low-risk $12 million movie, but only made back $14 million. And who could forget the botched viral marketing campaign for “A Cure for Wellness” that left a $40 million production with only $26.6 million in receipts? Next weekend, the highly-polarizing “Mother!” starring Jennifer Lawrence hits theaters, but its fate seems uncertain. That’s not to mention the myriad of indie horror pics that barely make a blip in the social consciousness. But the highs for horror this year have been so high, and frequent enough, that they are difficult to write off.
After a disastrous summer at the domestic box office, superhero movies came away looking like the most reliable subgenre the industry has. But even as some of the year’s highest-grossing movies, “Wonder Woman,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” all have to balance massive budgets. They all made up for the price tags handily, but horror still presents a much lower risk.
What gets people into theaters? Talk to any studio chief and you get the same answer — good storytelling. Part of what makes a film successful, particularly in 2017, is the “event” factor, like the one Christopher Nolan created with his campaign that “Dunkirk” was meant to be seen on the big screen. The horror films that have worked have tapped into that desire to be a part of something. If the genre continues to have that effect, expect to see more and more drift into theaters in the near future.