'Dunkirk' and 'Girls Trip' wage war on box office expectations, as 'Valerian' disappoints

Los Angeles Times [link]

In a rare weekend tug-of-war between three wildly different original films, the weekend’s box office figures are a testament to big-budget risks begetting big-time payoff — at least, if you’re Christopher Nolan.

The concurrent releases of Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” Malcolm D. Lee’s “Girls Trip” and Luc Besson’s “Valerian” marked an unusual turn for Hollywood, where the major studios are often more inclined to roll out a reliably bankable slate of reboots, sequels or prequels (especially given these films’ sleepy, late-July openings).

“Dunkirk” — the gritty World War II evacuation saga that careened into theaters with a $19.7-million opening day — reeled in a lofty $50.5 million, showing at 3,720 locations with a $13,575 average, according to data from ComScore. The film’s earnings pushed Warner Bros. past the $1-billion mark at the domestic box office for its 17th consecutive year — a studio record. It’s a promising launch for the action thriller — which was budgeted around $100 million — one that could allow the film to net a projected $150 million-plus by the end of its theatrical run.

The opening numbers feel reminiscent of Nolan’s previous blockbuster, 2014’s “Interstellar,” which cost $165 million to produce and took home an initial three-day kickoff of $47.5 million before climbing to nearly $200 million. 

Gearing up for the weekend, many expected that “Dunkirk” would see a tepid debut, based on the film’s appeal among older men. But the film saw close to a 50-50 turnout. Giving the film an A- CinemaScore, men 25 and older made up nearly half of the audience. About 60% of audience members were male, and 75% of moviegoers were 25 or older. 

Jeff Goldstein, president of domestic distribution at Warner Bros., reports that he’s “elated” with the film’s box office performance. “It’s been universally well received throughout the world,” he said, adding, “Chris Nolan has an incredible fan base.”

Goldstein expects the audience demographic to broaden even further in the coming weeks, citing word of mouth as the film’s primary marketing scheme. This is evidenced by box office figures, which reflect a 23% jump in ticket sales between Friday and Saturday. The reason for that, Goldstein believes, is largely due to the “Dunkirk” theatrical experience. “Audiences have a chance to experience something they haven’t experienced before,” he said.

The film’s contemporaneous IMAX release made a notable contribution to its profits, earning about $11.7 million at 402 locations. And the team behind “Dunkirk” had planned for this. The film was shot almost entirely using the visual format’s 70mm cameras, which made IMAX screens prime real estate for 18 of the film’s top 20 locations during its opening weekend. “Dunkirk” also soared in 46 overseas markets, making it the No. 1 film internationally.

IMAX executive Greg Foster echoed Goldstein’s assessment of the film’s audience impact, calling it “a moviegoers film.”

“The combination of Christopher Nolan and IMAX is the jolt that multiplexes need,” he said. “This just proves that the full theatrical experience is where people want to spend their evenings. And nobody does it better than Chris Nolan.”

It was a boon for Warner Bros. with “Dunkirk” securing the No. 1 box office slot and “Wonder Woman” earning the distinction of this summer’s highest-grossing film. Patty Jenkins’ blowout female-fronted superhero movie has now roped in a lofty $387.4 million, which not only propels it ahead of Disney/Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2,” but slingshots the film straight to second place (after Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”) on the year’s roster of highest-earning films so far.

Universal’s raunchy comedy “Girls Trip” trailed “Dunkirk” in the domestic box office with an estimated weekend gross of $30.4 million — quite the propitious start for a film whose budget came in at just under $20 million. The impressive box office opener indicates a potential shift in attitude toward such racy comedies as the box office busts “Rough Night” and “The House.”

Although some analysts foresaw the success of “Girls Trip,” the film (which sees stars Regina Hall, Tiffany Haddish, Jada Pinkett Smith and Queen Latifah tossing out well-received one-liners at full-throttle) acts as a stark counterpoint to Hollywood’s historical underestimation of films led by black women.

“Girls Trip’s” low-budget, high-yield stratagem is reflective of a successful approach Universal has employed in the past — consider the studio’s profit upwards of a half a billion dollars from “Split” and “Get Out,” whose cumulative production budgets totaled less than $20 million.

In addition to its box office triumph, “Girls Trip” was a hit in both audience and critic arenas. The film earned Lee his second consecutive A+ CinemaScore (the first being his 2013 feel-good dramedy, “The Best Man Holiday”) and garnered a near-comparable 89% Rotten Tomatoes rating.

On the other hand, as anticipated, “Valerian” proved itself the weekend’s decidedly lukewarm debut. French director Besson’s passion project slinked in at fifth place in the weekend box office ranking with just over $17 million. With its purported $180-million budget, “Valerian” has received praise for its visually masterful cinematography.

In their second and third weeks, respectively, Fox’s “War for the Planet of the Apes” and Sony’s “Spider-man: Homecoming” ranked third and fourth.

Opening in theaters Friday will be Focus Features’ sultry action flick “Atomic Blonde,” starring Charlize Theron, as well as “The Emoji Movie,” the highly anticipated animation project from Columbia Pictures.

Emily Mae Czachor