How ‘It’ made a killing at the box office, laughed away initial expectations

We have an arm-severing, face-chomping, immortal demon-clown to thank for saving the box office. New Line Cinema and Warner Bros.’ It raked in a record-breaking $123.1 million — finalized numbers after $117.2 estimates. Like a red Derry-branded balloon floating skyward from an evil death-sewer, the box office rose from its historic slump. Considering that the film’s initial box office projections were in the $50 million range, It’s runaway success becomes all the more remarkable. But just how did It conquer the box office?

For starters, It didn’t have much to compete with. Since the other film opening this weekend was the critically-panned Home Again, the biggest threat to It was The Hitman’s Bodyguard. That film has been meekly holding up the box office since it opened three weeks ago, so the arrival of It injected some much-needed fresh energy into movie-goers. Additionally, there hadn’t been an event film arguably since Dunkirk in July, and even that juggernaut of a film didn’t have as broad of an appeal as It. Slim pickings at the marquee can create the right circumstances for an opening weekend triumph, but not necessarily one that generates $100 million. For those numbers, It needed the support of its target audience, and I’m not just talking about the demon-clown enthusiasts out there.

While that demographic is hopefully small, the appeal of It casts a wide net. Fans of the original 1990 miniseries likely came out in droves to see an updated version of the story that traumatized them 27 years ago. Then, there’s fans of the original novel, and in broader terms, Constant Readers — Stephen King’s own base of devotees, also known as the poor souls that sat through The Dark Tower. Of course, It attracted horror junkies in general, some of whom likely brought large groups of friends, as the genre entails, which accordingly gave the film’s box office numbers an extra boost. It also came hot off the heels of Stranger Things, and the film’s trailers released at around the same time that Stranger Things 2’s marketing campaign began. Both properties are 80’s-set horror stories featuring Finn Wolfhard, so fans of the hit Netflix show likely contributed to the massive opening weekend.

Ignoring the wide demographic that It appeals to, the film’s marketing was exemplary. Despite some lukewarm reactions to the first photo of Pennywise, a series of stellar trailers — creepy music and terrifying shots that tantalized without spoiling anything — ensured that It maintained a significant amount of hype. Per Variety, when footage for the film was displayed at CinemaCon last March, It started 235,000 new social media conversations, just slightly trailing behind the most talked about film, Spider-Man: Homecoming, which started 251,000 conversations. Even as It’s release date came nearer, the marketing maintained its successful streak — just watch this.

And then reviews dropped. Critics were largely favorable toward It — our own Levi Hill called it “the best Stephen King adaptation outside of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.” Of course, not all critically favorable films are box office hits — look no further than It Comes at Night — but still, critic responses undeniably play a part in determining financial success. Horror films too often rely on jump scares alone, so when one like It is praised for its craft and emotional resonance, cinephiles will show up for opening night.

It’s positive critical reception points to one simple fact about the film’s box office success: It is just damn good, and audiences will pay for damn good filmmaking. The script — credited to Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman and Cary Fukunaga — deftly balances scares and character development, while Andrés Muschietti’s direction brings those scares to life. The way he directs Bill Skarsgård, who is sublime as Pennywise, makes the character hilarious at times, but always frightening. Additionally, Chung-hoon Chung proves why he is one of today’s best cinematographers — his unnerving shots amplify the terror, and he can now add It to a filmography that already includes The Handmaiden and Oldboy. Of course, the ensemble cast includes a host of incredible child actors, all with terrific careers ahead of them.

It’s financial success fits within the box office narrative of late — audiences can still parse cinematic quality, and they will pay for it. The fact remains that Michael Bay still has a Hollywood career, but Transformers: The Last Knight underperformed in the global box office — even in China, whose market made the franchise’s previous entry a billion dollar movie. Similarly, the critically panned King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was an outright flop, making $146 million on a budget of $175 million.

In contrast, original films like Get Out, Dunkirk, The Big Sick, Baby Driver and Girls Trip are all box office successes, and while they’re not pulling in cash like Wonder Woman or any of this year’s Marvel films, all of these movies show that quality filmmaking pays off in spades — Get Out made $252 million on a $4.5 million budget, Dunkirk will end up with $500 million worldwide and Girls Trip broke $100 million domestically, which is a first for a Black-led, Black-written, Black-directed and Black-produced film. It’s massive opening weekend is the latest film that speaks to an obvious message — good movies will generally make good money. Whether or not Hollywood listens is up in the air.

Featured image via Warner Bros.

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