Pretty much every box office report posted yesterday has some variation on thenotion that War Room‘s strong performance was something of a surprise. In truth, the only surprise about the strong $11 million debut weekend of Alex Kendrick’s War Room is that anyone was shocked in the first place. The “Nobody could have seen this coming!” narrative is a prime example of how we compartmentalize box office analysis and how we refuse to let go of our old presumptions about what does or doesn’t make money. There are any number of reasons why its strong opening makes perfect sense. To presume otherwise suggest selective amnesia and an emphasis on box office rank over box office gross.
First of all, the only reason War Room ended up debuting at number two at the weekend box office, including a first place finish on Friday, is because it opened at the tail end of the summer without any other competition of note. If you dropped the same film in a more crowded weekend, perhaps one of the weekends this October with a bazillion films opening at one time, the picture would have made around the same amount of money but ended up somewhere in the middle of the top-ten charts for the weekend. We know this because Kendrick’s last film, Courageous, opened in September of 2011 on a weekend with $9 million and ended up in fourth place. It was the top opener among four wide releases, but it ended up below the second weekends of Dolphin Tale and Moneyball and the third weekend of Walt Disney's DIS -0.30% The Lion King 3D. That Courageous came in fourth place instead of second made it no less of a triumph considering its low budget and reasonable expectations.
Even if you went into the weekend having no idea what TriStar/Sony's War Room was, one look at the director and the general subject matter should have clued you in. Alex Kendrick has a strong track record of crafting explicitly religious films that play well to precisely the kinds of audiences that seek out explicitly religious films when one pops up in the local multiplex. His first film, Facing the Giants, snagged a $10.1m cume in 2006 off a $1.3m debut on 441 screens. The Kirk Cameron marital strife drama Fireproof debuted with $6.8m on 905 screens in 2008 and legged it to $33m. And his last film, Courageous (about a group of police officers beset by personal tragedy) opened with $9m on 1,214 screens and eventually grossed $34m on a $2m budget. Giving that track record, and given the fact that War Room would be explicitly pitched to the very audience that sought out films like Courageous and probably knew who the director was, it’s not beyond the pale that Kendrick’s new film would open just a tad better than the last one, especially with four years of inflation.
It’s like being surprised, again and again and again, that the same audience that flocked to Diary of a Mad Black Women would then flock to the likes of Madea’s Family Reunion and I Can Do Bad All By Myself. I think Lions Gate Entertainment stopped being surprised by around the opening night of Why Did I Get Married?, if not sooner. We as a box office pundits community spent much of the last ten years being shocked over and over again by Tyler Perry’scopious $20 million+ debut weekends long after they should have been conventional wisdom. We still, in 2015, claim to be surprised when Straight Outta Compton opens to blockbuster numbers, or when Trainwreck opens with $30m even following an avalanche of strong reviews and free publicity. How many times have we seen a movie that isn’t explicitly aimed at the young white male demographic debut to good-to-great numbers only to see the media react as if it were an aberration or a shock? Why do you think Universal/Comcast CMCSA +0.00% Corp. has done so well in 2015?
Yeah sure, the whole “surprise” narrative makes for good copy and easy headlines, but it’s harmful in the long run by continuing the myth that says that films not aimed at one specific demographic shouldn’t be expected to make money and/or shouldn’t be considered a wise investment. The idea that a film like Zac Efron’s We Are Your Friends (Warner Bros.Time Warner TWX -1.41%Inc.) is the kind of film that is supposed to make money while a film like War Room is not guarantees that more We Are Your Friends get produced regardless of the financial realities. Investors and producers will look at the “surprise” success of Straight Outta Compton and the “surprise” failure of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and still determine that the latter is a safer bet.Those pretending to be surprised for the sake of easy analysis are doing the industry a disservice. Those actually surprised need to once again take a look at their presumptions. Because once again, the notion of what kind of movies make money in Hollywood is still a stronger motivational factor than what kinds of movies actually make money in Hollywood.
source: Forbes.com –