Made on a micro-budget of just $3 million, "The Purge" debuted at No. 1 with a robust $36.4 million, according to an estimate from distributor Universal Pictures. The more high-profile $58-million comedy started with $18.1 million — only good enough for fourth place behind holdovers "Fast & Furious 6" and "Now You See Me." (Both new films opened late Thursday, and ticket sales from that evening are included in the weekend gross for each.)
Heading into the weekend, pre-release audience surveys indicated "The Purge" would launch with around $25 million. But the industry underestimated interest in the film starring Ethan Hawke, which centers on a lone night of violence in a world otherwise free of crime.
The movie was driven to the top box-office spot by a young female crowd, as women made up 56% of the opening-weekend audience — 56% of whom were under the age of 25. "The Purge" also appealed to a diverse group: About 33% of its audience was Latino.
Those who saw the movie this weekend assigned it an average grade of C, according to market research firm CinemaScore, but scary films typically receive poor CinemaScores and aren't as susceptible to word-of-mouth. Last year, for instance, the horror film "Mama" went on to gross $71.6 million after earning a B- CinemaScore.
It was a good weekend at the multiplex for Hawke, who is not only having success with "The Purge" but his independent romance "Before Midnight" as well. After three weekends playing in fewer than 100 locations, the third entry in the Richard Linklater-directed series has already collected $1.5 million. "The Purge," meanwhile, is now Hawke's biggest opening ever — not adjusting for inflation — beating the $22.6-million debut of his 2001 crime drama "Training Day."
Though Hawke is a well-known actor, in the past he has been unable to open a movie like Vaughn or Wilson, formerly two of Hollywood's most reliable box-office comedy draws. This is the second weekend in a row that brand names have proven unimpressive to audiences, following the embarrassing loss of Will Smith's "After Earth" to "Now You See Me," a crime thriller featuring an ensemble cast.
“The new and different themed films seem to me to be captivating audiences. ‘Now You See Me’ wasn’t the average film,” said Nikki Rocco, Universal’s president of domestic distribution. “‘Plus, because of social media, when a film isn’t great it suffers because word-of-mouth spreads more quickly.”
Like "After Earth," the Wilson-Vaughn comedy was not embraced by critics, though moviegoers this weekend seemed to like it, assigning "The Internship" a B+ CinemaScore. The movie, about two middle-aged men who decide to intern at Google, attracted both females and males in equal measure but proved more alluring to an older crowd. About 61% of the opening weekend audience was over the age of 25.
Though "The Internship" beat tracking by about $3 million, the film was still unable to replicate the success of "Wedding Crashers." That 2005 comedy marked the first major hit for the comedic duo, grossing $285 million worldwide.
But Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution for 20th Century Fox — which released the movie — said he believes the two films were made for different audiences.
“‘Wedding Crashers’ was a raucous, R-rated comedy, and it was hugely successful, but it wasn’t for everyone,” he said. “‘The Internship’ is a different kind of movie. It’s PG-13 and rooted in contemporary themes, and I think in the weeks to come we’ll see it appealing to people both over and under 25.”
Though Aronson views the debut of “The Internship” as a success, even he acknowledged the challenge studios face in relying on star power to open a film.
“It certainly helps to have a brand name,” he said, “because there is bankability in recognizability from the consumer standpoint. But it’s just not bulletproof anymore.”
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