The success of “Straight Outta Compton” — officially at a $60.2 million opening weekend as of Monday morning — is the kind of movie that inspires a lot of post-release dissection. The idea of a “surprise” hit is a bit of a misperception: Pre-release tracking was strong, the built-in audience was big and the movie was well-marketed and –reviewed.
Still, as with any hit, there are some inferences to be made from its success. Here are a few:
August debuts. There should have been little doubt after “Guardians of the Galaxy” opened at the beginning of August last year and dominated for weeks, climbing all the way to No. 3 on the year-end chart. “Compton” erases whatever naysaying remained. Once considered a dog-days time on the calendar, the eighth month has proved a lot more propitious lately. If “Compton” gets to $150 million domestically, as it very likely will, it would become the 12th August release ever to do so (not adjusting for inflation). More than half of those movies have come out since 2009.
Race. It’s time to shelve once and for all the saw that movies with largely black casts and/or that touch on racial themes shouldn’t perform well—and then acting surprised when they do. Arguably no other group of movies is subject to this level of scrutiny, as Lee Daniels found out as he went hat in hand to scrape together dollars for “The Butler.” But if you’re going to scrutinize, the results speak for themselves: Big-ambition movies in this vein have an extraordinarily high success rate.
There are at least several ugly misperceptions associated with this notion in the first place, of course: that black audiences don’t come out in the numbers required to make a big hit (mainly trotted out as a handy excuse for studios not to greenlight such films) and that white audiences won’t come out to see socially oriented films with black characters. Yet is there another subgenre than overperforms as consistently? In addition to “The Butler,” the past few years have brought hits such as “The Help,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Selma” and now “Compton.” The N.W.A film should disabuse an industry of its collective notions, or at least make it a lot harder to hide behind them. One can dream, anyway.
Musicality. It’s a big group, and not easy to categorize. But the fact-based music tale seems to contain a certain commercial power when it has a larger class or cultural story to tell: “Walk the Line” and its story of Johnny Cash’s working-class expropriations was the most successful music biopic coming into the weekend, and after a few weeks “Compton” will almost certainly eclipse it. Ditto for older films like “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Less successful: more music-specific and personality-driven stories such as “The Runaways,” “Get On Up” and “Love & Mercy.” Certainly there are those without that context that do well, and those with it that fail. But as a rule these dimensions certainly don’t hurt.
Overpacking. A movie’s structure is hard to quantify, and assessing the role of that structure in its commercial performance is nearly impossible. But here’s what’s interesting. The biopic has taken its lumps in recent years, and perhaps rightly so, for a soup-to-nuts boringness that would put basic-cable documentary producers to sleep. The response by creatives has been to branch out in different directions. There’s the key-moment approach followed by “Selma” and Danny Boyle’s upcoming Steve Jobs film. “Compton” shows another way: Take the more sweeping conventional biopic approach, but pack in as many personalities and threads. It may get a little unwieldy at times, but it’s never boring.