In 1983, The Right Stuff — recounting the early days of NASA's space program and America's first astronauts — was dubbed a box office miss upon topping out at $65.7 million, adjusted for inflation, to rank No. 35 for the year. Still, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best picture (it lost to Terms of Endearment).
More than three decades later, the critically acclaimed First Man, starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the commander of Apollo 11 and the first man to walk on the moon, could be facing a similar fate. The visceral historical drama got grounded in its domestic debut with $16 million, despite positive reviews and the combined pedigree of Oscar-winning La La Land director Damien Chazelle, Gosling and Claire Foy of The Crown fame.
Overseas, First Man also failed to gain much altitude, grossing $8.6 million from its first 22 markets for a global start of $25.1 million against a gross production budget of $70 million and a hefty marketing spend. The coming days and weeks will be crucial for First Man. Universal insists the film will enjoy a long box office run, buoyed by awards season.
Critics may adore First Man — it boasts an 88 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes — but audiences were less enthusiastic, giving it a B+ CinemaScore (any variation of a B grade is considered so-so in the parlance of CinemaScore). The audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is also unimpressive, or 61 percent. That compares to an audience score of nearly 90 percent for Venom, which was chewed up and spit out by official reviewers, but which has ranked No. 1 at the box office for the past two weekends.
"Our core audience, adult males, don’t necessarily run out on opening weekend," says Jim Orr, Universal's president of domestic distribution, noting that males made up 56 percent of ticket buyers, while more than half of the audience was over the age of 35. "We'll have a great run for weeks and months to come."
Orr is referring to a flurry of fall films that have opened to modest numbers and then hung on throughout awards season. He's including such comps as Ben Affleck's Oscar-winning Argo, which started off with $19.5 million in October 2012 on its way to grossing $232.2 million globally. And then there's Bridge of Spies, the 2015 film starring Tom Hanks that debuted to $15.4 million and topped out at $165.5 million worldwide.
Universal couldn't have anticipated that Venom and A Star Is Born would be such big box office hits, however. Each is stealing oxygen from First Man in its own way.
In their second weekends, Venom and A Star Is Born blew past First Man with $35.7 million and $28 million, respectively, after enjoying stellar holds. Heading into the frame, Hollywood tracking services showed First Man debuting to at least $18 million to $21 million.
Venom is a challenge for First Man in that it is captivating male moviegoers of all ages. A Star Is Born arguably has created even more of an obstacle, since both that film and First Man are competing for older eyeballs, as well as awards voters.
Of those turning out to see First Man, 76 percent of the audience was over the age of 25, almost the same as for A Star Is Born (74 percent), although Star Is Born has the advantage of appealing heavily to females (65 percent).
First Man is a big leap for Chazelle. La La Land and Whiplash opened first in select theaters before slowly expanding. Not only is First Man his first major Hollywood studio film, it is also his first movie to blast off nationwide.
"Universal, like everyone else, underestimated the box office potency of Venom and A Star Is Born. That one-two punch has been fatal to the competition," says box office analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations. "And while obtuse and distant worked for Whiplash, the coldness of First Man certainly won't lead to strong word-of-mouth. The pic could fade away quickly, as sci-fi titles do more often than not."
So far, there's no evidence that a dust-up over Chazelle's decision not to show the famous image of Armstrong planting the American flag has impacted the movie. Rather, films about space have always been a risky proposition, whether pure fiction or based on a real story, even if several have gone on to become box office successes.
In the summer and early fall of 2013, mission control at Warner Bros. was on high alert. Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity — landing squarely in the fiction category — was about to take flight at the box office, but no one was sure whether audiences would embrace the space epic starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
Over the Oct. 4-6 weekend of that year, Gravity earned $55.8 million in North America, then the top opening for the month of October. The sci-fi adventure went on to gross nearly $724 million at the worldwide box office, unadjusted for inflation. The following summer, Christopher Nolan's Interstellar grossed a better-than-expected $677.5 million worldwide. Ridley Scott's The Martian followed in October 2015, opening to $54.3 million.
In terms of space pics based on real life, Ron Howard's Apollo 13 was a box office success following its release in summer 1995. Featuring an ensemble cast led by Tom Hanks, the film debuted to $25.4 million — or $54 million when adjusted for inflation — on its way to grossing $355.2 million worldwide.
Like The Right Stuff had a decade earlier, Apollo 13 secured multiple Oscar noms, including best picture. Now comes along First Man, which hopes to follow the same flight path.
"Damien's vision and passion for filmmaking are evident in every frame of First Man," says Orr. "He is building a diverse résumé of titles that will stand the test of time in our business, and we will be talking about his work for years to come."