Box Office Analysis: How Middle America Couples Played a Surprise Role in 'Gone Girl' Victory

Gone Girl Ben Affleck - H 2013
Twentieth Century Fox

Some questioned whether David Fincher's edgy thriller would be a turnoff in more conservative markets

You can't judge a book by its cover.

Case in point: David Fincher's R-rated Gone Girl raced to a $38 million opening at the North American box office over the weekend, whereas prereleasing tracking suggested it would open in the $20 million to $25 million range.

One reason why the edgy adult thriller overperformed and delivered Fincher the biggest opening of his career is a better-than-expected showing in some parts of Middle America, including Atlanta and Dallas. While the film skewed female overall, couples turned out in force, thanks to Fox's campaign slogan, "the greatest date-night movie of the decade."

Box-office observers, along with theater owners, thought conservative markets might not be so interested in seeing the film adaptation of Gillian Flynn's popular novel about a tumultuous marriage and a man (Ben Affleck) who comes under scrutiny following the disappearance of his wife (Rosamund Pike).

Some theater owners in flyover states were particularly worried about the sex scenes.

Read more Ben Affleck Shows His "Imax Penis" in 'Gone Girl'

"All the stars aligned, and it also shows the breadth of the popularity of Gillian's book," said Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution for 20th Century Fox, which made the $61 million thriller with New Regency.

To be sure, fans of Flynn's book, selling more than 6 million copies worldwide in hardcover, played a huge role. The novel did especially well among women, who made up 60 percent of ticket buyers for the film, once again proving the might of females at the box office. Unlike this summer's girl-fueled adaptation The Fault in Our Stars, adults over the age of 25 made up the bulk of Gone Girl's audience (75 percent).

Flynn wrote the adapted screenplay for Fincher, another plus. Gone Girl's storyline can nevertheless be polarizing, evidenced by its B CinemaScore.

"If you polled someone coming out of this movie, it's not like you just saw Star Wars, where Luke Skywalker vanquished Darth Vadar and all the good guys win. This is not that movie. You come out of the movie thinking about it and feeling like you just got punched in the gut," Aronson said.

Read more Spoiler Alert! 'Gone Girl' and 11 Other Movies With Big Twists

Rentrak's box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian adds: "Maybe we need to give Middle America more credit. We don't want to sell those markets short. Ben Affleck is now a huge movie star, and people everywhere know David Fincher. If you have a movie that is well marketed and well made, you can sell those films in any market, regardless of their political or social viewpoint."

As expected, Gone Girl, co-starring Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris, played best in New York and Los Angeles. It also prospered in Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis, San Diego and Toronto, as well as drawing an ethnically diverse audience.

Gone Girl's strength beyond the two coasts out of the gate put it well ahead of Fincher's past movies, which generally don't open big but have exceptional staying power. In October 2010, The Social Network opened to $22.5 million domestically on its way to earning $95 million. And two years before that, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, benefiting from stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, debuted to $26.9 million on its way to earning $127.5 million domestically. Fincher's biggest opening prior to Gone Girl was Panic Room in 2002 ($30.1 million).

Read more New York Film Fest: THR Critics Pick Their 7 Favorite Movies

Gone Girl blew up on social media following the film's Sept. 26 world premiere at the New York Film Festival. "All the chatter, combined with a smart marketing campaign that didn't reveal the twists and turns, pushed this movie to the forefront," said Aronson, adding that Gone Girl, like other Fincher titles, will continue to build.

The movie opened to strong numbers overseas, where it debuted to $24.6 million from 39 markets, led by the U.K. with $6.9 million and Australia with $4.6 million, both record openings for Fincher. Among non-English-language markets, Russia ponied up $3 million and Germany $2.9 million.

Dergarabedian noted that audiences crave more sophisticated titles following the summer season. "Summer tentpoles," he said, "are like cinematic fast food, while adult dramas are like cinematic fine dining."