Box Office October Scare: Why So Many Movies Bombed

The Walk Still 8 - H 2015
Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Annie (Charolette Le Bon) in TriStar Pictures' THE WALK.

A glut of adult dramas opening nationwide resulted in carnage and were all overshadowed by 'The Martian'; commercial offerings 'Pan' and 'Crimson Peak' also failed to achieve a fairy-tale ending.

With just a lucky few exceptions, the October box office has turned into a graveyard of box-office bombs, with a glut of adult dramas and awards hopefuls taking some of the biggest hits. The month ended on a downbeat note — the Halloween weekend's total domestic box office amounted to $74 million, making it the worst-grossing weekend of the year.

"The last two weeks have been a box-office bloodbath," observed Exhibitor Relations box-office analyst Jeff Bock. "I'm not sure Hollywood has ever witnessed this many misfires on back-to-back weekends. It truly is a real-life horror show." The fact that Halloween fell on a Saturday, luring lots of moviegoers away from the multiplex, meant distributors faced a potentially downbeat weekend that only the strongest films could survive.

But the carnage actually began several weeks earlier. The disasters came in all shapes and sizes and included big commercial misses from Joe Wright's Pan (delayed from its originally proposed summer opening) to Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak (a gothic romance that might have confused moviegoers expecting more of a horror film). 

The dismal showing of adult dramas was especially alarming, as one awards hopeful after another failed to find audiences after making high-profile stops on the fall film festival circuit.

Sony's The Walk has earned just $9.9 million domestically since its Oct. 9 nationwide debut, an abysmal number. More blood was spilled over Halloween weekend as three new adult titles, all trying to reach a wide audience — Our Brand is CrisisBurnt and Truth —  flopped. And Universal's Steve Jobs, another prestige play, continued to struggle badly, tumbling 64 percent to $2.6 million in its second nationwide outing for a domestic total of $14.5 million.

Box-office observers conclude Hollywood erred in crowding the schedule with too many prestige titles. Often, films catering to an older crowd will launch in select theaters and grow their footprint slowly. Last year, for example, Birdman opened in mid-October in just four theaters and added theaters very slowly as it positioned itself for the Thanksgiving holiday, when older audiences often begin to show up to sample awards-bait. But this year, a movie like Truth, the Rathergate drama starring Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford, expanded into 1,130 theaters after just two weekends in limited engagements. The Sony Pictures Classics release had opened to disappointing numbers in its exclusive outings and going wide, it was greeted with a dismal $900,914 for a total of $1.2 million.

If an adult title truly has general appeal, it can thrive in October. Last year Gone Girl ruled the month, and the year before there was room for both Gravity and Captain Phillips. This year adults opted to flock to Ridley Scott's The Martian, which has dominated the October landscape with domestic earnings of $182.8 million, and Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, which has grossed $45.2 million in its first three weekends. But The Martian's success — Fox announced in July it was moving up The Martian's release from November to Oct. 2, long after other studios had set their schedules — meant other movies fighting for older audience's attention were left scrambling for scraps.

"For The Martian to take the number one spot yet again — and this time in its fifth weekend — is a rather sad commentary on how the newcomers into the marketplace are failing week after week to gain traction with audiences," said Rentrak's Paul Dergarabedian.

"A total market saturation by films aimed at the over-30 crowd has caused inventory to swell to the point where the target audience has been fragmented to near extinction and with a dearth of anything approaching blockbuster status, the overall box office has suffered during this thankfully short-term malaise at the multiplex," he continued.

The October massacre also underscored that a star name above the title isn't enough to pull in audiences if the movie's premise doesn't also contribute to the sell. 

Other casualties included Bill Murray's Rock the Kasbah. Barry Levinson's comedy set in Afghanistan has grossed $2.4 million in its first two weekends for Open Road Films, one of the worst showings of all time for a wide release.

The latest flame-out is the $3.4 million debut of David Gordon Green's Our Brand Is Crisis, marking the worst nationwide start of Sandra Bullock's career. The political dramedy was produced by Hollywood heavyweight George Clooney, Bullock's Gravity co-star. Warners co-financed the $28 million movie with Participant Media and RatPac-Dune Entertainment.

Our Brand Is Crisis, a passion project for the actress and Clooney, stars Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton as political operatives trying to influence a presidential election in Bolivia. Bullock convinced the producers to switch things up; the film's main character is based on Clinton denizen and political operative James Carville, but was turned into a female lead when Bullock became interested. But while that decision was hailed by some as creative casting, it also meant Bullock, a name not usually associated with politically-tinged themes, was heading a movie outside her usual wheelhouse.

The movie's performance prompted a rare statement from Warner Bros. president of worldwide marketing and distribution Sue Kroll. "The weekend results for Our Brand is Crisis are upsetting. The film was truly a collaboration between the studio and the filmmakers, and Sandy's performance is terrific in this film. We cherish our relationship with her. Ultimately, neither the  concept of the story nor our campaign connected with moviegoers," Kroll said.

Burnt, John Wells' film starring Bradley Cooper as a chef trying to redeem himself, didn't fare much better, opening to $5 million. Burnt faced challenges from the beginning. It was originally called Chef, but changed its title to avoid being confused with Jon Favreau's movie of the same name, which was one of the top-grossing indie titles of 2014. Like Our Brand is Crisis, Burnt was ravaged by critics, further alienating its target audience. The Weinstein Co's own nervousness could be seen in the movie's release plan, which was changed several times. The film was originally set to open Oct. 2, but moved because of The Martian. And a plan to open it first in select theaters over the Oct. 23-25 weekend was also scrapped.

"We were hoping for more obviously, but we won't get hurt on the movie. And Bradley gives an awards-worthy performance. And it might do better overseas because of its strong international cast. We heard that in the middle of the country, people were having trouble with the accents," said TWC distribution chief Erik Lomis.

"It's pretty tough out there for adult films," he added. "There's a lot of bodies being laid by the wayside."

Underscoring that slow and steady can be the safer route at this time of year is the mother-son drama Room, with A24 sticking to a traditional platform release. Over Halloween weekend, the film grossed $269,500 from 49 locations for a theater average of $5,500, one of the best showings of the frame.