Box-Office Upset: How 'Equalizer 2' Outgunned 'Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again'

An ethnically diverse audience fueled Denzel Washington's action pic to victory over the star-studded musical sequel.

Heading into the July 20-22 weekend, Hollywood tracking services suggested that Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again would open at least $5 million to $10 million ahead of fellow sequel The Equalizer 2.

But as it turned out the star power of Denzel Washington proved more potent than the combined star power of Mamma Mia's cast, which includes none other than Cher, one of the world's most recognized celebrities. In a rare box-office upset, Sony's Equalizer 2 opened to an estimated $35.8 million, compared with $34.4 million for Universal's Mamma Mia sequel. (Final grosses will be released midday Monday.)

So what happened? A large part of Equalizer 2's victory is due to the fact that the R-rated action pic appealed to an ethnically diverse audience populated by older males.

According to Sony, Caucasians made up 38 percent of ticket buyers for Equalizer 2, followed by African Americans (31 percent), Hispanics (22 percent) and Asians/other (9 percent). The share of black ticket buyers is particularly noteworthy; many times, African Americans make up no more than 15 percent of the audience, if that much, for a Hollywood event film.

More and more, Hollywood has come under attack for a lack of diversity both in front of and behind the camera. Box-office blockbusters, including this year's Black Panther or last year's Get Out, prove what can happen when a diverse audience turns out.

"I think we’ve seen the power of the African-American audience in the past year or so in particular," Sony domestic distribution president Adrian Smith said. He added that the pairing of director Antoine Fuqua and Washington was also a powerful draw, noting that Equalizer 2 is playing to all audiences.

Paul Dergarabedian of comScore added that the films "benefited from Denzel Washington's undeniable star power and, combined with one of his signature characters, action fans who loved the first film showed up in bigger-than-expected numbers."

In the Equalizer films, Washington plays a retired government operative, Robert McCall, who is called back into duty. Audiences awarded the sequel an A CinemaScore, compared with an A- for the first film, which debuted to $34.1 million domestically in September 2014 on its way to earning $192.3 million globally.

Equalizer 2 is the first sequel of Washington's career. Males made up nearly 60 percent of the audience, with 80 percent of ticket buyers over the age of 25, according to comScore.

Conversely, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again played to a predominately female audience (83 percent). That film likewise played older, with 64 percent of ticket buyers over the age of 25. In terms of ethnicity, Caucasians made up 68 percent of the audience, followed by Hispanics (16 percent), Asians (8 percent), African Americans (4 percent) and other (4 percent).

Cher was no doubt a big curiosity factory, who, along with Lily James, are among the newcomers to the Mamma Mia! brand. Returning stars included Amanda Seyfried, Meryl Streep Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Dominic Cooper, Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan and Stellan Skarsgard.

While Mamma Mia 2 may not have won the weekend crown in North America, it opened in line with expectations and is expected to be profitable for Universal. The film received an A- CinemaScore, compared with an A for the original, which debuted to $27.7 million in summer 2008 on its way to grossing $609.8 million globally, not adjusted for inflation.

"It was truly a classic counterprogrammed weekend, with both Equalizer 2 and Mamma Mia 2 successfully finding their audiences," says Dergarabedian.

The true test for both films will be whether they can match the lifetime runs of their predecessors in a crowded late-summer frame, which includes next weekend's new entry, Mission: Impossible — Fallout.