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One of the most dramatic moments at the summer box office will unfold this weekend when Once Upon a Time in Hollywood opens in cinemas, testing the appetite for original, adult-skewing Hollywood tentpoles amid a never-ending parade of branded franchises and sequels.
From filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time teams two of the world’s biggest movie stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Sony, along with the major tracking services, are predicting a domestic opening in the $30 million range, but rivals and other box office analysts believe it will come in at $40 million or more. Since adults don’t rush out on opening weekend, the bigger question is the movie’s staying power.
On Wednesday, online ticketing service Fandango announced that Once Upon a Time is outpacing all other Tarantino films. In August 2009, Inglourious Basterds, also starring Pitt, bowed to $38 million, not adjusted for inflation. And over Christmas in 2012, Django Unchained, starring DiCaprio, posted a six-day start of $63.1 million, including $30.1 million for the Dec. 28-30 weekend.
Tarantino’s ninth film — and the first made without the aid of Harvey Weinstein — is a sizable gamble for Sony, where film studio chairman Tom Rothman is determined to deliver a slate that isn’t only peppered by sequels and superheroes, even as his Sony team and Marvel Studios prepare to celebrate Spider-Man: Far From Home crossing $1 billion globally.
The critically adored Once Upon a Time cost a reported $90 million before marketing, likely making it the filmmaker’s most expensive movie to date.
“You can’t give up on originality. That’s why this is so important,” Rothman tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It comes from the imagination of a very singular writer-director. And these characters are inhabited by the finest actors of our generation. I really want to believe that there remains room on the big screen for big original stories.”
Once Upon a Time, set in the summer of 1969, is a twinned tale of a changing Hollywood and the Manson Family. DiCaprio plays a washed-up Western star desperate to keep his career going, while Pitt plays his longtime stuntman-turned-gofer. Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate, the actress and wife of Roman Polanski who was murdered by Manson’s followers.
The film has its challenges: It is rated R, has a running length of two hours and 41 minutes and touches on a brutal chapter of the turbulent late 1960s, Charles Manson. (In terms of length, it’s shorter than Django and The Hateful Eight, and seven minutes longer than Inglourious Basterds.)
Once Upon a Time will be given the widest release of Tarantino’s career when it lands Friday in a total of 3,500-plus theaters following Thursday night previews. Sony has waged an aggressive marketing campaign, including a high-profile world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
“Freshness has an advantage. It’s by far the most emotional of his films. And because it has two dreamboats in the film, it appeals equally to men and women,” says Rothman.
Whatever the outcome this weekend, Once Upon a Time is almost sure to come in No. 2 behind Disney family powerhouse The Lion King, which debuted to a massive $192 million last weekend. Lion King could easily take in north of $90 million in its second frame.
“But I’ll tell you this, you can’t have a more different movie than our movie. And I care much more about weekends two and three than I do about weekend one. We could play all the way in September,” says Rothman. “I don’t believe that if something is original and fresh, it means it has to be on television and streaming services.”
Overseas — where DiCaprio and Pitt have enormous sway — Once Upon a Time in Hollywood doesn’t begin rolling out until next month. A China release date hasn’t yet been announced. Generally speaking, Tarantino’s films have performed best in Europe.
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