'Joker' Box Office Bonanza: How the Pic Overcame a "Hard" R-Rating and Security Worries

Joker Still - Publicity - H 2019
Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.

Todd Phillips' nihilistic supervillain film scored the biggest October opening of all time with $247 million in global ticket sales.

Hollywood studio executives like nothing more than to field Sunday morning box office calls and provide quotes celebrating a movie's successful opening.

Yet in the case of the Joker, Warner Bros. opted to stay quiet over the Oct. 4-6 weekend and refrain from offering comment on the record-shattering $247 million global launch of the R-rated supervillain pic, which bested last year's Venom to land the biggest October opening of all time, including $96 million in North America, not adjusted for inflation.

The studio's reticence wasn't exactly a surprise. There was heightened security at theaters across the country after the FBI warned of ominous chatter on the Internet, and family members of the victims of the 2012 mass shooting during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises sent a letter to Warner Bros. voicing their concerns about the origin pic's tone and gun violence.

Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker — which staged its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the audience award — stars Joaquin Phoenix as a mentally ill, bullied misfit-turned-homicidal maniac. Throughout the weekend, cinemas conducted bag checks and asked for IDs. Theaters also posted signs warning Joker isn't the usual Hollywood superhero offering, as well as noting the film's "hard" R-rating.

"If this proves anything, it's that audiences today should be given credit for wanting their art to be challenging, and not just watered down or easy to digest," says box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore. "It feels like the late '60s and '70s all over again with the type of Raging Bull and Easy Rider filmmaking fearlessness that made those decades so essential and groundbreaking in the annals of film."

Ultimately, the headlines didn't diminish interest in the controversial movie, which exceeded expectations and has already grossed more than three times its production budget. Village Roadshow and Bron Studios each have a 25 percent stake in Joker, which cost at least roughly $64 million to produce before marketing.

In North America, Joker played best in big cities, while underperforming in smaller cities and towns — not unusual for an R-rated title.

Eight of the top 10 theaters were in New York City and Los Angeles, and, expanding the list, 15 out of the top 20 (Joker is set in Gotham, a metropolis resembling New York the early 1980s). The four top-grossing locations were AMC Burbank, AMC Empire in Times Square, Arclight Hollywood and AMC Lincoln Square. Other strongholds included Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto and Montreal, where the fifth top-grossing theater was.

"People want to see good movies and won’t be deterred by possible threats," says media and entertainment Wall Street analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners.

In N.Y, L.A. and Chicago, Joker over-indexed by 24 percent, according to those with access to grosses. Conversely, it under-indexed in mid-sized cities such as Salt Lake City. 

Only a handful of R-rated films boast such big openings. Topping the list is Ryan Reynolds and 20th Century Fox's superhero pic Deadpool 2, which launched to $300.4 million in 2018, including $125.5 million domestically. In February 2016, the first Deadpool made history when launching to a record-breaking $264.7 million globally. The next year, Fox's Logan started off with $247.4 million in worldwide ticket sales.

"I think Joker's debut is another wake-up call — one that is coming in on Batman’s red phone — telling everyone in the industry that R-rated superhero films are here to stay," says Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations. "Hopefully Disney will take that call soon. If they don’t, DC will be happy to staff the call center with its people."

The X-Men universe of films, including Deadpool, is now housed at Disney under the stewardship of Marvel Studios.

Universal's female-skewing Fifty Shades of Grey was another R-rated phenomenon with a global start of $242.4 million in 2015. Neither Deadpool, Logan nor the Fifty Shades series, however, faced the sort of scrutiny that Joker did.

According to exit polls, nearly a third of the audience for Joker was between the ages of 18 and 34, a formidable stat.

Similar to Deadpool, just 8 percent of ticket buyers were between ages 13 and 17; that compares to 18 percent for Hollywood's last major superhero pic, Spider-Man: Far From Home, which was rated PG-13.

Males made up 62 percent of the opening weekend audience, similar to other superhero titles.

Joker's debut reinforces using early October — a corridor once considered a relative dead zone by Hollywood studios — as a launching pad for bigger fare. That thinking began to shift six years ago when Warners' Gravity turned into a box office blockbuster. Other early October hits of recent years include The Martian, Gone Girl, A Star Is Born and Venom, whose sequel will hit the big screen in October 2020.

"October has been a rising star for years as studios have come to discover its value as a somewhat uncharted month that didn't fit easily into any particular season," says Dergarabedian.

Joker raked in an estimated $93.5 million domestically — easily besting Venom ($80.3 million) — and $140.5 million from more than 70 markets overseas. It doesn't yet have a release date in China, where it likely will not be admitted entry.

Oct. 7, 7:30 a.m. Updated with revised weekend number for Joker.