Oscar Box Office: How '1917' Marched Victoriously From the Art House Into the Multiplex

1917_8_Still - Publicity - H 2019
Universal Pictures

Sam Mendes' World War I epic debuted nationwide to $37 million on the eve of picking up 10 Academy Award nominations, including for best picture.

Sam Mendes' 1917 wasn't expected to earn more than $20 million to $25 million when expanding nationwide over the Jan. 10-12 weekend.

Instead, the unique World War I drama marched to a rousing $36.5 million after conquering the multiplex crowd following a promising run in select art house cinemas over the year-end holidays.

1917's Golden Globes win on Jan. 5 for best motion picture in the drama category and for best director no doubt provided a boost, much as Monday's 10 Oscar nominations — including for best picture and best director — could stoke further interest among mainstream moviegoers.

The original, R-rated pic wasn't an easy sell for Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment and partner Universal. The story follows British troops fighting the Germans in World World I, not the Americans. And the film's leading men, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, aren't A-list actors.

In terms of period war pics, 1917's opening ranks third behind Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk ($50.1 million) and Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds ($38 million), not adjusted for inflation. (That doesn't include superhero pics Wonder Women or Captain America.)

“This film was going to naturally drift toward older and prestige audiences, but we always believed it could be a potent commercial hit as well," says Michael Moses, president of worldwide marketing at Universal.

"We’re gratified it’s playing well beyond the coasts and is drawing audiences of all ages," he adds. "In this case, the film itself became the star. Seeing it on the big screen became the draw.”

In selling 1917, Universal and Amblin leaned heavily into the movie's unique perspective of seemingly being filmed in one continuous shot by Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins.

That push to reach beyond the core audience of older males included a trip to New York ComicCon, as well a partnership with video game influencer Ninja, who extolled the virtues of 1917 on his live-streaming show with co-gamer CouRage.

Additionally, Universal and Ideas United encouraged film students at more than 150 schools across the country to make a two-minute video filmed in one continuous shot (the winner was offered a trip to the L.A. premiere).

Over the Jan. 10-12 weekend, the majority of ticket buyers (47 percent) were between the ages of 18 and 34. Those 55 and older made up 18 percent of the audience. Males made up 60 percent of those turning out. The hope now is that the audience will broaden out.

"It has become one of the must-see movies of early 2020 that will undoubtedly ride a steady wave of interest all the way to the Oscar telecast," says Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore.

Overseas, 1917 has amassed an early foreign tally of $21.1 million, led by a U.K. debut of $9.5 million, ahead of the openings of The King's Speech and Darkest Hour, not adjusted for inflation

Mendes' film cost Amblin at least $90 million to produce before marketing. Partners on the pic include New Republic Pictures and eOne.