In the face of what was expected to be a behemoth superhero movie in Justice League at the B.O., Lionsgate boldly dated its family pic Wonder against the Warner Bros./DC movie and surprised many this weekend with a $27M opening.

It’s reminiscent of when Warners dated its Alcon Entertainment, older female, faith-based title The Blind Side against The Twilight Saga: New Moon eight years ago and came up solid against that title, earning $34M to the vampire romance’s $142.8M.

Wonder
Lionsgate

Lionsgate knew they had the goods with Wonder. On a recent earnings call and at CinemaCon, the company claimed that Wonder was the highest-tested title in the studio’s history. We heard that line before with their releases Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day, but the distributor wasn’t joking. Armed with that intel, Lionsgate dated Wonder against event pic Justice League, feeling that there would be enough box office dollars in the marketplace. It’s a counter-progamming plan that didn’t work for STXfilms’ critically acclaimed, female-skewing The Edge of Seventeen against WB’s event pic Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them a year ago. Why Lionsgate was able to pull it off was due to the fact that Justice League leaned more male than Fantastic Beasts, so there was an ample opportunity to hook more females (also, in complete fairness, Edge of Seventeen was an R-rated pic to Wonder‘s family play — still, the point is about counter-programming an event film with a female-demo title). Tracking ranged from $9M-$14M on Wonder heading into the weekend, but then Fandango noticed last week an explosion in advance ticket sales, spurred by Lionsgate’s outreach to schools. Internally, the advance ticket-seller had a feeling the pic was headed to $20M-plus. On Friday, distribution execs didn’t know how high Wonder could go, because it was hard to determine how front-loaded the film was from those advance sales. All the while, Lionsgate knew they had a sleeper.

The Blind Side, fueled by an Oscar campaign which yielded a Best Actress win for Sandra Bullock, went on to gross an amazing 7.5 multiple, ending its domestic run at $256M. In its second Black Friday weekend, The Blind Side literally surged 18% at the box office with $40.1M. It’s still too early to determine whether Wonder does that type of a business. An awards campaign for the Stephen Chbosky-directed film is still TBD; Lionsgate was always plotting it as a mainstream release. Outside of her ensemble movies, Wonder is Julia Roberts’ best solo opening in quite some time, just under 2000’s Erin Brockovich ($28.1M) and 17% higher than Eat Pray Love‘s $23.1M seven years ago. Wonder also ranks as another win for Chbosky and Mandeville producers Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman, who already own this year’s highest-grossing title at the box office, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast ($504M). Wonder is also a feather in the cap for co-financier Participant Media, as it ranks as their biggest opening of all-time after 2011’s The Help ($26M). Wonder was made for a low $20M price by Lionsgate, Participant Media, Walden Media and TIK Films in China.

Group/White

Hoberman and Lieberman spoke with Deadline earlier this season about how they got Wonder off the ground.

“Howie Sanders, an agent at UTA, said, ‘I have a book for you guys, I think you should take a look at it’,” said Hoberman.

“He also said, ‘By the way, this is going to be a challenging one’,” added Lieberman.

Normally, it takes the duo a few weeks to get through a lit submission. But they breezed through the R.J. Palacio novel in a night. They immediately got on the phone with Palacio, told how Wonder impacted them, got the rights, and began shopping the project around town. The pic ended up at Lionsgate, where “everybody, from the top, down” read the book, per Hoberman. In regards to the studio’s support, “That’s what you want with something like this, you want passion.”

Roberts’ team heard that Mandeville had the book, and her agent Kevin Huvane phoned up the producers and said that she wanted to be involved in Wonder in some capacity. Hoberman and Lieberman wanted Roberts to play the mom, and they talked with her about the project at her house in Malibu. “It was a lunch and about Pretty Woman, it was great to reconnect,” said Hoberman, who oversaw her 1990 blockbuster breakout Pretty Woman when he was the president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Group. “She committed two years before we got it green-lit,” says the producer about Roberts’ attachment to Wonder. 

In addition to Lionsgate’s group sales outreach to schools, which began in August, the studio developed and distributed a robust resource guide for third to sixth grade teachers to integrate the movie into their classrooms as a way to teach kindness and inclusion. Over 7,800 teachers participated, including 10K student design projects submitted and 400 classrooms receiving the opportunity to see the movie first, with a livestream Q&A with stars Jacob Tremblay, Daveed Diggs, and Izabela Vidovic.

Exhibitors also partnered with local community organizations to promote the film. There were also grassroots events at close to 1K YMCAs and libraries around the nation. GapKids was a major partner and ran a robust content program during back-to-school with custom spots featuring talent Tremblay and Palacio.

An additional social media challenge resulted in over 9.5M impressions and participation with film and celebrity talent. Additional key partners all had kindness or charitable brand overlays, including P&G’s Crest, Visa, HelloFresh, Roma Boots, and Funoogles.

Additional partners included Children’s Hospital L.A. and Colorado, Pacer, Operation Smile, Facing History and Ourselves, and UCLA Craniofacial Clinic (Snapchat donated $100K to the latter org). Also, with each Wonder ticket purchased on Atom Tickets, the mobile app ticket seller is donating $1 to The Children’s Miracle Network Hospital for a maximum donation of $100K. Integrated media and custom content partnerships reached 325M+ across 20 networks, including NBCU’s NBC, Bravo, E!, and USA airing custom content featuring Diggs. A social campaign was launched on Nov. 13, World Kindness Day, in partnership with Google’s Perspective API, with a Wonder #ChooseKind Chrome extension to replace toxic comments with expressions of kindness.

Participant Media is always connected to socially conscious films, and their marketing fingerprints included a #ChooseKind social media messaging with its sister company, SoulPancake. That org produced a short video spotlighting the heroic deeds of Texas youth, Virgil Smith, who, during Hurricane Harvey, saved 17 of his neighbors by guiding them to safety on a mattress. Smith received a scholarship from Wonder producers. Also in conjunction with Lionsgate and City of Kindness (a coalition of non-profits which fund socially positive projects), Participant launched the #ChooseKind City initiative on October 10 in Philadelphia, Nashville, Birmingham, Ala., Minneapolis, Minn., Arlington, Texas, Anaheim, Calif., and Miami Beach, which held mayor-hosted screenings of the movie.

In a marketplace where many say that low-budget dramas are destined for streaming platforms like Netflix, Wonder is the exception, proving there’s continued demand for big-screen dramas, especially family ones.

“Dramas are really hard to get off the ground now, certainly in the studio system. We feel fortunate to have two this year (Stronger) that we’re both really proud of,” said Lieberman, who points to the fact that Wonder is a powerful IP as a bestselling novel.

“That saying, ‘What makes a movie theatrical or not? What compels people to go to the theater?’,” says Lieberman. “For us, we like to start from the center: What’s the reason to make the movie? If there’s a compelling emotional core of the film, then we feel, if it will move us, then it will move other people, and it’s our job to make it commercial.”

Said Hoberman, “While you have all these huge studios movies, superhero movies, and fairy tale movies, I think the creative community will always want to make dramas, and there will be someone out there who’ll want to make them. It’s just about changing the landscape as to who’ll make those movies. Where it was the studios used to, now other companies are coming forward and wanting to do it. It’s hard and harder because it’s not a five-studio shopping spree anymore. You have to get out there and work and try to expose it to as many as people as you can. But I think people want to make good stories and I think they always will.”

Check out our video interview with Hoberman and Lieberman. Discussion about Wonder begins at the 3:04 mark: