When it comes to The Greatest Showman‘s theatrical business, it’s been a real sostenuto for 20th Century Fox and producer Chernin Entertainment after starting off on a low note at the Christmas box office.
Buried in the shadows of the behemoth holiday success of Star Wars: The Last Jedi ($1.3 billion global B.O.) and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle ($943.7M) in addition to falling short of any electric awards season buzz, it seemed all was lost for the Hugh Jackman period musical about P.T. Barnum which opened to lackluster reviews and a dim $13.4M 5-day domestic debut.
However, Fox always had a sense based on the stellar female exit scores and the turnout by Broadway-philes that The Greatest Showman would ultimately be worthy of a standing ovation; a box office slow burn which in the U.S. and Canada played wide in north of 1,000 theaters for 11 weekends, 21 days longer than Last Jedi lasted at that threshold.
The latest high notes for this $84M budgeted musical? Last weekend The Greatest Showman hit $171.2M stateside, beating 2002 Oscar best picture winner Chicago ($170M) and becoming the third-highest grossing live-action musical of all-time after Beauty and the Beast ($504M) and Grease ($188.8M). Globally, it sang past the four-century mark with $407M becoming one of five big screen musicals to ever do so after Beauty and the Beast, Mamma Mia!, La La Land and Les Miserables.
For Fox, The Greatest Showman becomes their 4th highest-grossing title last year beating Kingsman: The Golden Circle ($410.9M). The movie has played and played with audiences leading singalong screenings and a soundtrack that won’t quit juiced by the Oscar-nominated anthem “This Is Me” from La La Land Oscar-winning songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Deadline sources believe that the theatrical release will feasibly turn a $50M after global home entertainment TV streams, but soundtrack and music licensing rights are poised to drive that number to $100M (falling outside the top 10 in Deadline’s Most Valuable Blockbuster Tournament).
More importantly, at a time when Disney is pondering the fate of 20th Century Fox in its planned merger, the studio has more than proven its sustained worth in the older adult cinema sector, not just with the banner success of The Greatest Showman but in its six trophy Oscar run with Fox Searchlight earlier this month with titles The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Overseas audiences, notably in the UK, Australia and Japan, continue to be tickled. In the UK, the movie bounced up to No. 1 in its 6th weekend of release after an IMAX component was added and held with small drops over the following weeks.
Given the response, discussions about how to keep the music playing are ongoing with musings of a Broadway transfer, an arena tour or a Las Vegas engagement being blue-skied.
The UK is its biggest offshore theatrical market with $55M through Tuesday, followed by Japan at $35M (which bowed February 16 and still has momentum) and Australia with $26M. (The one market that might have broken out but didn’t was China. It was a hot hub for La La Land last year but Showman just didn’t really find an audience there.)
Fox President of International Marketing Kieran Breen says, “It’s unusual to play so long from decent openings but not great. Very occasionally that happens with a Full Monty or Avatar. It says great things about the movie business that the audience dictates and is enjoying the film together. Those are the things you want to hear and see about movies.”
Fox President of International Theatrical Distribution Andrew Cripps marvels, “How many times do we run into the home entertainment date? That almost never happens.” Domestically, home ent kicks in at the end of this month and in the UK it’s April 10. Also in the UK, the soundtrack has been at No. 1 for 11 weeks, tying Adele’s 21 for the longest consecutive run at the top in 30 years (it’s likewise been No. 1 in almost every territory at some point, including on the domestic Billboard 200 and iTunes charts).
Here’s what some of the UK critics had to say about the movie: The Telegraph called it “completely and utterly bibbly bibbly quack-quack insane.” The Evening Standard said it was “a load of big top baloney.” The Guardian was kinder with “cheesy” but “charming.”
Producer Peter Chernin says critics tend to be “dismissive” of feel-good family fare. “We got smacked around a bit in reviews. A lot were like, ‘you sort of whitewashed the dark side of Barnum.’ It’s like, ‘Yeah, we did. We were trying to make a feel-good movie, not a muckraking exposé.’ They missed the point of what we were trying to do.”
Breen adds, “Even though the movie didn’t open as big as we originally hoped, in a lot of markets we have to credit the exhibitors for giving it the space and for allowing it to run on.” That allowed it to “find its audience and for the audience who decided they weren’t going to listen to the critics on this one.”
Chernin tells me, “We as an industry are under-serving the desire for audiences to feel good. We do a great job on spectacle, we’re good enough on intense dramas and comedies. But what we don’t tend to do a good enough job of is things that make people really feel great together.”
He suggests that the domestic opening was misinterpreted. “We almost started looking at it as paid sneaks. We held back a fair amount of our marketing for that weekend. The real opening was December 25. The week between Christmas and New Year’s is a huge opportunity for families who want to go to the movies together.” But, he allows, “We were nervous those days in between.”
Breen says it was a tough sell, but, “I don’t remember a movie that had such an evangelical following inside of Fox. Somehow the storytelling, the characters, the music and the Hugh of it all made it feel like we badly wanted it to succeed.”
To be sure, women drove business (in places like Japan and Korea, notably, they make the moviegoing decisions). Domestically at open, it counted a 73% female audience and an A CinemaScore. Awards-wise, with critics not warming to the pic (now at 55% Rotten), it sat out many races, and suddenly picked up three Golden Globe noms and an Oscar mention for Best Song.
But in-house passion for the pic was evident early on. At CineEurope in 2016, director Michael Gracey presented his vision through sketches and images during a half-hour walk-through that some at the time found indulgent. Fast forward a year and in June 2017, The Greatest Showman had the Barcelona crowd of European exhibs dancing in the aisles with Jackman telling them from the stage, “This is a film about taking risks and celebrating what makes each and every one of us different, special and unique.”
Having Jackman as frontman throughout the process clearly didn’t hurt. “We worked very close with him on social content,” says Breen. “He posted like crazy from everywhere he went, he was a real champion. This was a role he was born to play and he felt the responsibility of that.”
It “makes a big difference” to have a star so invested. “He attends marketing meetings from day one and comes up with ideas. He’s a creative guy who’s been in the business a long time and knows the value of touring, marketing, distribution and social.”
The combined social following of the movie’s talent that includes Hugh Jackman, Zendaya, and Zac Efron resonates with 185M followers. Fox’s marketing team worked with 18 core YouTube influencers from around the world with a combined following of 42M. Notably, they recorded their own versions of “This Is Me” at Abbey Road in London with Keala Settle and Jackman, among other activations.
Also globally, the “This Is Me” challenge involved a package containing video choreography, backing tracks, music sheets and more being sent to schools and theater groups who created their own interpretation.
Ways to keep the property going are being floated. Chernin says, “We’re doing a lot of work right now thinking about what are the next potential opportunities, talking to Hugh and Michael and Benji and Justin. It could be Broadway to Vegas to an arena tour. It’s clearly struck a chord so what’s the most fitting for the material.”
Would Jackman be involved in any future iterations? “Clearly Hugh is not going to spend the next ten years on an arena tour,” Chernin laughs. But, “one of the great things is that it is so overwhelmingly emotional for everyone who worked on it. Hugh has been so moved by the audience response.”
For now, the singalongs continue with Japan getting in on the gig from this weekend. Fox will be opportunistic in the future and may bring the singalongs back to theaters after the DVD release across various markets. “Every so often,” hints Breen, “you’ll find a Moulin Rouge on somewhere in the UK.”
He continues, “We had big religion on this even though it was a hard sell. But give us a big problem and we’ll find a solution. From the opening I was kind of gutted, so I’m just really happy to see it get its moment and the audience rally to it. In this time when the world is a tough place and people are uncertain and worried about where it’s going, this offers a very optimistic and uplifting, almost cathartic, response to some of the crap that’s going on.”