5TH UPDATE, Sunday AM Writethru following Saturday and Friday updates. For most recent Sunday update click here: We’ve frequently written about the wane of raunchy comedies recently at the box office, often blaming streaming for encroaching on the genre’s theatrical territory and stealing away such talent as Adam Sandler.
STX Entertainment’s bawdy R-rated Melissa McCarthy-puppet comedy, The Happytime Murders, which was willed into existence over the last ten years, looked to be a game changer on paper as well as in that hysterical red band trailer. But the Brian Henson-directed title was dead and wrapped in plastic with a $10M opening, according to STX’s numbers this morning. Some rivals see it much lower at $9.6M-$9.7M after an STX-reported Saturday that was down 15% from Friday’s $3.95M for $3.3M. All in, Happytime Murders reps McCarthy’s lowest wide opening ever for one of her solo films – not counting St. Vincent, which was a platform release. Happytime Murders’ opening is even lower than McCarthy’s May PG-13 title Life of the Party ($17.9M), which we thought was rock bottom.
But rather than blame the raunchy comedy B.O. recession, or Warner Bros. one-two power August punch of Crazy Rich Asians and The Meg, which respectively made $25M and $13M this weekend, there appeared to be a missed opportunity here with The Happytime Murders by both STX and McCarthy. Out of all the comedies this year, this one looked fresh, and quite different for McCarthy. But the movie was never propped up as a summer comedy event by STX for reasons we’ll explain soon.
Personally, I thought Happytime was very funny. But with comedy being subjective, I’m sure for others the project stands as a fine line between brilliance and career shark-jumping. The development of Happytime Murders at the Jim Henson Co. was first announced in 2008, followed by Lionsgate fast-tracking the project in 2011. Cameron Diaz and Katherine Heigl once circled the project. Then Universal’s foul-mouthed teddy bear comedy Ted happened in 2012, earning $218.8M stateside, and over a half- billion worldwide. The success of Ted revived hope for Happytime, and when the project went into turnaround, STX scooped up the rights in July 2015. Jamie Foxx, at one point, was in talks to play opposite former puppet-cop-turned-P.I. Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) before McCarthy took over.
The pic, which STX says cost a reported $40M (we’ve heard $47M), was funded by financiers and foreign sales, with STX reducing their exposure. We heard repeatedly today from reliable sources that McCarthy received a very notable payday here, some say at least $10M, while others say as high $17.5M. Now, with a foreign sales-funded movie, it’s par for the course for a talent’s paycheck to rep the majority of the film’s budget. The front-end salary is also an advance against profit participation, so that the star has an incentive to promote the movie. McCarthy also provided some uncredited rewrites, too, on Happytime. Mark Wahlberg also incurred an eight-figure payday on Mile 22, which has a budget between $50M-$60M before P&A, as that was also a foreign-sales structured production. The action dud is seeing a second FSS of $6M, -56%. Since STX was selling foreign rights, they needed a star to get Happytime off the ground.
Studios will never throw good money after bad, and before we blame STX for falling short of propping this movie up as a summer event, know that McCarthy and co-star Elizabeth Banks were largely unavailable for the promotion of Happytime Murders. McCarthy has been busy finishing her New Line comedy Superintelligence, further compounded by the fact that the late night shows are on late summer hiatus. The video materials online of McCarthy and Banks are from an EPK kit, and there was no premiere, as neither star was in town.
Given the above, it comes as no surprise to hear that STX didn’t shell out that much on TV spots. We heard there was a great test screening for the film, but CinemaScore audiences shot Happytime Murders to the ground with a C-., which is lower than the C+s that McCarthy earned for The Boss and for Tammy. On PostTrak, Happytime earned two stars and an awful 58% overall positive, so STX had to know on some level that Happytime wasn’t going to keep audiences smiling. While STX prides itself on being thrifty with their P&A, they had reason to cheap out on their TV spend, since the talent wasn’t around to prop the movie. iSpot estimates that STX shelled out $5.2M for TV ads, which is lower than what they’ve spent on their previous comedies, read Bad Moms ($15.8M), Bad Moms Christmas ($11.6M), and I Feel Pretty ($5.9M), and way lower than what Warner Bros. spent on Life of the Party ($16.3M), which McCarthy actually took time out to promote. Tracking showed slightly more females than males, but men over 25 at 39% were the biggest draw, followed by women 25+ at 25%, and then men under 25 at 21%.
STX tried to spread things around digitally, like a faux PSA about puppets being addicted to syrup (7.3M views), plus they cut a very raunchy, hysterical first trailer. But overall, social media monitor RelishMix reports that Happytime‘s social media universe of 61M across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube views, etc. is “half of the typical R-rated targeted comedy, which usually has a social media universe of 123M,” plus the viral rate for the pic’s videos was at 8:1, versus the average 12:1 for an R-rated comedy. Making matters worse, McCarthy’s Twitter and Instagram mention nothing about Happytime, nor does Banks’s Twitter.
Sausage Party received a sweet launch at San Diego Comic-Con two years ago, complete with an advance screening that had attendees falling out of their seats, coupled with Seth Rogen and a wide array of talent appearing for a fan Q&A afterwards. Happytime Murders skipped such obvious stunting at SDCC, and the reason why is because we heard that the pic was still being edited, which is also why its release date was pushed by a week. Based on the exit scores, it’s clear that Happytime was never quite ready. Also, as much as August can be a launchpad for groundbreaking cinematic work like Inglourious Basterds, Crazy Rich Asians, and Hell or High Water, it also doubles as a dumping ground that some studios have no confidence in it at all.
Other marketing for Happytime Murders was hodge-podge. There was a very unique pop-up puppet bar at the InkHole off of Hollywood Blvd. But, man, those billboards and outdoor posters looked like they were made from an amateur Photoshop graphic artist. In no way did STX employ a creative approach to accentuating and selling the uniqueness of Happytime like Sony and Annapurna, which made their Sausage Party truly sing.
Over the last two weeks, Warner Bros. has approached the marketing for The Meg and Crazy Rich Asians like they were planning for D-Day, going the distance to correlate local digital pushes with local box office grosses so as to target casual moviegoers who fall outside both movies’ hardcore demos. The results of their sweat are evident in ticket sales for both movies.
Many will easily blame the 24% Rotten Tomatoes score as another Happytime hurdle. Horror can sometimes survive bad RT scores; R-rated comedies cannot.
However, STX here, with Happytime Murders sans talent availability, arguably had no reason to overspend in promoting the film; rather, just hoped to break even and cut their losses. I heard a $15M+ opening could have easily brought this movie into the black. Seventy percent of Happytime‘s estimated $47M budget was reportedly covered by foreign sales and financing, and after stateside P&A, leaves STX with an exposure in the upper $30Ms.
Criticizes one film packager about the situation, “Stars could have been available. Conflicts occur on every picture, and the stars here wanted to distance themselves from promoting Happytime Murders.”
Agents and distributors remain hopeful that raunchy laughs will rise again at the box office. Just look at how Crazy Rich Asians rebooted the romantic comedy. Comedy is generational, built on stars, and some believe that the current funk for R-rated titles is attributed to the fact that we’re between generations now. Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller, and Adam Sandler have grown up, and the younger audience has yet to dial into a new fresh batch of talent. Next year, The Hangover turns 10. If there’s a ray of sunshine left this year, it’s in Tiffany Haddish and Kevin Hart, who have Night School opening on Sept. 28
Global Road on its knees has the Lakeshore co-production A.X.L., and the film is essentially on the marquee for contractual fulfillment, bottoming out at $2.9M per the distributor’s figures and two stars on PostTrak. Deadline’s Mike Fleming and Andreas Wiseman reported that the robot dog movie has an estimated exposure of $10M for the upside down film distributor. Those CinemaScore audiences who showed up to watch it didn’t entirely hate it, with a B+, but PostTrak shows another story of 59% overall positive and two-and-half stars.
On the specialty side, Sony’s Asian-American indie thriller Searching drew $123K on Friday, on its way to $360K at nine theaters for a solid screen average of $40K. Bleecker Street has their TIFF acquisition from last year, a remake of Papillon starring Rami Malek and Charlie Hunnam. At 544 locations, the pic is on its way to $1.1M.
We posted our Sunday box office update separately, but while you’re here, this is the studio-reported weekend B.O. as of Sunday morning:
Industry estimates for the weekend of Aug. 24-26 as of Saturday AM:
2ND UPDATE, FRIDAY MIDDAY: At this point in time, industry matinees show Warner Bros. Crazy Rich Asians prevailing over STX’s The Happytime Murders, with $21M-$23M, -18% for weekend 2 on its way to $74.8M on the high end. Crazy Rich Asians is bound for a $6M Friday.
The Happytime Murders is eyeing $11M-$13M after a $950K start last night. Friday is projected at $4.5M. Truth be told, gotta give this R-rated pic a shot to leg out until tonight as the stoners and young folk head to late showtimes. Warner Bros. The Meg is looking to take third behind Happytime, however, there’s a chance it could outstrip as it’s landing in the same weekend bandwidth. By Sunday, on the high end, Meg could reach $105M+
Paramount/Skydance’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout is heading for 4th with $7.3M in weekend 5, -32%, which would put the Tom Cruise pic at $193.2M by Sunday.
Disney’s Christopher Robin is No. 5 in weekend 4 with an estimated $6M, -32%, with $77.2M by Sunday.
Global Road’s robotic dog A.X.L. is going to the dogs with a forecasted $700K today, $2.1M opening.
1ST UPDATE, FRIDAY 7:10AM: STX Entertainment’s R-rated Melissa McCarthy puppet comedy The Happytime Murders, one of summer’s last wide releases, collected $950K previews at 2,500 locations.
That’s a better result than McCarthy’s PG-13 comedy Life of the Party back in May, which posted a $700K Thursday night from 2,900 locations on its way to a $4.9M Friday and $17.9M opening weekend. The pic, directed by McCarthy’s husband Ben Falcone, off a B CinemaScore wound up with a 2.9 multiple stateside with $52.8M. Happytime Murders’ Thursday night isn’t that far from McCarthy’s R-rated The Boss from April 2016, which drew $985K at 2,533 theaters and continued on to a $8M Friday, $23.5M weekend. Too soon to tell if Happytime even smiles that wide. Unlike Sausage Party which was propelled by young males, females on tracking have the edge here with Happytime given McCarthy’s fanbase. Other McCarthy preview nights include Ghostbusters (PG-13, $3.4M), Spy (R, $1.5M), and the Sandra Bullock cop comedy The Heat (R, $1M), Happytime Murders expands to 3,256 theaters today. The Brian Henson-directed comedy cost $40M before P&A with a consortium of financiers.
Despite the entry of Happytime Murders, which is expected to earn $13M-$15M, Warner Bros.’ multi-generational hit romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians is expected to remain golden in its second weekend with $16M-$18M, -36%, for a running total by Sunday of $69.8M. On Thursday, the Jon M. Chu film grossed $3.6M, -2% from Wednesday for a nine-day total of $51.8M.
Definitely by Sunday, possibly by Saturday, Warner Bros./China Gravity’s The Meg will cross $100M, becoming Jason Statham’s sixth starring role feature to do so. Yesterday, Meg earned $1.4M, -23% from Wednesday for a current running total of $92.3M.
Following bad news at Global Road that the banks have taken over their domestic theatrical production and distribution ops, they’re opening robot dog movie A.X.L. (what does that even mean?) at 1,695 theaters with an expected disastrous result of $2M-$3M.
STX’s Mile 22 ended its first week with $19.1M, after a $1M Thursday, -6% from Wednesday. Lower down the charts, Studio 8/Sony’s Alpha grossed $715K last night, -32% from Wednesday, for a $14.5M first week.
Sony has in limited release Searching in 9 venues; an unconventional thriller that Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisition snapped up at Sundance (when it was titled Search). The studio will go wider with the title on Aug. 31. Pic marks the feature directorial debut of 27-year-old Asian American helmer Aneesh Chaganty, and stars a largely Asian cast. In Searching, John Cho plays a desperate father whose 16-year-old daughter goes missing; he breaks into her laptop to search for clues.
Crazy Rich Asians star Henry Golding and director Chu are supporting Searching and promoting a #GoldOpen for the movie and buying out a theater so that audiences can see it.
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Me and @jonmchu were at the theatre surprising audience members, but had to stop off at a @johnthecho poster for @searchingmovie. We both decided to buy out a cinema when it comes out and spread the support we have been receiving for CRA #GoldOpen… Can't wait to see it, coming soon!! 🎥❤️