‘Free Guy’ Surprises With Strong $51 Million Worldwide Debut

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‘Free Guy’ Surprises With Strong  Million Worldwide Debut

20th Century’s Free Guy, starring Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer, opened at the top of the weekend box office with a surprisingly solid $28.4 million Fri-Sun frame. That’s above pre-release $15-$20 million projections, but more importantly that’s a solid 2.65x multiplier and would be pretty decent for a $100 million-$125 million live-action original even in non-Covid times. Might it have opened better in non-Covid times? Perhaps, but live-action originals haven’t exactly been a gold mine for the last decade and Ryan Reynolds has never been terribly bankable outside of the Deadpool movies. Nonetheless, that a star-driven, high-concept, big-budget (but not absurdly big-budget) Hollywood original (that’s theatrically exclusive for 45 days) opened well enough to potentially lead to profitability is an incredibly encouraging development in a weary time.

We can credit the obvious factors, namely two well-liked actors in fits-like-a-glove roles, a clever and easy-to-explain high concept, generally strong reviews, solid buzz (including an A from Cinemascore) and the promise of gee-whiz escapism. A likable duo (plus supporting turns by Joe Keery, Lil Rel Howery, Taika Waititi along with cameos from real-life online video game-centric celebrities) isn’t quite an ensemble, and Shawn Levy isn’t necessarily a marquee director (maybe he should be), but 3/5 ain’t bad. And, yes, the video game angle perhaps made it a more enticing offering, as Hollywood is filled with successful and/or well-liked video game movies (John Wick, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, Edge of Tomorrow, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Ready Player One, Crank, etc.) which aren’t based on video games.

I’ll also credit a mostly spoiler-free marketing campaign that somehow lasted a full year, had three different trailers that arguably sold three very different movies and yet managed to avoid giving away much more than the “NPC becomes sentient and becomes a folk hero” angle. If the movie legs out, and I’d be surprised if it didn’t, it’ll partially be because of the whole “trailers didn’t give away the whole movie” angle. From Gravity to The Force Awakens to Get Out to Knives Out, if you can get folks into the theater without showing all your cards you’ll create a sense of discovery and ownership among happy audience members, thus boosting the word-of-mouth and buzz. See also: Frozen.

Yes, the theatrical exclusivity helped. Films acquired in the Disney/Fox deal can’t yet go to streaming or VOD prior to or along with theaters because HBO still has the first pay-tv window. It probably was not enough to make the difference between “yay” and “nay,” but it’ll certainly both provide evidence for those arguing for at least some exclusivity window (see also: A Quiet Place part II and F9) and those arguing that the likes of Black Widow, Jungle Cruise, Suicide Squad and Space Jam: A New Legacy would have played better without the concurrent streaming or SVOD option. Again, that’s probably true (Black Widow might well have topped $200 million domestic), but it’s not yet enough of a variable to change a “nay” to a “yay.”

If I’m overly optimistic, it’s partially because A) the opening was quite good for a movie like this even in non-Covid times and B) there’s little reason not to expect solid post-debut legs. Not only is it theatrically-exclusive for 45 days, but it and Disney’s own Shang-Chi (Labor Day) are the only new four-quadrant titles in town before (fingers crossed so hard they’re bleeding) No Time to Die. Almost everything else skews young (Addams Family 2, Paw Patrol, Hotel Transylvania: Transformania, etc.), skews older (Reminiscence, Queenpins, The Many Saints of Newark, Cry Macho, etc.) or skews scary (Candyman, Malignant, The Night House, etc.). With Venom: Let There Be Carnage moved to October 15, Free Guy and (ideally) Shang-Chi can run the tables between now and early October.

In a normal world, Free Guy (which also earned $22.5 million overseas for a $50.9 million global bow) wouldn’t yet be a hit, and in our time it may not actually become one. In a non-Covid world, the idea would be a leggy run putting it over $100 million domestic and the usual 35/65 split for a $300 million-plus global cume. That Free Guy cost a lot less than the $150-$200 million likes of Space Jam: A New Legacy, Jungle Cruise and Suicide Squad means it would have been an absolute triumph even with grosses on par with Tenet ($366 million last summer). I’ve been writing a lot about how Disney has struggled with new live-action franchises since National Treasure in 2004. Grim irony that, presuming post-debut legs, they might just get one via yet another acquired asset.

In other newbie news, Sony released Don’t Breathe 2 into the wild this weekend, around five years after its over-performing ($155 million worldwide on a $9 million budget) predecessor. This time out, the murderous blind former Navy Seal (Stephen Lang) is an anti-hero, fending off truly vicious home invaders who want to abscond with the young girl in his care. It’s a skewed turn, especially if you remember the events of the first film (He had a secret in his basement), but I’d argue horror is supposed to be at least a little unpleasant. And frankly the turn mostly works until the very end which feels like an old-school Hayes Code requirement. Anyway, the film earned $10.6 million over the weekend, for a not-bad 2.43x multiplier.

Yes, that’s way below the $26.5 million launch of Screen Gems and Stage 6 Films’ Don’t Breathe in August of 2016, but that was inevitable even in good times. The world was not waiting with baited breath for the next installment of Norman Nordstrom’s violent adventures, although that the sequel cleared $10 million for the weekend implies at least some marquee character status. In normal times, this sequel, directed by Rodo Sayagues and penned by Sayagues and original Dont Breathe helmer Fede Alvarez, likely would have been a “success” at $15 million, so this opening (for a $14 million global cume on a mere $10 million budget, natch) absolutely qualifies as a successful disappointment. As always, that this got a sequel at all again proves the value of reasonably budgeted original programmers.

MGM’s Respect, starring Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin, earned $8.8 million over the weekend. That’s not far off from the $11.6 million launch of Harriet in pre-Covid times, although this one somehow cost $55 million to produce. To be fair, the film was budgeted in pre-Covid times, and likely with the hopes of riding along a conventional awards season (for Hudson’s lead performance). Even in non-Covid times, it might have performed no better than Get On Up. Chadwick Boseman’s James Brown biopic earned $30 million domestic from a $13.5 million debut on a $30 million budget in August of 2014. A similar multiplier gives it just $20 million, although legs like Harriet (3.6x = $43.3 million) at least gets it to $32.5 million domestic.

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