How in Hell did a 30 year old Stephen King property pull Hollywood out of the sewer?
A few weeks ahead of its release date I received a message from Hollywood writer Christian Toto, regarding the upcoming killer clown film, “It”. He was dismayed at the box office projections for the film – which indicated an opening weekend of $60 million dollars — and he asked me what I thought of this prediction. I offered up this was a wildly generous figure, and pegged my guess that an opening of $40-50 was more likely.
I based my impression on a number of indicators; Horror is a hit-or-miss prospect in theaters. Also, this was an aged property, and a Stephen King one at that; the writer has been the source of far more cinematic disasters than hits. Adding to my skepticism was Hollywood in general was coming off of a dismal summer, and this film was slotted in one of the two segments on the release calendar known for bad films. (The first weeks of the year, and the month following summer blockbuster season are regarded as the dumping ground segments.)
Then something happened in spite of the pontificating of these two movie “experts”: The film went on to incredibly double that projected amount. The actuals for the weekend came in at $123million, and with it a slew of records were set:
- Largest opening for a horror film
Highest September debut ever
Top-grossing Stephen King adaptation
Lowest budget ($35million) for a movie debuting with $100million
Biggest single-day gross for an R-rated title
Second highest R-rated premier
And there are more. It is one thing to defy critics’ prognostications (ahem), but it is beyond impressive when the entire movie industry never saw this coming. So what did this release accomplish to generate such a rabid reaction with ticket buyers? A few details:
Right People In Key Roles
The film was directed by relative newcomer Andy Muschietti, who treated this material deftly and delivered that rarity in a Hollywood film these days — quality beyond the audience expectations. Universal took a chance on Muchietti a few years ago to create “Mama”, that went on to become an impressive success for his first wide release. The partnering studios Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema wisely relied on him delivering a similar treatment, and it paid off. Here we see the director crafting a narrative and building legitimate suspense and tension, departing from the cliched delivery of many horror releases which rely on orchestral stings and jump scares.
The casting of Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise was another masterstroke. He is probably best known from the Netflix series “Hemlock Grove”, so he brought supernatural credibility. But he manages unnatural facial expressions that are conveyed beyond the intense clown makeup, breathing life and menace into the murderous entity. That he was able to rise above Tim Curry’s iconic representation from the 1990 version is rather remarkable.
Skillful Treatment of the Source Material
Look, when it comes to Stephen King books, you are talking about material that demands treatment. His novels are dense, phone-book-sized epics that are filled with wandering plot lines and scenes overly/overtly descriptive with minutiae. If you don’t bring discipline to the screenplay you would get eight minute long scenes of shoppers deciding what to buy in a convenience store visit. You need to do some cutting to get to a workable script.
The screenwriting team of Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman worked out a plot and characterizations that flowed and developed naturally. They used a filet blade in paring down King’s book, as opposed to a machete and hacksaw. The difference can be seen this past summer with another King adaptation, “The Dark Tower”. That mammoth material was undertaken by Sony and unwisely condensed down to a single film, becoming an opaque story and a disappointment to fans of the series, and ultimately bombing in theaters.
For “It” the decision was made to go with a two-film prospect, the first edition focusing on the children, and the follow up concerning the same characters as adults. Many reviewers commented this resembled one of the few successful King adaptations over the years, “Stand By Me”. However the better comparative will also be found on Netflix. King’s book was set in the 1960s, however the decision was made to move the story up to the 1980s. The group of bike riding preteens absorbed into a mystery with a dangerous entity larger than themselves in Reagan-era America hews very close to the nostalgia that fueled interest in “Stranger Things”. Not an unwise choice to tap that audience sweet spot.
Looking over the selling of this film you see Warners made the right choices. The trailers all seemed to work perfectly by walking the very difficult tightrope of showing enough of the demonic clown to promise something larger without revealing too much. Everyone with familiarity of the material would need to see Pennywise, but more exposure of him would dilute the effect. The initial trailer certainly did just that, as it netted a record amount of views in a 24 hour period — nearly 200 million.
Going forward the studio continued the tease, giving fleeting images of the character as well as a flood of imagery of the red balloon, portending just enough menace. The trailers also were thick with the 80s throwback content, looking at luring in the audience that remembered watching the original miniseries of Kings’ story in 1990. This was a cagey effort, as an R-rated film would rely on that elder audience, and it paid off. 65% of ticket buyers were 25-older, when horror is usually the exclusive realm of the teen audience.
When looking forward the final box office may be hard to pin down. Horror normally has lower multiples, but as all have seen this title defies most conventional data. If it performs as a standard blockbuster then a $300million tally is realistic, and the real question is how it then performs overseas. The record for global totals of an R-rated film is just over $400million (“Prometheus”).
I’d like to suggest this is a very likely result, but I think I have learned my lesson in predicting at what level this title will perform…