Less than two weeks into the new year, we already have ourselves something of a curious benchmark: this coming weekend will see the release of three R-rated films into an already busy market. Gangster Squad and A Haunted House make up the first two, while the expansion from 60 theaters into wide release for Zero Dark Thirty accounts for the third.
At face value, each film has its fair share of strengths. Zero Dark Thirty is in the middle of a strong Oscar campaign (nominations come out Thursday), carries the goodwill of Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and boasts a familiar and potentially intriguing story for the...well, the entire population.
Gangster Squad hosts a very recognizable ensemble cast in more "popcorn" fare, while A Haunted House is the first comedy targeted toward the young adult audience in quite some time.
But here's the catch: they're all rated R. Sure, none of these films are banking on any kind of family audience but the precedent here is almost unheard of in January.
In fact, it has been seven years since three R-rated films last went into wide release on the same weekend in the first month of the year. Hostel, Grandma's Boy and BloodRayne did so on the January 6-8, 2006 frame. Hostel won the weekend with $19.6 million and the other two films flopped. Combined, the three opened to nearly $24.2 million for the weekend. Adjusted for inflation, Hostel grabbed $23 million and the combined adjusted opening came out to $28.4 million.
We have to go even further back in time for the previous occurrence: January 30-February 1, 1998. That weekend, Great Expectations opened in second place with $9.6 million (behind Titanic). Meanwhile, Desperate Measures grabbed $5.8 million and Deep Rising took in $4.7 million. The total: $20.1 million. The combined adjusted total: nearly $34 million.
Only two other similar precedents exist in the last three decades, but those were Martin Luther King Weekend openers in 1996 and 1993.
History shows that, excluding MLK weekend in 1993, only one film stood out among the three R-rated openers while the rest stayed at much more modest--or downright awful--levels. Hollywood is hoping to break that mold this weekend, but the challenge will be a great one with stiff competition like Django Unchained and Les Miserables still doing well with adult audiences in the early days of 2013.
Is it possible that all three wide releases keep each other in check and post similar numbers? Or, similar to 2002--when Black Hawk Down successfully shaped the very release strategy now employed by Zero Dark Thirty--will the hugely buzzed-about military thriller convincingly win the weekend? Two things in favor of Black Hawk Down and its $28.6 million wide opening at the time: a holiday-boosted MLK weekend expansion and only one competing opener (Snow Dogs).
Regardless of either scenario, Zero Dark Thirty appears to have the long-term advantage with its early success and likely Oscar boost to come throughout January and February. But this weekend will certainly test how much R-rated competition a modern box office market can support during a (typically) slow time of year. If the status quo hasn't changed and these three films can't top $34-35 million between them, it may be a long time before Hollywood tests this notion again.
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