By Shawn Robbins
The reports of science fiction's death at the box office have been greatly exaggerated.
After a year of sci-fi flicks failing to live up to lofty expectations, Warner Bros., Alfonso Cuarón, Sandra Bullock, and George Clooney have bucked the trend with Gravity's October record opening of $55.8 million (weekend estimate current as of Monday morning). Critics exalted the film following its festival debut in September--leading to a 98 percent Rotten Tomatoes score, aggregated from more than 200 reviews. A surge in online buzz followed, but general audience consumption of the film is now proving significantly stronger than almost all of 2013's preceding sci-fi tales--including Oblivion, Pacific Rim, and Elysium.
Let's start with the most obvious ingredient: star power. In an era where its importance is reasonably questioned, Bullock and Clooney are two actors at the top of their game. The former, fresh off her (previous) best career opening in The Heat, plus Clooney, a near-perennial Oscar contender both in front of and behind the camera, made for a one-two star punch that adult audiences couldn't resist.
The visual appeal complemented that star power and elevated Gravity to a new level of anticipation. For months in advance, members of the film community buzzed about Cuarón's first film in nearly seven years. The degree of creative passion which bred technical accuracy and ambitious filmmaking excited movie fans, a fact that was magnified when James "Avatar" Cameron himself gave his highest praise of the film's artistic value (he consulted on the film during production).
Social media played a significant factor as well. Gravity had been posting strong numbers in relation to comparison films across Twitter, Flixster, and Facebook over the past few months. That underscored the enthusiasm of movie fans and, as online buzz continued growing, highlighted the potential for mainstream interest to follow.
Then came the ad campaign. Gravity's first teaser trailer endeared itself to said movie fans, but didn't quite hit the sweet spot for everyone else--not enough to evidently indicate a huge hit, anyway. That began to change after summer's end and Warner Bros. kicked the marketing machine into high gear. With tensely wound trailers and TV spots, what was once looking like "Open Water in space" to the uninitiated began feeling like the kind of event film that shouldn't be passed up.
Maybe it's not that surprising. After all, Warner Bros. culled from its recent history of successfully selling Oscar contenders during the autumnal months, not to mention its masterful marketing campaign for another ambitious sci-fi flick with star power, depth, and visual awe: Christopher Nolan's Inception. With Gravity, the studio once again took an already winning piece of filmmaking and helped it transcend a fairly niche genre to become something more. Something for everyone.
Where does Gravity go from here? A run north of $150 million domestically seems assured now, and it's not hard to imagine a leggy run similar to that of Inception itself (which, domestically, grossed 4.66 times its own strong $62.8 million opening weekend). That film relied on a slightly younger audience and opened during the heart of summer, but we've also seen past fall releases excel through the end of the year (and sometimes beyond) thanks to Oscar buzz--something which Gravity will likely boast and convert into ticket sales over the next few months.
Case in point: last year's Argo debuted to a modest $19.5 million before closing with $136 million stateside--an incredible "7x" multiple (most films are lucky if they can generate anything near "3x"). With Gravity's much larger opening, that kind of run isn't necessarily likely, but it's strong evidence to support a run toward $200-250 million.
What will be Gravity's box office legacy? October has historically been a slow month relative to the summer and holiday seasons, but as Lionsgate achieved with its March opening for The Hunger Games last year, Gravity's pre-holiday success should inspire more blockbuster candidates (original or not) being given a chance to shine in late September/October. Additionally, Gravity's IMAX sales (representing a company record 21 percent of opening weekend) will encourage further adoption of the large screen experience, while the near-80 percent 3D sales share tells the industry that format is still marketable when it's not being abused.
In the mean time, let's sit back and enjoy Gravity's run. Whether or not you're fawning over the film as much as critics and film geeks, this kind of success for an original flick outside a major moviegoing season is a huge win for the industry. From studio heads to creative talent and the movie's supporters, Gravity is proof that good things--paying customers included--will come when Hollywood gives the artform the chances it deserves.
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The Gravity trailer: