This Month in Movies: Giving Thanks for November’s Blockbuster Bounce-Back

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Photo: Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Bros and Universal Pictures

Welcome to This Month in Movies! At the end of each month, we take a look back at the biggest stories in the film industry during the last 30, 31, or, in the case of that prima donna February, 28 days. What if I keep making fun of February and then it turns out that it actually has some sort of condition that keeps it from carrying the average number of days in a month? That would be so embarrassing. Anyway! Let's talk November movies.

VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN? MORE LIKE LOSER FRANKENSTEIN, AM I RIGHT?
The industry is breathing a deep, vaguely asthmatic sigh of relief: After one of the worst months in recent memory, November was a return to form, offering not one, not two, but four films — Spectre, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2, Creed, and The Good Dinosaur — that could reasonably be described as hits or hits-in-progress. (For all you The Peanuts Movie partisans, I’m leaving it off this list because of its high production cost and lack of overseas revenue.) While Spectre and The Hunger Games aren’t quite matching the lofty heights reached by their predecessors, they’re still doing serious business, and each will sit comfortably beyond half a billion dollars in global receipts by the time it leaves theaters.

But not all ducklings get to fly, and November had a bust of its own. Victor Frankenstein, Fox’s reboot (resuscitation?) (reinvention?) (practical joke?) of the Frankenstein myth, opened on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and it grossed a dire $3.4 million in its first five days, across 2,797 theaters. That’s a per-theater average of, brace yourself, $840, giving it the worst opening ever in more than 2,500 theaters — though there is some good news to be found overseas, where it grossed just over $10 million.

If you’re a close follower of the box-office scuttlebutt, you’re probably getting tired of hearing the phrase “worst opening ever,” since it has so far this year been used to describe We Are Your Friends, Jem and the Holograms, and Rock the Kasbah. But unlike those three films, which were designed for very specific audiences — young men, young girls, and no one, respectively — Victor Frankenstein was an action-oriented take on a universal story in the vein of Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes, which made $62 million in its opening weekend. Now, Victor Frankenstein was never going to be Sherlock Holmes: James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe are great, but they’re a far cry from RDJ and Jude Law in terms of audience appeal, and director Paul McGuigan doesn’t have the reputation of Guy Ritchie. But why did VF do this badly?

The first two reasons are simple, and they’re drums I’ve been beating all year. First, people no longer go to theaters just to see a movie, any movie, and Victor Frankenstein, like screenwriter Max Landis’s other flop of 2015, American Ultra, did not give audiences a clear enough idea of what they would be going to see and why they should be going to see it. Both movies had ambiguous and confusing marketing, and they leaned too hard on their stars, who are terrific actors but unproven box-office draws. Second, the pitch — essentially, “Igor is hot now” — didn’t do enough to differentiate it from the million Frankenstein movies that came before. 

Then there’s the other, bigger problem at play here, the one that explains why this movie failed as badly as it did: Fox chose to dump Victor Frankenstein on possibly the single worst weekend available, pitting it against Spectre, The Hunger Games, and Creed. Had VF come out in October, it still would have had problems, since most viewers don’t think it’s very good; no matter when you release, you can’t outrun a C Cinemascore and 25 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. But against October’s dismal competition, or in a less competitive month like, say, February, VF would’ve at least had the chance to stake out a place in the market rather than being suffocated by two of the biggest franchises on Earth and one of the best movies of the year. 

Release date has always been a factor in movies’ success, though for a minute we thought it might actually be growing less important: 50 Shades of Grey killed in the previously frigid February, American Sniper was a hit in January, Gravity and The Martian were hits in October, and so on. But because of the increasing cultural noise that now greets any piece of new art, it is essential to stake out territory within which that art can survive, and with movies the weekend of release is that territory. Maybe the month no longer matters, but the particular weekend certainly does, and Thanksgiving 2015 was a death sentence for any underdog not named Adonis Creed. It’s too much to be fighting against three major films in addition to constants like Netflix and sports: There just isn’t enough oxygen, and Victor Frankenstein was essentially a match struck in a vacuum.

SO, WHAT’S GOOD?

1. Creed
You’d be hard-pressed to convince me that any film had a better month than the terrific Creed: People love it, and its $42.6 million opening in its first five days means it’s already earned back its production cost. Even better, there’s Oscar talk for both the movie and its supporting star, Sylvester Stallone, meaning this could have legs for months and months to come. Did I mention that its writer-director, Ryan Coogler, is only 29? And that its lead, Michael B. Jordan, is only 28? Everything about Creed shines. (For more, I wrote about how it also shows a way forward for rebooting franchises.)

2. The Oscar hopefuls
November is when the Oscar movies start coming out in full force, and none of the four major limited releases that debuted this month — the other three being Brooklyn, The Danish Girl, and Carol — did better than Spotlight. The story of reporters at the Boston Globe who uncovered the depths of a child-abuse scandal within the Boston Archdiocese, Spotlight is a throwback to the lean 1970s, a movie that lets its dynamite cast work with a lean and efficient script to conjure a story that feels like it’s unfolding in real time before your eyes. As good as it is, Spotlight’s also a cerebral adult movie uninterested in holding your hand and overexplaining everything, which is why its success to date is so satisfying: Despite still only being in 900 theaters, it’s already made $12 million. Expect awards-season accolades, as well as the combined power of Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams, Tucci, Crudup, Slattery, and Schreiber, to keep this engine churning through the winter — particularly if, as many are predicting, it wins Best Picture.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn is also faring well in the same number of theaters: It’s about 33 percent behind Spotlight in terms of gross, but $8 million is still respectable for a film of this size as it expands. Brooklyn has proven it has some wide appeal: The question is whether it can translate its near-universally positive reviews into nominations and bigger bucks nationwide. And the jury is still out on Carol and The Danish Girl: Both did nicely in their first frames of limited release, but as Steve Jobs demonstrated last month, it’s hard to extrapolate from four theaters to 400, and then 2,000.

3. Studio movies
I won’t belabor this point, since I mentioned it a bit above, but: Hey! Floptober’s over! It would’ve been tough for The Hunger Games and Spectre to do as well as their astoundingly successful predecessors, so that shouldn’t be taken as a sign of failure, particularly considering that neither movie is as good as the one that came before. And The Good Dinosaur may be Pixar’s lowest-opening wide-release since Toy Story, but it still made plenty of money for a kids movie in its first weekend, particularly one released around Thanksgiving, and it should basically own that demographic for the next month.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD?

1. By the Sea
Now that By the Sea, Angelina Jolie’s meditation on marriage that stars her real-life husband, Brad Pitt, is an unequivocal disaster, it’s worth looking back and wondering why. Surely a film starring Brangelina, tabloid favorites and objects of public fascination, should’ve been able to muster more than — god, it’s still unbelievable — $500,000 at the box office? Or did Universal put too much faith in the reputations of the Pitts, failing to actually sell the movie they had made beyond a few images of the two smoking cigarettes and looking beautifully, terribly sad?

You think all these things, and then you see the movie, and then it all makes sense. I actually liked By the Sea well enough: Jolie has a spectacular eye for framing, particularly given landscapes and interiors like the ones she finds here, and the movie is truly beautiful. And Pitt’s performance has been underrated: He smolders as well as any movie star alive, and as he drunkenly pushes against the immovable object that is his wife, he elicits empathy and sympathy as well as disgust. But By the Sea can never quite outrun the fact that nothing really happens in the film. It’s one thing to work in the art-house style of the Italians and French and then release it in four theaters in New York and Los Angeles; it’s another to expect that movie to earn the kind of cash we associate with the Pitts. I agree with the sentiment that, had this been made by some long-haired Mediterranean auteur, we’d be far kinder to its flimsy script and relative inertness. But it wasn’t, and them’s the breaks. At the very least, it shows Jolie’s potential as a director. And, like: Brad and Angie will be fine.

2. The Night Before
The Night Before
didn’t do terribly: With $24 million so far, it’s on the verge of recouping its production costs (though it’ll still have a ways to go before it turns a profit). Plus, it feels like the kind of movie that gets a second life from teenagers watching it at home. But considering the talent involved, and the dearth of comedies in theaters this year, it feels like there was potential for a much bigger footprint, financially and culturally. It certainly came as the second blow in two months for Rogen, who saw his Best Supporting Actor hopes dashed by the underachievement of Steve Jobs. While I don’t think anyone’s worried about Rogen’s career, the bar for a successful comedy seems to be getting higher and higher.

3. Young-adult franchises
The first Harry Potter movie came out in 2001. The first Twilight movie came out in 2008. The first Hunger Games movie came out in 2012. As of December 2015, all three of these franchises — franchises that ushered in an era of big-budget YA adaptations; franchises that dominated the cultural and cinematic conversation every time they reappeared; franchises that engaged entire generations — will have released their final film adaptations. We now approach a new era of YA — one that, at least to this adult man, seems likely to be very different from the past decade and a half. Even if you’d never read a single chapter of those three series, they had universal name-brand recognition. That is not true of the franchises that would like to take on their mantle. The Divergent series does fine, but it makes a fraction of what those other three did, and I still have no idea what it’s about, a feeling that I don’t think is uncommon among your average moviegoer. Ditto for The Maze Runner, except knock it down a peg. Can Chloe Grace Moretz’s The 5th Wave be the game-changer when it debuts next year? Plenty of men in suits sure hope so. Whatever the next Hunger Games is, it has yet to break through.