Features and Columns · Movies

A Very Weak Weekend at the Box Office

‘Life Itself’ and ‘Assassination Nation’ had two of the worst openings of all time while Michael Moore’s latest was his biggest disappointment yet.
By  · Published on September 24th, 2018

We’re officially into the slow season, as moviegoers recover from the summer, stay home to check out the new fall television offerings, and just plain ignore the latest titles hitting the multiplex. Of course, not all is hopeless. This past weekend saw the opening of the youth-leaning horror movie The House With a Clock In Its Walls, and the Eli Roth-helmed PG-rated picture did slightly exceed expectations, coming in at number one with about 2.8 million tickets sold. That’s about 500,000 more than Box Office Pro predicted last week, which itself was down 200,000 from their initial tracking in July.

So, congrats to spooky stories for kids, and maybe that means the upcoming Goosebumps sequel (which I keep confusing with The House…) should also do well. But otherwise, there isn’t much to celebrate. This past weekend saw the lowest theater attendance of the year, at a total of only 9.8 million tickets sold for all releases. That’s worse than any weekends in January or February, the latter of which had previously held the year’s lowest at 10.4 million. And it’s definitely down from last year, when both Kingsman: The Golden Circle and The Lego Ninjago Movie opened. It’s the lowest for its time since 1994 — yes, even right after 9/11 happened in 2001 more people were going to the movies than they were this past weekend.

There are a few movies that, while not totally to blame for the poor turnout overall, certainly didn’t help matters by bombing badly. The biggest of these is Amazon’s Life Itself. Once seen as a possible Oscar contender, the movie ironically was dead on arrival with some of the worst reviews of the year (now it’s a Razzie frontrunner for sure). Never mind that it’s from the creator of the hit TV series This Is Us, that crowd apparently didn’t want to leave the house for a melodramatic ensemble feature, especially one that had the opposite level of acclaim (however, audiences liked it fine, given its ‘B+’ grade via CinemaScore). Life Itself debuted in 11th place with around just 226,000 tickets sold, which was the worst attendance for a movie on more than 2500 screens for the whole year — and second worst of all time!

Another big indie with none of the marketing muscle that Life Itself had, Assassination Nation was another big flop at the box office over the weekend. The dark satire was the talk of Sundance back in January (and one of our favorites of the festival), but that buzz didn’t carry forward into its opening, which Neon decided to drop immediately onto 1400 screens. Without much promotion and despite the fact that its core audience — the Alamo Drafthouse crowd — was likely either at or paying attention to Fantastic Fest (perhaps as was its own distributor). Coming in 15th place, the Sam Levinson-helmed movie sold just under 111,000 tickets. That’s the worst debut of the year on more than 1,000 screens, according to Exhibitor Relations.


Less embarrassing was the opening of Fahrenheit 11/9. Michael Moore’s latest, a sort of follow-up to his enormous hit Fahrenheit 9/11, proved to be his least successful effort yet. There was no way it was going do as well as its titular predecessor, which had won the top prize at Cannes in 2004 and went on to a top-placing debut attendance of 3.9 million and total domestic ticket sales of 19 million — it’s still far and away the top-grossing regular release documentary of all time (with $222 million worldwide). Still, it should have done better than its eighth-placing attendance of 321,000. Especially with mostly positive reviews and an ‘A’ grade via CinemaScore, though certainly the latter was from the preached-to-the-choir fans.

Moore’s box office success has been up and down over the years, and most of his docs haven’t been wide releases. Technically, Fahrenheit 11/9 gave the filmmaker his second-best opening after Fahrenheit 9/11. Yet Sicko did better when it went wide in 2007, still only on 700 screens compared to Fahrenheit 11/9‘s 1700, and saw a bigger crowd (attendance: 523,000). Same with Capitalism: A Love Story when it expanded to just under a thousand screens in 2009 (attendance: 584,000). His last two movies, Where to Invade Next and Welcome to Trumpland, never went wide but did post much higher average per-screen grosses than Fahrenheit 11/9. All of his other films did.

This might be surprising given that 2018 has seen a number of documentaries do very well at the box office, but perhaps Moore is too heavy for moviegoers right now. Nobody wants to spend $13 to be depressed and watch montages of Donald Trump’s creepy infatuation with his own daughter and how his presidency compares to the start of Nazi Germany. Maybe Moore would be best suited for a Netflix release these days, where he’d attract millions of more viewers for his imperative warning for Americans. Given the low turnout of Fahrenheit 11/9 in theaters, the filmmaker and his distributor might want to rush this one to home video anyway if they hope to have any influence on this fall’s elections in the US.

Not all was terrible this past weekend at the box office. Besides the better-than-expected performance of The House With a Clock In Its Walls, both A Simple Favor and The Nun had better attendance — both drawing about 1.1 million — than was predicted for their ongoing success. A Simple Favor seems to be avoiding any controversy, in fact, by showing strong legs in its second weekend, dropping only 36% from its debut numbers (fellow second-weekender The Predator, however, is tanking with a 63% decline). Documentaries The Dawn Wall and Science Fair also did well in their second weekends with better per-screen averages than that of Fahrenheit 11/9.

Meanwhile, Colette and The Sisters Brothers were very popular in their four-screen debuts, posting the best per-screen attendances of the weekend, 4300 and 3100, respectively. And another documentary, the star-studded Tea with the Dames, focused on British actresses Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, and Eileen Atkins, had the third-best average — the best for a nonfiction release — with 1600 ticket sales at just one location. Hopefully, all three of these new releases can continue to have strong attendance in wider release in the coming weekends.

Here are the weekend’s top 20 titles by the number of tickets sold with new and newly wide titles in bold and totals in parentheses:

1. The House With a Clock In Its Walls – 2.8 million (2.8 million)
2. A Simple Favor – 1.09 million (3.5 million)
3. The Nun – 1.06 million (10.7 million)
4. The Predator – 1 million (4.4 million)
5. Crazy Rich Asians – 0.7 million (17 million)
6. White Boy Rick – 0.5 million (1.8 million)
7. Peppermint – 0.4 million (3.2 million)
8. Fahrenheit 11/9 – 0.32 million (0.3 million)
9. The Meg – 0.242 million (15 million)
10. Searching – 0.229 million (2.5 million)
11. Life Itself – 0.226 million (0.2 million)
12. Unbroken: Path to Redemption – 0.14 million (0.5 million)
13. Mission: Impossible – Fallout – 0.12 million (23.3 million)
14. Christopher Robin – 0.114 million (10.3 million)
15. Assassination Nation – 0.112 million (0.1 million)
16. The Wife – 0.095 million (0.5 million)
17. BlacKkKlansman – 0.069 million (5 million)
18. Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation – 0.061 million (17.7 million)
19. Incredibles 2 – 0.057 million (64.6 million)
20. Alpha – 0.04 million (3.8 million)

All non-forecast box office figures via Box Office Mojo.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.