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‘Downton Abbey’ Box Office: Bigger Than Brad Pitt and John Rambo

Focus Features had its best opening of all time by betting on fans of the British TV series.
Downton Abbey Movie
Focus Features
By  · Published on September 23rd, 2019

When a TV series makes the leap to the big screen — not as an adaptation but as a continuation — the result can be surprising. Here are entertainments that viewers got for free or as part of a subscription in the comfort of their own homes and yet people will put pants on and venture out to a movie theater to see what happens next.

Whole movie franchises have come out of the idea when most successful. Other times, the attempt is deemed unworthy, the fandom not as strong as expected. For Downton Abbey, which went off the air at the end of 2015 after six seasons, the decision to put the Crawley family and their servants into cinemas proved to be a very smart one indeed.

Drawing a crowd of 3.4 million in its opening weekend, Downton Abbey gave Focus Features its biggest debut of all time. That’s a shock even for an indie film distributor, especially one that’s a division of a major studio and has been around for 17 years and has put out such titles as London Has Fallen and Insidious: Chapter 3. Sure, it’s nothing compared to the average 10 million Americans tuning into the TV series on PBS through its run, but a good chunk of that audience.

Though the first weekend is going to pull in the really diehard fans, a lot of viewers of a TV series may take their time seeing the big-screen continuation. This is true even for the biggest of franchises. One of the best openings for a live-action movie directly spun-off from a show is The X-Files, which actually arrived as the show was ongoing. That series drew an average of almost 20 million viewers per episode, yet the movie sold just 6.4 million tickets in its first few days. And its domestic total only amounted to 17.9 million tickets. Sort of light considering the movie was intended to be seen before viewers tuned into the show that fall.

Other movies famously resurrected properties that weren’t huge hits on television. Star Trek‘s low ratings led to its cancelation, though its viewership and accolades were strong enough that its demise was unwarranted, and so it was no surprise that the show grew in syndication then led to a huge film franchise. Police Squad!, which spawned the Naked Gun movies, was also an Emmy favorite that only lasted a handful of episodes, though not because it wasn’t watched but because the network didn’t think anyone wanted to watch it due to its need to be viewed in order.

Here is a ranking of the 25 best TV series spinoff openings (excluding sketch show adaptations and animated features) by ticket sales, with totals in parentheses plus peak American TV viewership (where known) off to the side in brackets:

1. Sex and the City (2008): 7.9 million (21.3 million) — [10.6 million]
2. Charlie’s Angels (2000): 7.4 million (23.2 million)
3. The X-Files (1998): 6.4 million (17.9 million) — [27.3 million]
4. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979): 4.8 million (32.8 million)
5. 21 Jump Street (2012): 4.6 million (17.3 million)
6. Hannah Montana: The Movie (2009): 4.3 million (10.7 million) — [10.7 million]
7. Jackass: The Movie (2002): 3.9 million (11.1 million)
8. Downton Abbey (2019): 3.4 million (3.4 million) — [10.2 million]
9. Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie (1995): 3 million (8.8 million)
10. The Lizzie McGuire Movie (2003): 2.9 million (7.1 million) — [2.3 million]
11. Bean (1997): 2.8 million (9.9. million)
12. The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1992): 2.3 million (19.5 million)
13. The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course (2002): 1.64 million (4.9 million)
14. Serenity (2005): 1.57 million (4 million) — [4.7 million]
15. Reno 911!: Miami (2007): 1.49 million (3 million) — [1.3 million]
16. The Nude Bomb (1980): 1.3 million (5.5 million)
17. Entourage (2015): 1.2 million (3.8 million)
18. Thomas and the Magic Railroad (2000): 0.8 million (3 million)
19. Follow That Bird (1985): 0.7 million (3.9 million) — [6.6 million]
19. The Gong Show Movie (1980): 0.55 million (2.5 million)
20. Barney’s Great Adventure (1998): 0.47 million (2.6 million)
21. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992): 0.44 million (1 million)
22. Veronica Mars (2014): 0.25 million (0.4 million) — [2.5 million]
23. Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (2016): 0.22 million (0.6 million)
24. Trailer Park Boys: The Movie (2006): 0.18 million (0.6 million)
25. Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1996): 0.05 million (0.2 million)

Two of these, Charlie’s Angels and 21 Jump Street are each only minimally a continuation of their show while also being a reboot and adaptation all in one. Three of them, Jackass, The Crocodile Hunter, and The Gong Show, are based on nonfiction programs with the latter two going a more fictional route but still technically a continuation of their original premises. And I’ll just also note that I included Follow That Bird but not The Muppet Movie because the latter’s opening-weekend attendance is not known, though its total original-release ticket sales were reportedly 26 million.

Speaking of earlier examples, a lot of them debuted with much smaller theater counts. Star Trek, for instance, opened on 857 screens, The Nude Bomb on 793. I used the wide-release figure for Mr. Bean, which first debuted in limited release (with an attendance of 0.5 million). Downton Abbey opened on more than 3,000 screens — close to the largest theater counts, which were held, in order, by Jump Street, Hannah Montana, Entourage, with Charlie’s Angels being slightly below.

Even with the Downton Abbey series as popular as it was, the movie exceeded expectations. Earlier this month, Box Office Pro issued a forecast for the movie to gross the equivalent of 2 million tickets sold — a predicted tie with fellow new release Ad Astra but below the opening of the action sequel Rambo: Last Blood. Last week, the site updated its expectation for a win by Downton Abbey but still only with a crowd of about 2.7 million. And they had Rambo in second place and Ad Astra down in fourth, a low guess compared to the real thing there, too.

Downton Abbey, which received an A grade via Cinemascore polling on Friday night, indeed came out on top, beating the Brad Pitt-led sci-fi drama (filmmaker James Gray‘s best debut yet) and Sylvester Stallone’s return as John Rambo for a fifth installment (the franchise’s lowest debut yet). Whether it’s a frontloaded hit thanks to fans will be something for Hollywood to watch for, especially as it continues resurrecting old TV properties but mostly keeping them on the small screen, as with the Deadwood movie on HBO and the upcoming Breaking Bad film, El Camino, which will be on Netflix (with a few theaters showing it as well). Is it time for a big-screen Lost movie yet?

In other box office news, the film that topped even Downton Abbey for the best per-screen average gross was the new documentary Where’s My Roy Cohn, which sold 4,700 tickets over four locations. And The Goldfinch sunk deep in its second weekend (down 71.6% with only 84,000 tickets sold), making it one of the worst bombs of the year for sure. Meanwhile, IT: Chapter Two broke through the year’s top 10, landing in seventh place for the moment as the biggest horror movie of 2019, passing Us.

Here are the weekend’s top 12 domestic release titles by the estimated number of tickets sold with new and newly wide titles in bold and totals in parentheses:

1. Downton Abbey – 3.4 million (3.4 million)
2. Ad Astra – 2.11 million (2.1 million)
3. Rambo: Last Blood – 2.09 million (2.1 million)

4. IT: Chapter Two – 1.89 million (19.9 million)
5. Hustlers – 1.87 million (6.9 million)
6. The Lion King – 0.297 million (59.7 million)
7. Good Boys – 0.288 million (8.6 million)
8. Angel Has Fallen – 0.267 million (7.2 million)
9. Overcomer – 0.169 million (3.5 million)
10. Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw – 0.162 million (18.9 million)
11. Dora and the Lost City of Gold – 0.14 million (6.5 million)
12. The Peanut Butter Falcon – 0.11 million (1.9 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.