Features and Columns · Movies

Kevin Hart is Still the Biggest Movie Star in Comedy

Meanwhile, Tiffany Haddish continues to grow her star power as ‘Night School’ tops the weekend box office.
Night School
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on October 1st, 2018

Comedies are not big at the box office unless they’re also superhero movies or animated features. Technically, the biggest comedy of the year is Deadpool 2, and Ant-Man and the Wasp might also qualify. Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation is up there, as well. This year has also seen a rare rom-com hit in Crazy Rich Asians, but even that one opened quite modestly before turning out to have strong legs over time. This past weekend, though, saw the release of a regular old comedy without special effects or action sequences or cartoon slapstick or fairytale romance, the kind that appeals mainly for its one or two comedic leads. And that movie, Night School, wound up with the best comedy debut of the year.

Selling an estimated three million tickets in its first three days in domestic release, Night School won the weekend on the draw of its two stars, Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish. Initially, the movie was merely a vehicle for Hart, but Haddish became a breakout favorite last summer in Girls Trip — which like Night School was directed by Malcolm D. Lee — and her part seemed to have been expanded during production. While it’s difficult to determine which of the actors brought in the biggest audience or if their combined star power and chemistry appealed more than either one alone, there really was no other factor in what made Night School number one at the box office and tops for its genre as far as 2018 openers.

Most of this year’s other notable comedies (Blockers, Game Night, Tag, Overboard) partly pulled in audiences with high concept premises. Even Life of the Party, which unlike the others has a clear movie star at its center, had an easily marketable scenario to combine with Melissa McCarthy’s drawing power. Night School‘s bare plot situation did not likely sell tickets. Nobody went to see the movie to find out what happens when some guy goes to night school to finish his GED. They went to see Hart, a funnyman who has proven to be one of the only people in Hollywood who can fill seats on his name alone. As it turns out, though, Night School actually gave Hart one of his lowest debuts yet in terms of attendance.

Of course, much of the time he’s also paired with another star, such as Dwayne Johnson or Ice Cube or Will Ferrell. Or he’s part of an ensemble, and it’s two of those multiple-star movies that is keeping Night School from being Hart’s wide-release worst opener (not including his stand-up concert films or voice work in animated features) since his rise as a major player in comedy movies. The Wedding Ringer sold only about 2.5 million tickets during its opening weekend in January 2015 and Chris Rock’s Top Five brought in fewer than a million people in December 2014. Comparatively, here are the attendance numbers for each of Hart’s other debuts since his rise to fame as a hugely popular comedian:

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017): 3.9 million
Central Intelligence (2016): 4.1 million
Ride Along 2 (2016): 4.1 million
Get Hard (2015): 4.2 million
Think Like a Man Too (2014): 3.5 million
About Last Night (2014): 3.2 million
Ride Along (2014): 5.2 million
Think Like a Man (2012): 4.1 million

Night School received fairly negative reviews (31% on Rotten Tomatoes), but the movie was still better received by critics than a lot of his past vehicles, particularly the Ride Along films. And its reception from fans via opening night polling by CinemaScore (‘A-‘) was on par with most of his efforts. So why did it underperform compared to Box Office Pro’s prediction last week for about 3.2 million ticket sales? While overall box office for the weekend was decent compared to this time in past years, this September saw the lowest movie attendance for the month since the 1980s. Anyway, Night School still performed better than Box Office Pro’s initial forecast back in early August for the movie to sell just 1.9 tickets.

As for Haddish, she’s kind of on a roll, with Night School debut drawing slightly less than Girls Trip did last year (3.5 million) and a good deal more than both 2016’s Keanu (1.1 million) and this year’s Uncle Drew (1.6 million), the latter not really being hinged on her presence. The relative success does prove positive for the actress as she moves forward as a movie star. She has two upcoming comedies releasing in the next two months, The Oath shared with fellow rising comedy talent Ike Barinholtz (Blockers) and then Tyler Perry’s Nobody’s Fool co-leading with Tika Sumpter. Hopefully, each of the movies has better material for Haddish to work with than she’s given in Night School.

In other box office news from the weekend, Smallfoot did about as well as Warner Bros. seems capable of for family film releases lately, and Hell Fest disappointed while the latest version of Little Women barely registered. One movie deserving of celebration is the new mountain climbing documentary Free Solo, which nearly reached the top 20 while playing on only four screens. The film sold about 8,000 tickets at each location, and that’s the best per-screen average of any release this year. Other recent movies with greater averages include eventual Academy Awards favorites such as Moonlight, La La Land, and Call Me By Your Name, in their limited-release debuts.

Free Solo broke the record for best per-screen average ever for a documentary, but only if we don’t account for inflation, in which case it’s being a handful, including An Inconvenient Truth and The Aristocrats. At least one movie with “Solo” in the title will come out labeled a success this year. With its 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes and likely positive word of mouth (there’s no CinemaScore for this one), the doc should expand well and join such nonfiction films as RBG, Three Identical Strangers, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? in this year’s “doc boom.” And Free Solo already has Oscar buzz, at least in the documentary feature category, where it will follow Touching the Void as another nominee with a mountain climbing subject.

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. Night School – 3 million (3 million)
2. Smallfoot – 2.5 million (2.5 million)
3. The House With a Clock In Its Walls – 1.3 million (4.8 million)
4. A Simple Favor – 0.7 million (4.6 million)
5. The Nun – 0.6 million (11.6 million)
6. Hell Fest – 0.5 million (0.5 million)
7. Crazy Rich Asians – 0.44 million (17.7 million)
8. The Predator – 0.39 million (5.1 million)
9. White Boy Rick – 0.3 million (2.3 million)
10. Peppermint – 0.2 million (3.6 million)
11. Fahrenheit 11/9 – 0.12 million (0.6 million)
12. The Meg – 0.11 million (15.1 million)
13. Searching – 0.1 million (2.6 million)
14. The Wife – 0.083 million (0.7 million)
15. Life Itself – 0.082 million (0.4 million)
16. Little Women – 0.08 million (0.08 million)
17. Mission: Impossible – Fallout – 0.07 million (23.4 million)
18. Unbroken: Path to Redemption – 0.05 million (0.6 million)
19. BlacKkKlansman – 0.048 million (5.1 million)
20. Colette – 0.045 million (0.07 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.