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‘Kong’ Wins the Box Office Crown But is Hardly King in Americans’ Minds

By  · Published on March 13th, 2017

Will audiences still be interested when King Kong meets Godzilla?

Where does an 800-pound gorilla sit? Anywhere he wants to. And certainly the classic joke can extend to a 100-foot tall ape, who can sit on the box office throne for a brief period, if he must. Kong: Skull Island topped the chart for the weekend with an opening gross of $61m, according to Box Office Mojo, and that is nothing to beat its chest about.

Although the movie wound up being far from event-sized in its release, with projections being only in the $45m-$50m range, Kong is supposed to be a big deal. Not only is it the second installment of an expensive franchise that will peak in 2020 with Godzilla vs. Kong, but it’s also got a legacy to uphold for its title character. Right now, it’s just barely doing well for both.

When King Kong opened on just two screens in New York City in 1933, the movie was like nothing anyone had ever seen before. Moviegoers lined up around the block to see a giant gorilla climb the recently constructed Empire State Building down the street, and in that limited debut posted a record-breaking opening weekend before going on to gross about $35m (in 2017 dollars, as adjusted for inflation) during its first run in the US.

Like the original, the first official King Kong remake in 1976 was one of the biggest movies of its year. This time the story was a little different, the special effects were a little more realistic, and the success was only slightly less historical. Produced by a showman like Dino De Laurentiis, the new version was marketed like crazy and merchandised to kids and adults alike (King Kong Viewfinders were popular with the kids that Christmas, while Mom and Dad could pick up a commemorative King Kong bottle of Jim Beam), all in the aim to top Jaws as the fastest-grossing blockbuster ever.

The remake didn’t beat Jaws in speed or in numbers and actually opened marginally in second place behind fellow 1930s movie remake A Star is Born, released two days later. King Kong did manage to win a special Oscar for its effects, yet otherwise its place in history has been rather negligible. However, 40 years ago, King Kong was popular enough to make good on its name, opening with about $28m (adjusted) on fewer than a thousand screens and finishing with a domestic gross of $214m (adjusted).

Part of the problem for the legacy of the 1976 Kong, specifically, is its atrocious sequel, King Kong Lives, a movie pretty much only linked to its predecessor by being another De Laurentiis production. It opened with comparatively little fanfare to less than $3m (adjusted) and a total domestic gross of about $11m (adjusted), bombing hard, and it’s almost never acknowledged in discussions of official King Kong movies – though the same is true of the original’s own lesser-known sequel, Son of Kong, which at least did fine at the box office.

Then there’s Peter Jackson’s more faithful 2005 King Kong remake, which is the ideal model of comparison for the new Kong. Initially thought of as a box office failure, Jackson’s movie’s opening weekend gross was just above Skull Island’s at $68m (adjusted). Its domestic total of $292m wound up being better than the 1976 movie, but what really helped keep it from being a flop is its additional international grosses totaling $551m (unadjusted). Like the previous two incarnations, this King Kong was one of the top movies of its year in the US, as well as worldwide.

Globally is also where Skull Island is going to make most of its money, but even there it is performing a little less than Jackson’s version. The 2005 movie took in $83m (unadjusted) from 55 markets during its first weekend 12 years ago, while the new one took in $82m from 65 territories. And the earlier release opened over Christmas and faced the ultimately more successful first Chronicles of Narnia movie as competition for similar audiences around the world. At home, Skull Island went up against holdovers Logan and Get Out, both of which continue to do very well as smaller, or smaller-looking, movies (Logan is pricier than it seems), but nothing of its own scale. Skull Island won’t be a top grosser of 2017.

What’s most interesting in comparing the domestic performances of the two most recent Kong movies is how different their demographics are. Jackson’s movie, which received an A- grade from moviegoers via Cinemacore, skewed male (53%) and older than 25 (55%), according to exit polls on opening weekend. Skull Island, which was graded B+ by moviegoers over the weekend, also skewed male (56%) but young (52% under 35, 18% under 18). Those under 25 also liked Skull Island more, giving it a higher grade of an A.

Maybe that young audience will stick with the “MonsterVerse” franchise through the next few years for the big battle – not that they all likely know that’s even a thing. Nothing so far has really connected the new Kong and Godzilla reboots save for a disposable post-credits scene in Skull Island. The movies take place in different time periods, and as far as I could tell from asking around, few people of any age were aware Skull Island is related to the 2014 Godzilla. Fans of Skull Island over Godzilla, whether they link them or not, also don’t get a sequel before the two icons go head to head.

On the other hand, the 2014 Godzilla, which actually sold fewer tickets in the US than its 1998 counterpart, does have a sequel in the meantime, with Godzilla: King of the Monsters arriving in 2019. Godzilla (which wasn’t one of its year’s top movies either) performed much better than Skull Island domestically yet did slightly worse overseas in many countries. Together they’ll definitely draw very well for the crossover worldwide. But depending on how well King of Monsters does in the States, the appeal may wane even further here, or it could continue to be more Godzilla-favoring. The giant lizard will have the advantage regardless in being more on moviegoers’ minds the year ahead of the versus mashup.

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Obviously a franchise like this should do better with young viewers and foreign audiences since, at least so far, they’ve been terrible at character and dialogue but great in the creature feature spectacle. Many of us may complain now, and when it comes out, that Godzilla vs. Kong is just a basic idea with little reason to exist other than to see two monsters beat each other up (the story is just now being brainstormed by a seven-man writer’s room), and that’s all the rest of the world cares about anyway.

As the character Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) says in the original King Kong, “Why, the whole world will pay to see this!” And he was right about his movie 84 years ago. For the current incarnation, his parallel in Skull Island — John Goodman’s Bill Randa – should have uttered this more appropriate amended phrase: “Why, the whole rest of the world outside of America will pay to see this!”


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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.