It was only a week ago that industry projections for the new adaptation of Stephen King’s It were calling for a $60-70 million opening weekend.
People were satisfied with that number. Giddy, even—it already would have represented the largest opening weekend in the history of the horror genre, as well as the biggest September opening of all time. Depending on your definitions, the previous title would have belonged to either Hannibal ($58 million) or Paranormal Activity 3 ($53 million), two sequels that weren’t even particularly well received at the time of their releases. But the point is, $70 million would have been an impressive haul, worthy of headlines.
$123 million, on the other hand? That’s a truly astounding number for an opening weekend, especially for a genre movie, not to mention a film opening outside the spring-summer blockbuster corridor. For the sake of comparison, the only films that have had bigger opening weekends in 2017 were Beauty and the Beast and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. That’s Disney, vs. Marvel, vs. killer clowns. One of these things is not like the other, right?
The sheer profitability of It is something you can’t really wrap your head around until you consider the film’s budget, which was a mere $35 million—a pittance in terms of wide-release film budgets in 2017. That’s a 3.5x return in the opening weekend alone. It’s the equivalent of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which sported a $200 million budget, raking in $700 million in a Thursday-to-Sunday span in North America alone—in other words, an impossible feat. And no one in Hollywood even managed to see the massive success of It coming. If anything, they tempered their expectations, assuming that the threat of Hurricane Irma in Florida might depress the box office numbers somewhat. What they got instead was a bonafide sensation.
So let’s break this down a little bit. What contributed to making the opening weekend of It such a shocking event? And what should studios and distributors be taking away from It’s rousing success?
A Cast of Unknowns
With the notable exception of Stranger Thing’s Finn Wolfhard, it’s hard to miss the relatively unknown nature of the entire It cast, at least in the eyes of a typical multiplex audience. Even Bill Skarsgård, playing Pennywise, isn’t exactly a known commodity to the average cinema-goer; certainly not as much a recognizable face as his father Stellan, who is himself one of those “Oh it’s that guy, what’s his name again?” character actors.
Much of this was to be expected, for the simple reason that there are very few recognizable child actors in Hollywood at any given time. But I can’t help but imagine that the relative freedom afforded by being able to cast the right kids for these roles—rather than faces whose marketability is being sussed out via focus testing—was extremely valuable in helping to give the Loser’s Club a believable camaraderie, which is of course at the heart of King’s novel.
The Loser’s Club, ’80s style
Ditto to Skarsgård, whose take on Pennywise is a chilling, slavering, disturbing deviation from the darkly comedic (and equally classic) depiction of the clown/interdimensional monster by Tim Curry in the 1990 miniseries. This is another case where an unknown in the role is helpful, almost necessary. “It” is supposed to be an alien consciousness. We’re never meant to truly understand the nature of “It,” only grasp the instinctual essence of it as understood by the children in their own preternatural, overly simplified way. The more ties that Pennywise/It has to something recognizable in our own reality (such as the face of a well-known actor), the more difficult it is for him to represent The Beyond, the domain of the deadlights. In this role, Skarsgård disappears.
Consider another film from 2017 that was narrowly edged out in terms of opening weekend by It, which is Spider-Man: Homecoming. That was a film full of known quantities; every inch of it calculated to be as appealing and crowd-pleasing as possible. Tom Holland had already been introduced to great acclaim in Captain America: Civil War. Robert Downey Jr. appears quite a bit more than many expected. And then there’s Marisa Tomei, and Michael Keaton, and Jon Favreau, and hell, Zendaya as well. Everything about it says “mass appeal,” and most importantly, it had the big, glowing MARVEL SEAL OF APPROVAL.
It needed none of those things to have an even bigger opening weekend than Spider-Man. All it needed was well-cast roles, compelling performances and a story the audience was actually excited to see.
An Unproven Director
It was a long, complicated production, with directorial duties passing first from David Kajganich to Cary Fukunaga, and finally to Andy Muschietti. Fukunaga’s comments after leaving the project seemed to suggest that his original script deviated too much from King’s source material in an attempt to modernize and make the story of It into something of his own, with Muschietti finally coming on board to offer a combination of Fukunaga’s experimentalism with a tighter focus on the book’s material. Muschietti came to the project largely as an unknown—his one previous directorial credit was 2013’s Mama, which was fairly successful but primarily sold upon the fact that it had Guillermo Del Toro as an executive producer. His name certainly didn’t bring any kind of multiplex cache, even among horror geeks.
But did any of that matter? Once again, the answer was no. The studio sought out someone who had already displayed a knack for the creepy, as well as a certain visual flair as seen in Mama, and entrusted him with a project that had already been through multiple sets of hands. And they were rewarded with a film from Andy Muschietti that grossed more in its opening weekend than 2017 films from the following directors: Michael Bay, Paul W.S. Anderson, Gore Verbinski, James Mangold, Danny Boyle, F. Gary Gray, Guy Ritchie, Ridley Scott, Colin Trevorrow, Edgar Wright, Matt Reeves, Christopher Nolan, Luc Besson, Kathryn Bigelow and Steven Soderbergh. Every one of them, beaten by Andy Muschietti, in a film with no “marketable” actors.
Newly minted directorial royalty, Andy Muschietti.
Of course, this also speaks to another fact of 2017 at the movies: This has been a terribly down year for film revenues in general. As of the end of August, revenue across the board was down nearly 16 percent, and it was the first summer movie season since 2006 to not reach $4 billion at the box office. Coupled with inflation, this means that literal ticket-buying has reached a 25-year low, i.e., people have not been enticed to head to the theater this summer.
With that in mind, it’s not hard to make opposing arguments about It’s performance. On one hand, you might say that the film’s $123 million weekend is all the more astounding and impressive if it’s coming during the middle of such a historic downtrend, when consumer sentiment toward “going to the movies” is at a historic low. On the other hand, you could argue that those customers had been diligently waiting for exactly this sort of film to come along—something that promised a story they actually wanted to see, even though it still embodies some of the “remake/reboot fatigue” that has seemingly contributed to the lack of ticket purchases.
More than anything, though, it suggests that word of mouth and excitement about a story/concept are still powerful enough forces to carry a film to blockbuster status, even when the director and cast are relative unknowns.
Classic Source Material
The one boon working in favor of It that you can’t deny is the original source material, Stephen King’s beloved novel. It’s not fair to make the assumption that any horror film could have this kind of opening weekend if simply made well enough (although Get Out and Split also had very impressive openings in 2017 with original concepts), because the Stephen King name is certainly worth something. We should note, though: Just attaching King’s name to a project in no way implies its profitability. This could scarcely be clearer, after the author’s magnum opus The Dark Tower was adapted into a flavorless pile of unprofitable mush in August. Recent years haven’t exactly been nice to King adaptations, either: Cell was a bomb, and most of the other recent films have been of the straight-to-VOD variety. In fact, before It came along there hadn’t been a well-reviewed and profitable Stephen King adaptation since at least 2007’s The Mist.
I also can’t help but question just how well known the novel truly is at this point, aside from reputation. We’re talking about a 1,100-page book that is now 31 years old. Even the four-hour Tim Curry TV version of It, still viewed with a charitable level of nostalgia, was a whopping 27 years ago, and memories of it have likely grown foggy and distorted. What I’m getting at is this: The average audience member may be vaguely aware of the material in It, but it doesn’t seem like they’re truly likely to have read the novel, or even have seen the previous adaptation, and as a result they’re approaching this film in a way closer to it being an original script rather than an adaptation of a very well-known property. This isn’t Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, where the audience is filled with fans who are scrutinizing the adaptation of every plot beat from the source material.
My own screening offered some evidence of this, particularly as the film ended and revealed its full title of It: Chapter One. That reveal elicited loud, legitimate confusion from no small number of the Sunday morning movie patrons because these audience members honestly didn’t know they were watching the first part of a two-part story. And they’re not alone. This lack of awareness may actually have helped add to the opening weekend gross for It—if audiences are actually growing fatigued/weary of sequels and franchises, then thinking (incorrectly) that It was a self-contained story within a single film may actually have been a selling point.
However, bigger than all of those factors is the following one …
A Masterful Marketing Campaign
In the end, it seems very likely that the spectacular marketing campaign for It is to thank for a substantial portion of its record-breaking opening weekend. As a hardcore horror geek, this was a change of perception I personally witnessed and participated in, and I’ve rarely seen any film so effectively and abruptly build a wave of hype online. It went from “nothing” to “something” very, very quickly.
Early in 2017, online sentiment for It wasn’t exactly positive. Reading threads about the film in locations such as the primary film subreddit r/movies, negativity was rampant, with levels of vitriol usually reserved for attacking female-fronted remakes like 2016’s Ghostbusters. Advocates of the 1990 TV miniseries were coming out of the woodwork on a daily basis, confidently stating that no one would be able to do Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise justice.
Then the first trailer arrived at the end of March, and things changed almost instantaneously. That single, perfectly constructed trailer cast the film as a serious, no-nonsense horror picture that was first and foremost focused on scaring the hell out of its audience, and the internet collectively lost its mind. Overnight, It became the year’s most anticipated horror film, and they didn’t slow up in the days that followed. Further trailers hinted at more of the film’s set pieces while largely obscuring Skarsgård’s portrayal of Pennywise, leaving audience members salivating to hear and see him in motion.
Not to be overlooked also were the viral marketing strategies employed, which were exceedingly effective in garnering headlines from news outlets as the It release neared, Paste included. There was the small town in Pennsylvania that woke up to red balloons tied to all of its sewer grates, or even the appearance of a single balloon in the window of Stephen King’s personal home. The fact that people wanted to read these ultimately inconsequential stories hinted at the groundswell of interest that was building, completely outside the understanding of industry projections.
In the end, it’s clear that not even New Line and Warner Bros. ever truly understood what a behemoth It was in the process of becoming. Only in the last few weeks leading up to the film’s release did it seem as if the studio and distributor began to suspect what a monetary success it would be, which unfortunately means that the upcoming It: Chapter 2 is still a long ways off. Uninterested in committing to the second project during the development of Chapter 1, it has amazingly still not been given an official green light, although Muschietti said to Entertainment Weekly that writing and initial planning on their end is already underway.
That fact speaks to the lack of faith that Hollywood has in such projects: A no-name cast, a no-name director and the horror genre itself. Even after Get Out and Split earlier in the same year, there are still doubters in this system who are missing out on the obvious takeaway that film fans will continue to repeat: Audiences don’t need “marketable” movies, they just need better movies. And when the stars align and you manage to produce an effective film, people will come to see it. Market it successfully, and you might even have a crazy September blockbuster on your hands.
When it finally comes along, likely in 2019, It: Chapter 2 is likely to receive a star-studded treatment in comparison with Chapter 1. Already, rumors are flying of previous Muschietti-collaborator Jessica Chastain portraying an adult Beverly March, and Chris Pratt has repeatedly been suggested for the role of an adult Ben Hanscom, thanks to his similar “schlub to handsome leading man” story. These pieces of fantasy casting are all well and good, and understandable given the massive opening weekend that It just captured. The sequel will likely have a lot more cash to throw around.
But looking beyond Chapter 2, let’s hope the unique circumstances of It are less of an outlier and more the start of an opportunity for sincere genre filmmaking. If anything, It is proof that marquee names and a big budget are anything but a magic bullet when it comes to profitability. Make the source material argument if you want, but classic source material isn’t exactly in short supply. Give more great, unadapted novels (or comics, or games, etc, etc) to promising young directors and casts of unknowns, and watch them redefine Hollywood’s conception of “why people go out to the movies.”
As it turns out, they just want to see exciting, effective films. Who knew?
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.