LOS ANGELES – The filmmakers and studio behind “Joker” have reason to put on a happy face. Despite concerns over its violent themes and ramped up theater security, audiences flocked to the multiplex to check out the R-rated film this weekend resulting in a record October opening.
Warner Bros. said Sunday that “Joker” grossed an estimated $93.5 million in ticket sales from 4,374 screens in North America. The previous October record-holder was the Spider-Man spinoff “Venom” which opened to $80 million last year. Internationally, “Joker” earned $140.5 million from 73 markets, resulting in a stunning $234 million global debut.
“This was a much larger result at the box office than we had ever anticipated globally,” said Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros.’ president of domestic distribution. “Putting records aside, we’re just thrilled that audiences are embracing the movie as strong as they are.”
Since debuting at the Venice Film Festival where it won the prestigious Golden Lion last month, “Joker” has been both praised and criticized for its dark spin on the classic Batman villain played by Joaquin Phoenix. The film from director and co-writer Todd Phillips was always seen as a bit of a gamble with one of the studios’ most valuable pieces of intellectual property, hence its modest-for-a-comic-book-film $55 million budget.
But in the weeks leading up to its release, hype and uneasiness intensified beyond how audiences would react to placing this character in a realistic and unambiguously adult setting with “Taxi Driver” undertones. Responding to anxiety that the film might have the potential to inspire violence, multiple theater chains banned costumes or reaffirmed earlier policies regarding masks and authorities in numerous cities said they were stepping police patrols around theaters. Some relatives of the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting even asked Warner Bros . to commit to gun control causes – the studio said it always has.
While some worried this would impact the box office, it did not ultimately detract audiences from turning out opening weekend; the box office surpassed industry expectations and may rise even higher when weekend actuals are reported Monday. Although the film got a B+ CinemaScore from opening night audiences, the studio is optimistic about its long-term playability.
“Sixty-six percent of the audience was under the age of 35,” Goldstein said. “That tells you that the audience will expand out with that younger group as time goes on.” The younger audience also gave the film a more favorable A- CinemaScore.
Paul Dergarabedian, the senior media analyst for box office tracker Comscore, said that the convergence of critical acclaim and controversy actually helped the film become bigger than expected at the box office.
“It’s the ultimate water-cooler movie right now,” Dergarabedian said.
He added that it was important that “Joker” was always marketed as a “very dark, R-rated film.”
“It always had an element of mystery and danger surrounding it,” Dergarabedian said. “If it were a G-rated film, controversy like this would not be a good thing.”
In the landscape of R-rated comic book films, “Joker” is nestled between “Deadpool” and its sequel, both of which opened over $125 million, and “Logan,” which launched with $88.4 million.
“Joker” was the only new wide release this weekend, which is down from last year when both “Venom” and “A Star is Born” opened. Holdovers populated the top 10: The more family friendly “Abominable” landed in second place with $12 million in its second weekend and “Downton Abbey” took third in its third weekend with $8 million.
With awards buzz behind it, the Judy Garland biopic “Judy,” starring Renee Zellweger, added nearly 1,000 screens this weekend and placed seventh with $4.5 million from 1,458 locations.
And in limited release, Pedro Almodovar’s critically acclaimed “Pain and Glory” launched on four screens to a solid $160,087. Less fortunate was the Natalie Portman-led astronaut drama “Lucy in the Sky” which earned only $55,000 from 37 theaters resulting in a dismal $1,500 per screen average.
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