After an October that was strictly feast or famine, the box office looks to level out a bit this weekend. All three new nationwide releases open at over 3,000 locations, and all three have the potential to start with over $20 million.
Opening at 3,407 locations, the long-awaited big screen adaptation of sci-fi novel Ender's Game has the best chance at taking first place. Originally published in 1985, the book has amassed a significant following in the three decades since. That can be a deceiving metric, though, as plenty of adaptations with strong fanbases have only done so-so business at the box office (Eragon, The Golden Compass, and many more).
For a book adaptation to be successful, the marketing needs to find a way to reach beyond the core fans and convince general audience that it's worth checking out. In this area, Ender's Game has struggled a bit. From a story perspective, it's unclear what the immediate stakes are—mankind fended off an alien invasion at some point in the past, but it's hard to tell if there's another one on the immediate horizon. That wouldn't be as big an issue if there was a compelling central character for audiences to rally behind, but unfortunately ads have largely focused on Harrison Ford's gruff military commander instead of title character Ender.
Additionally, Ender's Game may be constrained a bit by the sci-fi genre. Aside from Gravity—which isn't really sci-fi anyway—the genre has had a tough time this year. Elysium and After Earth, for example, opened to just $29.8 million and $27.5 million, respectively, which were both disappointing given their budgets and marketing spend. Without really connecting with mainstream audiences, it's likely that Ender's winds up at around the same level.
One positive sign for Ender's Game, however, is its strong pre-sales data. Fandango is reporting that it's currently outselling Oblivion and Pacific Rim, both of which opened over $37 million. Free Birds, the first fully animated movie from effects house Reel FX, opens at 3,736 locations this weekend. Relativity Media has driven awareness with an aggressive marketing campaign, though it hasn't been the most compelling material. Instead of pushing the inventive story (turkeys travel back in time to end Thanksgiving!) commercials have focused exclusively on hijinks that look like they could have been cherry picked from any number of past animated movies.
The movie does have one serious advantage, though—it's opening after an October in which only PG-13 and R rated movies were released. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 dominated the market, though that's basically run its course. As a result, Free Birds will be essentially the only choice for family audiences this weekend, which guarantees a solid debut. Relativity is currently expecting $16 to $19 million, though an opening north of $20 million seems within reach.
Playing at 3,065 theaters, Last Vegas has the potential to be a surprise hit. CBS Films has rolled out a broad, appealing marketing campaign that's connected with generally underserved older audiences. They've also executed a serious word-of-mouth screening program, though the movie only has a 41 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, so it's unclear how strong that word actually is.
It also has iconic stars Robert DeNiro and Michael Douglas, though the real box office draw here may be Morgan Freeman. This year alone, Freeman has lent strong support to Olympus Has Fallen, Oblivion and Now You See Me, all of which opened over $25 million (with Olympus and Now You See Me being major surprises). CBS Films is expecting much less from Last Vegas (around $14 million to start), though they also expect it to be a word-of-mouth hit over the next month or so.
Universal is releasing About Time at 175 theaters this weekend ahead of a planned nationwide expansion next week. The time travel romance is from the director of Love Actually, which has created solid interest among women. Still, with a limited release like this, it's likely that the movie earns less than $2 million this weekend.
In very limited release, Dallas Buyers Club is opening in nine theaters this weekend. The movie has received strong reviews that have specifically called attention to Matthew McConaughey's lead performance, which should drive a lot of initial interest from arthouse audiences. At this point, though, it would be surprising if its story (an HIV-stricken man smuggles drugs in from Mexico) resonates with average moviegoers.
Finally, critically-acclaimed slavery drama 12 Years a Slave expands to 410 theaters and could come close to $5 million. Forecast (Nov. 1-3) 1. Ender's Game - $26.2 million 2. Free Birds - $22 million 3. Last Vegas - $18.3 million 4. Bad Grandpa - $16 million (-50%) 5. Gravity - $13.6 million (-32%) Bar for Success Ender's Game ought to be opening to at least $25 million this weekend. Meanwhile, Free Birds is fine at $20 million, while Last Vegas is in good shape at $15 million.