January 2018 Box Office Forecast

By Michael Lynderey

January 4, 2018

Have you seen this bear?

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Welcome to an odd box office year in which studios seem to have saved the five biggest films for release within weeks of each other, in May and June. Therefore, for winter, spring, and fall, we are left with the rest, and, as is often the case, what will be called January's biggest grosser is really a December movie.

1. The Post (January 12th)
The biggest prestige December film yet to expand to wide release is this dramatic epic, a glance at the leaking of the infamous Pentagon Papers of 1971, a sort of sister act in paranoia and government secrecy to the later Watergate investigations.

Now, most of my forecasting is, of course, stupendous and almost totally accurate, down to the cent, but I've had real bad luck predicting these little December platformers as they make their case to the masses in early January. My hall of shame includes Selma ($120 million forecast... $52 million actual gross), Patriots Day ($100 million prediction to the final $31 million), and, uh, American Sniper ($98 million forecast... $350 million total). Oh, and in fact, I thought so little of the box office chances of the expanding The Revenant ($183 million total) that I neglected to even mention its January entry into wide release.

But let me try to guess again. Steven Spielberg so loved the script and idea for The Post that he ran off from his other projects and made this one instead, casting Tom Hanks as Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as the paper's publisher Katherine Graham, who are faced in 1971 with the tricky legal task of printing out leaks of pentagon data, mostly from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, though stolen and released during the early Nixon years as a general embarrassment for the federal government. The supporting cast is a collection of sturdy, solid, unimpeachable character actors re-enacting real life historical personae less famous than they are (Bob Odenkirk, Michael Stuhlbarg, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, and so on. How did my favorite, Richard Jenkins, not end up in here?).

The Post and its champions make no bones about comparing the film to the present-day American pastoral of discordia, though I think The Post looks a little too quiet and not nearly angry enough to capture current passions. As for the U.S. president apparently designated the film's villain, Richard Nixon; he seemed, at least before Watergate, a generally cool, collected and dryly ironic politician with two decades of government experience, and is thus a poor stand-in for anyone else a viewer may wish to imagine in his place (as I keep saying, more close and naughty parables to current situations include V For Vendetta, Watchmen, and, bizarrely, the 1981 musical Shock Treatment).

Most serious Academy Award contenders (or Golden Globe nominees) released in the last two months have taken in only a moderate box office sum (thus far, the average is below $30 mil total, each - but rising), but I assume The Post will be the one that finally draws out the over 45 crowd in true mass numbers and into awaiting cineplexes, over the 4-day long Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. Spielberg's last film, Bridge of Spies, a period piece also starring Hanks as a crusading moralist, and taking place about a decade before this one, opened with $15 million and finished with $72 million. That was in an October, but I think we're headed down the same road, even if it's going to reach for many more kilometers this time.

Opening weekend: $32 million (4-day) / Total gross: $120 million

2. Paddington 2 (January 12th)
In a month with a few more sequels than normal, the bear should paw away at the rest.

The first Paddington, a British import, was a delightful family entertainment that went above expectations (at least mine) in January 2015, opening with $18 million and finishing with $76m. Like its predecessor, Paddington the second opened in the U.K. in November before hauling its not-too-thin mass over here two months later, and indeed the second film arrives on these shores having already obtained a decisive victory on the home front: Paddington 2's British Isles box office take has slightly exceeded the original's, while, more to the point, reviewers have scored it as 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, with an 8.7 average (out of 64 critics!). Of course, I suspect the TomatoMeter will come down just a few pegs once more American critics have a shot at it: British Isles reviewers are clearly very sentimental (remember how The Amazing Spider-Man 2 went from about 75% on its UK release to 55% once it came out in the U.S. three weeks later? Actually, the UKers were right).

The august Hugh Bonneville (late of Downton Abbey) reprises his role as the kindly family patriarch, and Sally Hawkins, who gave one of the best performances of the year as a mute janitor in The Shape of Water, here again plays a dutiful mother who's warmed to the polite and mannered South American bear Paddington, who took refuge from the rain and cold in her household and by now has become an official family member.

Elsewhere, Julie Walters and Brendan Gleeson are on hand for some local colour. Nicole Kidman was a memorable villain in the first outing (she wanted Paddington drawn, quartered, and stuffed, as I recall. She failed.), and here the role of nemesis is taken over by Hugh Grant, in one of his latter-day character turns, as an Ernest P. Worrell-like master of disguise (including the inevitable nun outfit).

There are no other hints of kids' entertainment this January, though I suspect Jumanji, Star Wars, Coco, and Ferdinand will be the subject of many return trips and remaining first-timers, while the similarly-tinged Peter Rabbit, who is also originally British, opens a few weeks later, in February. Still, the big bear is coming, and I'm well aware that I'm living dangerously when I forecast his film under the $100m mark.

Opening weekend: $33 million (4-day) / Total gross: $89 million


3. Insidious: The Last Key (January 5th)
Though not, perhaps, the last film.

This film has a wonderful poster, perhaps the best of the 2018 slate currently available for viewing. It's of a skeletal hand with keys for digits, behaving in an unexpectedly polite manner by ringing the doorbell of some unlucky homeowners (I assume it's an homage to the great poster for the 1986 horror comedy film House, which depicted basically the same image).

The Insidious series as a whole belongs to that horror subgenre I call "spooky events" films, wherein an average suburban dwelling or apartment residence is beset by an unfortunate array of frightful and unpleasant happenings, none helping its real estate value (chairs moving, family members standing and staring off emotionlessly into the ether, forks and spoons floating within no reasonable vicinity of Chinese food). Spooky events occur until roughly an hour and a half have passed and the film is over, upon which point they stop, unless the box office is sufficiently crying out for a sequel, when they will resume again. Such films include but are not limited to the Insidious series, the Paranormal Activity movies (shaky-cam spooky events), The Apparition, and even Dark Skies, which was a spooky events movie with aliens.

This subgenre is not to be confused with the classic haunted house film, wherein unsuspecting city slickers ventured out to the remote outdoors, where they inhabited vast gothic mansions that had been carefully tended to by the set design and special effects budgets. Those films are cooler, I think, because the "spooky events" movies take out my big incentive to view ghost cinema in the first place: the ancient, scary, secretive house (indeed, the first Insidious film was totally honest about just that. Its tagline was "It's not the house that's haunted".).

Of course, "spooky events" movies can be quite good, critically speaking (it's just that I'm not really into quality), and indeed the Insidious films and various Conjurings have generally been well-made tales of horror. Personally, for whatever reason, I've liked every Insidious movie just a little better than its predecessor, and, given that this is part four, that can only be a recommendation.

Adam Robitel directs and among the producers is James Wan, who helped launch the torturer genre by helming Saw (2004), and then veered into directing spooky events movies with Insidious (2011) and The Conjuring (2013) [What does the man have planned for us in the 2020s? Please bring back the slasher film]. Lin Shaye, who plays the series' emergant hero, paranormal investigator Elise Rainier, has quietly become perhaps the biggest horror film star of the present decade, a well-deserved status for someone who's toiled as a character actress for a long time. In a bit of bad news (and what I don't think is any longer a spoiler), her character passed on (she died) somewhere between the end of the first Insidious film and the beginning of the second, though she didn't let that stop her: Insidious was set around 2010, and, luckily, since there were lots of decades in history preceding that one, Elise has come back not only in flashbacks but through cannily making Insidious 3 and 4 prequels to their predecessors. This one is set somewhen in the mid 2000s.

Since, however tenuously, I am still talking about box office, I must note that the first Insidious opened with $13 million and finished with a striking $53 million, while part 2 essentially flipped the script on the legs, opening to $40m and totaling at about double that, $83m. It's part 3 that's the regressor to the mean, the one we should most use as a model, and that was a $22m opener and $52m closer. I think chapter 4 might do a slightly bit better: ever since roughly the time of Michael Keaton's White Noise in 2005, a ghostly horror film on the first weekend of January has been a tradition of sorts. For the purposes of nostalgia, let's dole out Insidious 4 exactly White Noise's numbers, with no adjustments for time or reason. After all, whether they live in suburbicon or the gothic countryside, ghosts have a very long memory.

Opening weekend: $24 million / Total gross: $56 million

4. The Commuter (January 12th)
Liam Neeson returns in what I believe he has stated is his last leading role in a violent action thriller (... for now).

Neeson's lot began nine years ago, of course, when his film Taken opened to $24 million and finished with $145m (!), the sort of action movie legs unheard of in the modern, civilized world, though that month was kind of crazy town in general (for more of January 2009's escapades, see Gran Torino and Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which make the box office journey of Taken seem plausible in comparison). Mr. Neeson has since starred in any number of action thrillers, many of agreeable quality, though the two best of them, needless to say, are among the lowest-grossing (The Grey, an existential adventure from 2012, and Run All Night, an excellent and severely underseen crime thriller from 2015, are my favorites, though my opinions about film quality are often wrong).

This time, Neeson reteams with his frequent and tireless director, Jaume Collet-Serra, and plays a ne'er do well insurance salesman with an implaceable mid-Atlantic accent, whose innocent sojourn on an afternoon train ends with all sorts of intrigue, violence, and the inevitable plot twist. Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, and Jonathan Banks are other passengers, Sam Neill is the policeman helping unravel the plot on the ground, and the film seems like a slower-paced version of Neeson's find-the-killer airplane thriller Non-Stop (I say "slower-paced" only because a train isn't nearly as quick as a plane). The moral of the story is as before: if you find yourself on a moving vehicle with Liam Neeson, be forewarned.

Reviews lean to the positive, currently at 70% up on Rotten Tomatoes, and likely to continue to fluctuate somewhere along the ballpark of thumbs up. Neeson may be moving on to pastures less strewn with spent bullet casings, but this action film should give him a respectable hurrah.

Opening weekend: $28 million (4-day) / Total gross: $56 million

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