The Number One Movie in America: Freaky
By Sean Collier
April 24, 2021
How, precisely, can you evaluate the success of a film released in 2020?
The short answer: You can’t. Unless that film came out early enough in the year that most of its money was made before mid-March — congratulations to the surprise top movie of the year, “Bad Boys For Life” — there are too many COVID-related anomalies and not nearly enough information.
For most of the summer — at least from March through early July — the numbers are utterly meaningless. Some sources report results from the minuscule number of independent distributors that were reporting earnings from a dozen or so outdoor cinemas, leading to box-office winners with total earnings reported in four digits. Some include speculative reporting on the totals earned by repertory features, such as “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park,” which played at many drive-ins as the summer went on.
Some simply assume that “Trolls: World Tour” won most of the summer — an assertion for which there is no evidence, but nonetheless might be perfectly true.
Even when new releases started appearing with some regularity in mid-summer — the product of a slow, piecemeal reopening of some cinemas, combined with increased drive-in traffic — the winners aren’t exactly dominant. “Unhinged” won a weekend with about $4 million, the first reported total over the million mark since the beginning of the pandemic. Movies like “Let Him Go” and “The War With Grandpa,” which otherwise would’ve barely merited mention in a roundup of new releases, became box-office champions. (The latter, inexplicably, is still in release.) And “Tenet” probably won a lot of weekends ... depending on who you ask. (That’s a whole other can of well-dressed worms.)
Even these nominal champions didn’t do nearly as well, in terms of eyeballs, as streaming releases that premiered around the same time. Films like “Enola Holmes,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and certainly “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” were absolutely more widely seen than the likes of “War With Grandpa,” but, since streaming services don’t report viewership figures, it’s hard to know.
Again: We don’t know much.
All of this is leading up to reflecting on the box-office win recorded, at least officially, by “Freaky,” an above-average horror-comedy dropped by Blumhouse on Friday the 13th of November. “Freaky” is a good movie, a smart pop-horror pastiche with a “Freaky Friday” riff, led by Katherine Newton and Vince Vaughn as a body-swapped final girl and killer. It’s fun, funny and generally winning.
What would it have done, in a normal year?
The most direct parallel to “Freaky” is probably Blumhouse’s “Happy Death Day,” which did win a sleepy weekend in October 2017. (The “Happy Death Day” films and “Freaky” share a director, Christopher Landon.) Its sequel, “Happy Death Day 2U,” didn’t fare as well, debuting in fifth in February 2019. “Freaky” would’ve, in normal conditions, had a somewhat more limited path to box office than the “Happy Death Day” films, given its R rating; while some of Blumhouse’s films have overcome that hurdle, a new property with a fairly high concept would’ve had limited upside. I’d guess that “Freaky,” under normal conditions, would’ve made $10 million or so in an opening weekend and landed in about third place.
Instead, it’s a two-week box office champion. That’s good news for Newton and the film’s other young stars; for the film’s fans — there’s a small-ish cult following — it bodes well for a sequel. (A crossover with “Happy Death Day” has been teased, in fact.) But it highlights the absurdity of trying to track who’s watching what in an era where viewership habits fundamentally changed — a set of circumstances that will not revert after the pandemic is behind us, as changes to the theatrical experience (and theatrical windows) will endure and streaming numbers will remain hidden.
Can anything truly be called the number one movie in America after March of 2020?
Maybe not. (Don’t worry, we’ll keep trying to figure it out anyway.)
“Freaky” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1977. Please listen and subscribe!
Next time: Another one of Blumhouse’s pandemic-era releases was a little-noticed reboot. It didn’t make waves — but the original affected the fashion choices of a generation of teens.