The #1 Movie in America: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
By Sean Collier
October 10, 2021
It’s tough to imagine a time when “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Pretty Woman” were locked in an extended, neck-and-neck battle for multiplex supremacy.
I mean, not now. Since March 2020, any box-office result is possible. I mean through the lens of all other box-office history.
The romcom easily won its opening weekend, with $11.2 million, after a March 23 release; most of the competition was a few weeks old. Then, the heroes in a half-shell took their debut frame the next week with $25.3 million.
Then, an extended showdown between Casey Jones and Richard Gere began.
The next three weeks, the Turtles won, by margins of $7.6 million, $3.9 million and $1.4 million. Pretty Woman reclaimed the throne the following weekend, besting the turtles by about $200,000, and extended the victory a week later, winning by $1.5 million. At that point, the turtles faded, but Julia Roberts didn’t; the films remained in the top spots for another week, but “Pretty Woman” was out in front by almost $4 million.
It wasn’t until the weekend of May 18th — the eighth weekend for “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and the ninth for “Pretty Woman” — that a pair of new releases, “Bird on a Wire” and “Cadillac Man,” finally ousted the amphibian/romantic duo from the top two positions on the weekend charts.
The pair even finished next to one another at the yearly box office; “Pretty Woman” landed in 4th, with $178.4 million, one spot ahead of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” with $135.2 million. (Slow and steady doesn’t always win: In the long run, the tortoise did not beat the Gere.)
Part of this unexpected tete-a-tete was a result of scant competition; other new releases during this period included the likes of “Opportunity Knocks,” “The Gods Must Be Crazy II” and “Ernest Goes to Jail,” so nothing was likely to knock off the champs.
Still, it’s a testament to the impact of those two films that they hit as solidly as they did that spring — and especially for “Turtles,” an unproven property from an independent studio. Apocryphally, every major studio passed on the comic-book brand before New Line picked it up; after “Masters of the Universe” bombed in 1987, the prevailing feeling held that a cartoon-adapted property couldn’t hit.
The studios ended up kicking themselves. The budget for “Turtles” was around $13.5 million, a fee that the film made back ten times. Until “The Blair Witch Project,” it was the top-grossing independent film of all time.
It helped that “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was, if not conventionally good, very, very interesting. Rather than ape the day-glo hijinks of the popular animated series, director Steve Barron — a music-video veteran, responsible for hits like Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and a-Ha’s “Take on Me” — chose an oddly gritty, thoughtful take on the material, centering the story on a New York crime wave and a kidnapped (and possibly dying) Splinter. There were laughs, to be sure (Donatello and Michelangelo are constantly quipping in the background), but the first “Turtles” was no romp; watch the extended sequence where they recuperate at a rural farm for a tone not often seen in family entertainment.
The oddness of the film more than overcomes its other limitations, making for an enjoyable, if bizarre, experience. It also made a juggernaut; this was the first of six big-screen adventures for the characters, and every one has gone to number one.
It’s also a hell of a lot better than the Michael Bay versions. The less said about those, the better.
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” 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: A bomb in the desert.