Box Office Report for Jan. 29: The Grey Heralds the Arrival of Open Road
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Historically, the first few months of the year are the slow season for movies, though there are numerous counters to this theory, such as The Silence of the Lambs, which was released on Feb. 14, 1991, and went on to make some $272.2 million worldwide and to win a lot of Oscars for now-defunct Orion Pictures Corp.(1) Still, movie manufacturers continue to view the first of the year as a dead time, and release films accordingly. The result, in actuality, is the occasional gem.
Such a release is The Grey, the mysteriously title film based on a short story(2) by a certain Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, who co-wrote the script with the film's director Joe Carnahan. It's the second feature to be distributed by newcomer Open Road Films, which is financed jointly by the Regal Entertainment Group (NYSE: RGC) and AMC Theatres, a private company owned by Marquee Holdings.
The Grey stars Liam Neeson as John Ottway, a wolf hitman working for an oil drilling team up north – he shoots wolves that stray too close to the premises. On the way to R&R in Anchorage, the company's plane crashes and Ottway and a handful of other men are the only survivors. Cold, exposure, and lack of food are not the only hazards – a pack of mega-aggressive wolves have targeted the group for dinner. The team attempts to make its way to the tree line, where they find a river, a potential lifeline to civilization, but the wolves are not to be denied their showdown.
Carnahan's film is a Hemingwayesque, existential action film in which questions of life, death, and bravery are debated internally by Ottway's voiceover.(3) Some may view the tale as derivative; it contains elements from a whole host of films from the Mamet man-against-nature-and-bear saga The Edge(4) to the Stallone actioner Cliffhanger, from the true life account Never Cry Wolf to the straight-to-video thriller Frozen, about college kids trapped on a ski lift.(5)
As other writers have noted, led by A. O. Scott in the New York Times, The Grey follows a pattern of recent annual Liam Neeson releases. Every first quarter, Neeson appears in some kind of action film. The first was Taken, a "man as shark" action film released in 2008, which grossed $224 million worldwide for Fox, owned by News Corp. (NASDAQ: NWS).(6) Next was the brain-twisting thriller Unknown in 2011 for Warner Bros., owned by Time Warner Inc. (NYSE: TWX), and which grossed $126 million worldwide. In truth, Mr. Neeson has made numerous other films between these two epics, including two Narnia films, the Canadian art film Chloe, and The A-Team (Fox, $180 million worldwide), also for Mr. Carnahan.
The Grey opened to good returns this last weekend, with an estimated c. $20 million in box office, which translates roughly into about two million viewers if the average ticket price is $10 dollars. The film was placed in 3,185 theaters, with a take of $6,279 on average per screen. This despite the fact that the film was in danger of inspiring bad word of mouth, thanks to an ambiguous, abrupt ending, which is philosophically weighted but which might disappoint some literalist viewers – but all they need to do is sit through the full end credits for a plot wrapping coda.
This is the second film released by Open Road Pictures, a company led by Tom Ortenberg, formerly of The Weinstein Company and Lionsgate. The company's first released was the faux remake of Sam Peckinpah's Killer Elite and which, frankly was a much better work than Sam's, since the director had contempt for the script, the source novel, and the producers and studio. A remake in title only, Killer Elite is a terrific and essentially realistic action film pitting Jason Statham against Clive Owen.(7) It made $36 million off of a $70 million dollar budget, according to IMDBPro.
Other Open Road releases for 2012 include: Elizabeth Olsen in Silent House, a remake of a Uruguayan horror film that was shot in one 86-minute take; Lock-Out, a futuristic you'll-get-out-of-prison-if-you-save-my-daughter tale (see: Escape From New York) with Guy Pearce and Maggie Grace; and Red Dawn, a remake of the John Milius speculative thriller with the Soviet Union here replaced by North Korea. The company has a potential hit with the adaptation next year of The Host, based on a non-Twilight novel by Stephanie Meyer, set to be written and directed by Andrew Niccol (In Time).
Open Road's publicity strategy for The Grey was unusual. A film companion was distributed to religious groups, emphasizing the tale's spiritual value, which is odd, since at one point Ottway prays to God but receives no answer; in fact, he gets – Job-like – even more impediments. The company also formed an alliance with The Weather Channel to make promotional videos about the hazardous shooting conditions in Smithers, British Columbia, Canada.
Other films did less well over the weekend. Underworld Wakening made an additional $12.5 million for Screen Gems and Sony Pictures, aka Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE), thanks to Kate Beckinsale's tight latex catsuit, giving the film a total thus far of $45,126,000 off of a budget of $70 million.
Lions Gate Entertainment (NYSE: LGF) experimented with Groupon tickets for its adaptation of One For the Money starring Katherine Heigl, a comic action adaptation of the Janet Evanovich novel, to the tune of $11.8 million in the U.S. as of this writing. The George Lucas-produced Red Tails dropped a shocking 44% from its opening weekend last week, averaging just over $4,000 a screen and adding $10 million to its total, now $33,780,000. The Descendants, from Fox Searchlight, also owned, ultimately, by News Corp., received an Oscar bump, thanks also to adding 1,441 screens to its circulation. Its total as of now is $58,848,000. The "disappointment" of the weekend is Man on a Ledge, released by Summit Entertainment, making $8,300,000 from 2,998 screens. Summit was recently absorbed by Lionsgate, so this threw a tiny monkey wrench into belief in Summit's prescience.
Now all the wolves of North America need to do is hire a publicist to earn them back their good name – wolves rarely attack human beings.
(1) The company went through bankrupt shortly thereafter and its then-owner sold the company and its assets and subsidiaries to MGM in 1998.
(2) And try finding the source short story anywhere; and if you do, email it to me.
(3) For a formal, detailed review of the film as a film, click here.
(4) Not a biopic of the U2 guitarist.
(5) There is something slightly creepy about Neeson's character being stuck in the snow, when his wife, Natasha Richardson, died in a freak skiing accident in 2009.
(6) A sequel is in the works, set in Istanbul, and slated for Fox release in 2012.
(7) Don't worry. They make up and become friends.
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