Welcome back to the Beat’s weekly Box Office Preview!

This is going to be one of the tougher weekends to predict, because there are three new movies, each with their own strengths and weaknesses that are all likely to open somewhere around the $20 million range give or take. In other words, there’s something for everyone this weekend but also no one movie that might be for everyone, if that makes any sense.

DOWNTON ABBEY (Focus Features)

Downton Abbey
Focus Features

Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery, Allen Leech, Penelope Wilton, Geraldine James, Imelda Staunton, Matthew Goode,
Directed By: Michael Engler (The Chaperone, plus lots of TV including Sex and the City, 30 Rock, and yes, Downton Abbey)
MPAA Rating: PG

This week’s big anomaly and possibly spoiler for the two movies above is this continuation of Julian Fellowes’ super-popular PBS series which ran for six seasons building a devout audience.  Being on PBS and being an all-British cast, harking back to the popular ‘70s series Upstairs, Downstairs, one would assume the audience for the show was older audiences, but it actually crossed over to younger viewers who would thrive on the show’s gossipy tone and fantastic cast that includes Oscar winner Dame Maggie Smith.

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Most of the cast and all the popular characters from Downton Abbey are back with a storyline where the Queen and King of England are going to stay a night at Downton, causing great consternation among the massive staff, who immediately start butting heads with the royal staff that are brought in for the night.

Like the show, the movie sports an amazing ensemble cast including Oscar-winner Dame Maggie Smith, as well as Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Allen Leech (who appeared in last year’s Oscar-winning Bohemian Rhapsody), Penelope Wilton, Imelda Staunton, Geraldine James, Matthew Goode and lots, lots more. The series has a cast of hundreds between the royal Crawley family upstairs and all of their help downstairs.

In 2001, Fellowes wrote the similar ensemble dramedy Gosford Park, which was released by the defunct USA Films – which a little trivia for you, was what became Focus Features in 2003 – and grossed $41.3 million over the holidays after a limited release over Christmas weekend. It expanded to 658 theaters over MLK Jr. weekend in 2002 as it started racking up awards including a SAG Ensemble award.

Since then, Fellowes has written a number of other movies including 2009’s The Young Victoria and 2017’s Crooked House, but none of them have connected with American audiences quite like Gosford Park or Downton Abbey.

I’m guessing reviews will be semi-mixed, mainly depending on whether the critic writing the review has seen the series and is already on board with the characters and tone that the movie takes. (Actually, reviews so far aren’t bad at all.) The bigger hurdle Downton Abbey faces is that it’s a television show trying to make the jump to cinema, which has led to hits like Sex and the City and disappointments like Entourage, both based on HBO shows, oddly.

Either way, there are likely to be some areas in the country where there’s just no interest in this movie at all. I imagine a movie like this will do better in big cities that have a decent arthouse crowd… and women of a certain age will certainly pick this over any of the other movies above. But the question is whether the diehards who watched the show for free on PBS will make the effort to pay to buy tickets to go see the movie in theaters.

Downton Abbey should be able to pull in the diehard fans that should allow it to make more than $20 million, mainly based on the 3,000+ theaters into which Focus was able to get the movie, but it’s going head to head against Brad Pitt‘s Ad Astra (below) with an opening in the $20 to 25 million range.

AD ASTRA (20thCentury Fox)

Ad Astra
20th Century Fox

Cast: Brad Pitt, Liv Tyler, Ruth Negga, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Annie McDaniels, John Ortiz, Kimberly Elise, LisaGay Hamilton
Directed By: James Gray (The Lost City of Z, Two Lovers, We Own the Nightand more)
MPAA Rating:  PG-13

These days, Brad Pittappears in so few movies that when he has two movies within the course of two months, it’s a pretty big deal. Ad Astrapairs him with filmmakerJames Gray, who has been on the verge of breaking out for over twenty years, mostly getting critical praise but not really translating that into a devout fanbase of moviegoers. That may or may not change with Ad Astra, this year’s outer space epic.

Gray’s last film was 2017’s The Lost City of Z, starring Robert Pattinson and Tom Holland, a South American adventure released by Bleecker Street, which only grossed $8.6 million when released six months after its New York Film Festival premiere. To date, Gray’s biggest hit to date was 2007’s We Own the Night, starring his regular collaborator Joaquin Phoenix, and that grossed $28.6 million with a release by Sony Pictures.

Ad Astra is an original sci-fi film Gray co-wrote with Ethan Gross that’s been in development for quite some time. Getting Brad Pitt on board as star and producer helped get Gray the budget he needed, as well as getting the backing of 20thCentury Fox. Unlike many other actors, Pitt just becomes a bigger and bigger star as he gets older and makes fewer movies. He’s coming off Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, which has grossed over $135 million so far. That was his first movie in three years – Deadpool 2cameo aside – but other than Robert Zemeckis’ Allied in 2016, which stalled out with $40 million, Pitt has been involved with producing and having small roles in a number of Fall “awards contenders” including The Big Short (Best Picture nominee) and 12 Years a Slave (Best Picture winner). Pitt already has his Oscar for the latter, but this is the first year since 2012’s Moneyballwhere Pitt is seriously in Oscar consideration for his acting, mostly for Tarantino’s film, but also possibly for this one.

Although Pitt is a big factor in the movie’s success, I have to make sure to mention some of Gray’s other cast, which includes a couple Oscar winners and nominees, including Christopher Plummer, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga (Preacher), and Liv Tyler, who previously (and maybe ironically) starred in Michael Bay’s 1998 outer space movie Armageddon.

To really get some idea how Ad Astra might do, we have to take a look at a few other recent “space movies,” including a couple that were also in the Oscar race – I’ll go with four:

Gravity (Release Date: 10/4/13)
Opening Weekend: $55.8 million
Total Gross (Domestic): $274 million

Interstellar (Release Date: 11/5/14)
Opening Weekend: $47.5 million
Total Gross (Domestic): $188 million

The Martian (Release Date: 10/2/15)
Opening Weekend: $54.3 million
Total Gross (Domestic): $228.4 million

First Man (Release Date: 10/12/18)
Opening Weekend: $16 million
Total Gross (Domestic): $44.9 million

If we look at those first three, maybe it’s not a surprise that Fox greenlit Gray’s movie, because the studio had big success with Ridley Scott’s The Martianfour years ago, and that was already being released using a similar pattern as Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravitytwo years earlier. In between the two was Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a rare sci-fi film from the director of “The Dark Knight Trilogy” that also did decently, if not as well as the other two. But then last year, we have First Man, Oscar-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle’s Apollo 11 movie starring Ryan Gosling, which failed to meet expectations of the other two.

While Pitt can be considered as big (or even bigger) a star as those other movies i.e. Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey, Matt Damonand Ryan Gosling, respectively, Gray certainly doesn’t have the status as a filmmaker as the others, even First Man director Chazelle, who was coming off his Oscar win for directing La La Land. Then again, there’s also the famed George Clooney remake of the space movie Solaris, which topped out with less than $15 million in 2002.

Although Pitt’s appeal is fairly non-gender-specific, one would presume that Ad Astra would appeal more to men more than women but not be as male-dominated as say Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo: Last Blood (see below), which might take a good chunk of the audience that might put this movie closer to the $30 million mark. Definitely having the movie released on IMAX and other large-format screens should help, because ticket prices are higher.

There’s still the question of why Fox (or rather, Disney) moved the movie from its original Memorial Day weekend release, except that it clashed with Disney’s Aladdin, starring Will Smith. It’s hard to tell whether it would have done better over that holiday movie-going weekend as counter-programming, and we’ll probably never know

Ad Astra premiered at the Venice Film Festival over Labor Day weekend to solid reviews, which should help bolster any interest in the movie that already exists. Even so, with so much competition in theaters this weekend and far less festival buzz than movies like Gravity, it doesn’t feel like Ad Astra can match some of the success of those earlier movies. I’m not even sure it will be #1, because it all depends on whether or not Downton Abbey breaks out as some seem to think.

Read Hannah Lodge’s review of Ad Astra

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD (Lionsgate)

Rambo
Lionsgate

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Paz Vega, Yvette Monreal, Louis Mandylor, Oscar Jaenada, Sheila Shah, Adriana Barraza
Directed By: Adrian Grunberg (Get the Gringo)
MPAA Rating: R

While we do get an original movie this weekend, we also get the return of a well-liked or at least appreciated Sylvester Stallone franchise, which began all the way back in 1982 with his movie First Blood. A violent revenge flick with Stallone playing Vietnam vet John Rambo, who is abused by a small town sheriff and his men, triggering flashbacks to Vietnam and a desire for revenge. That movie was successful enough to lead to two more “Rambo” flicks in the ‘80s before the character was retired for twenty years. 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part IIwas a particularly huge hit, grossing $150 million, and it was one of two huge Stallone blockbusters along with Rocky IV.

Stallone’s most recent outing as John Rambo was in the appropriately-titled 2008 film Rambo— directed by Stallone as well — which opened with $18 million and grossed $42.7 million, just over a year after Stallone returned to his other popular franchise with 2006’s Rocky Balboa.

Although the movie was barely profitable, grossing $113 million worldwide on a $50 million budget, Lionsgate and Stallone are giving it another go with a movie that will presumably end the franchise. I’m sure that after the success of the “Creed” movies and the first couple of “Expendables,” Lionsgate figured that Stallone still has an audience that wants to see him in classic roles. This movie is directed by Adrian Grunberg, who has worked extensively with Mel Gibson, directing him in 2012’s Get the Gringo.

We have to remember that it’s now been over ten years since the last “Rambo” movie, and there’s less of a nostalgia factor playing into the mix than the previous Rambo, even if Stallone continues to have his fans. For this one, he’s teamed with Spanish star Paz Vega, Oscar-nominated actor Adriana Barraza from Babel and the recent Dora and the Lost City of Gold, and lesser-known 27-year-old Yvette Monreal, who will appear in the upcoming Stargirl TV series.

Since much of this film takes place in Mexico, Lionsgate is attempting to bring in the profitable LatinX audiences that could help push Rambo: Last Bloodover the top, especially since it’s more likely to bring in males who prefer more grounded action than, say,  the more cerebral Ad Astra.

That said, Lionsgate hasn’t made too much effort to show the movie to critics before opening day, which means the quality could be all over the place. I won’t be seeing it until later today myself, so we’ll see if critics rally around the movie and help give it a push to any doubters.

Still, there is a built-in audience for a Stallone movie like this, and I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be able to do at least $15 million in business this weekend, though probably closer to $18 or 19 million.

My Review of Rambo: Last Blood

As I mentioned above, this weekend is a bit of a mess because Ad Astra is likely to be the #1 movie but probably with less than $25 million. Then you have Rambo and Downton, both trying to edge their way into the top 5 against strong returning movies. A lot of how the top 5 ends up will have to do with whether any of the new movies are able to make a bigger push going into the weekend, although Ad Astrais the only movie without a built-in fanbase other than Brad Pitt stans.

This Week’s Box Office Predictions:

  1. Downton Abbey (Focus Features) – $22.8 million N/A
  2. Ad Astra (20th Century Fox) – $20.6 million N/A
  3. Rambo: Last Blood (Lionsgate) – $18.5 million N/A
  4. It: Chapter Two (New Line/WB) – $17 million -57%
  5. Hustlers (STXfilms) – $15.6 million -53%
  6. Good Boys (Universal) – $2.5 million -40%
  7. The Lion King (Walt Disney) – $2.4 million -34%
  8. Angel Has Fallen (Lionsgate) – $2.3 million -49%
  9. Overcomer (Sony/Affirm) – $1.7 million -37%
  10. Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw (Universal) – $1.4 million -48%

Some of the limited releases this weekend, include genre films like the home invasion twist Villains, starring Maika Monroe and Bill Skarsgard, opening in about 100 theaters on Friday, and Seann William Scott as a serial killer in Henry Jacobson’s thriller Bloodline. It’s no coincidence that I’ll have interviews for both movies this week! Also, GKIDS releases Studio TRIGGER’s anime Promare on Friday, following Fathom Events screenings across the country on the 17th and 19th.

Next week, September comes to an end with the Universal/DreamWorks family movie Abominable.

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