Welcome back to the Beat’s weekly Box Office Preview! Another weekend with just one movie, so let’s just get right into it…

JOKER (Warner Bros.)

Warner Bros.

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Marc Maron, Frances Conroy, Shea Whigham, Brett Cullet, Douglas Hodge, Bill Camp, Dante Pereira-Olson, Josh Pais, Isabella Ferreira
Directed By: Todd Phillips (The Hangover TrilogyOld SchoolWar DogsStarsky and HutchDue Date)
MPAA Rating: R

Where do we even begin with a movie that partially seems review-proof but also has stirred up so much advance controversy it might drive ticket sales to an insane — dare I say, batty?– level.

If you have gone into super-early winter hibernation the past few months, Joker is the new movie from director Todd Phillips, best known for his raunchy R-rated comedies like “The Hangover Trilogy.” It’s meant as an origin story to the Batman villain with Joaquin Phoenix playing the Clown Prince of Crime back when he was merely a street clown.

From the comics to the ‘60s TV show to Tim Burton’s 1989 movie Batman to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the Joker has always been a popular favorite – too evil to be considered an anti-hero, though his erratic nature has found him a lot of fans among creators and actors in all different media. Jack Nicolson famously played the Joker in Burton’s movie but the late Heath Ledger won an Oscar post-humously for his portrayal in The Dark Knight, and Jared Leto gave it a try – not as successfully — for Suicide Squad.

Now, it’s Phoenix’s turn, and it’s quite a departure for him in terms of being a “mainstream” studio film with potentially mass appeal. It’s been 14 years since Phoenix received his Oscar nomination playing Johnny Cash in James Mangold’s Walk the Line, which was also his last movie to gross over $100 million, which makes his strength as a box office draw questionable. Before that, he had success with two M. Night Shyamalan movies,Signs  ($228 million gross in 2002) and The Village  ($114 million in 2004). The first one was probably helped by the presence of Mel Gibson, who was still a big box office star at that time.

More recently, Phoenix has barely been able to get a movie over the $10 million mark, although Spike Jonez’ Herin 2013 is the highest grosser with $25 million. His 2014 noir film Inherent Vice, reuniting him with Paul Thomas Anderson after The Master ended up grossing just $8 million despite having the same studio as Her behind it – just no Oscar buzz. Phoenix has received three Oscar nominations so far, and Jokeris rumored to get him a fourth, but if the movie is as problematic as some think, that might hurt his chances of winning in a very competitive category. Part of why Phoenix isn’t doing so many big movies – he was up to play Doctor Strange apparently, for a while – is that he’s known to be a nightmare in interviews.

The film also stars Robert De Niro, coming off the almost unanimous praise for his performance in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, which premiered at the New York Film Festival last Friday; Zazie Beetz, who played Domino in last year’s Deadpool2; comedian and podcaster Marc Maron and others, although much of the focus for the film is put right on Phoenix.

We do have to take under consideration that this is a movie that’s going to be appealing to comic book fans despite only being a comic book movie in the same way that Loganwas a comic book movie. That film written and directed by James Mangold  opened with $88.4 million and grossed $226.3 million domestically, making it a pretty good benchmark for Phillips’ R-rated movie.

The other thing that needs to be considered is that October has rarely been known as a good time to release a movie until recently, and last year’s Venom is another good comparison, although that was PG-13. Venom opened with $80.2 million despite horrid reviews and grossed $213.5 million. Two weeks later, Universal opened Blumhouse’s Halloween reboot to $76.2 million, though that was far more frontloaded. After that, there  have been quite a few movies that opened in the $50 million or high-$48 million range, but Joker seems like it should benefit from buzz and higher ticket prices.

Reviews for Joker have been considerably better than for Venom – that’s mainly from its festival screenings — and it even won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, much to the surprise of many. We still have to see how audiences will react to it compared to say Suicide Squad or the last few Zack Snyder movies set in the DC Universe. Then there’s the controversy surrounding the movie, which has been all over the news for the past week or so. Some of it is troubling, like the worries that some crazies might use the opportunity to cause havok at screenings, much like happened at a screening of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Night Risesin Aurora, Colorado seven years ago. This is something that shouldn’t scare off too many people, as this is not a regular occurrence and surely, the government is doing something to make sure people as crazy as the Joker can’t get their hands on automatic weapons, right? Oh… :(

In fact, the controversy is probably just going to drive curiosity and interest in Joker up seven higher, and that’s with ticket sales selling at a pretty brisk pace even without it. There was a time when I thought Joker could open with $75 or 80 million, but that controversy has been prevalent in the news cycle, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up making closer to $100 million opening weekend. Yes, even with an R-rating… in October. I’m figuring it can indeed set a new October opening record based on a possible $40 million opening day – maybe $13 to 15 million of that in Thursday previews. (Bear in mind that previews begin Thursday at 4pm, so Joker will be even more frontloaded to Friday than most movies.) We’ll have to see if audiences are interested enough to get Joker close to the $300 million mark, but chances are, it will end up being highly front-loaded — much like other DC movies — and probably will end up in the same general range as Venom in terms of box office.

Also opening moderately into roughly 300 theaters Wednesday is the Bollywood action-thriller War, which could pop into the top 10 somewhere if it maintains business through the weekend. That’s what happens when you only have one wide release for a few weeks in a row and much of the summer movies are still holding on for dear life at the bottom of the top 10. After the success of Renée Zellwegger’s Judy this past weekend, Roadside Attractions is expanding the movie into around 1,400 theaters so expect it to get a nice bump up the top 10.

This Week’s Box Office Predictions:  

  1. Joker (Warner Bros.) – $93.6 million N/A
  2. Abominable (DreamWorks/Universal) – $12.8 million -38%
  3. Downton Abbey (Focus Features) – $7.9 million -45%
  4. Hustlers (STXfilms) – $7.2 million -37%
  5. Ad Astra (20thCentury Fox) – $5.2 million -48%
  6. Judy (Roadside Attractions) – $5 million +67%
  7. It: Chapter Two (New Line/WB) – $4.5 million -52%
  8. Rambo: Last Blood (Lionsgate) – $3.4 million -55%
  9. War (Yash Raj Films) – $1.2 million N/A
  10. Good Boys (Universal) – $1.1 million -45%

As it’s the fall, we’re starting to get a few more high-profile limited releases including Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory, starring Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz, plus the directorial debut of Legion creator Noah HawleyLucy in the Sky, starring Natalie Portman. Also, Netflix will release Dolemite Is My Name, starring Eddie Murphy as comedian/entertainer Rudy Ray Moore, into select cities this weekend in advance of its streaming debut on October 25.

It’s sad that Will Smith’s second movie in the course of a few months is likely to be overshadowed by the second week of Joker, but his teaming with Ang Lee for the sci-fi action film Gemini Manwill come out next week, as will the animated The Addams Family (U.A. Releasing) and the tech comedyJexi (CBS Films), starring Adam Devine.