When it comes to box office, sometimes it’s not when you open but who you open against. While it’s true that studios are increasingly focused on achieving a number one opening above all else, it also remains true that piling up ticket sales as a strong second-choice mainstay can be just as if not more lucrative in the long term. This is a strategy many studios are looking to rediscover in an era of franchises like Star Wars and The Avengers, which are so massive that their installments are expected to take first place regardless of what opens against them. This effectively turns the race for “top alternative” into a major strategic focus: Do you release a direct competitor to pick up sold-out overflow? A total opposite for an alternate crowd? Both? It’s a big gamble that can have a bigger payoff.
Case in point, Warner Bros. has moved its original challenger to Disney’s Star Wars: Rogue One on December 16, Chicken Soup For The Soul: The Movie, to 2017. In its place, they will instead release the Will Smith drama Collateral Beauty — putting two of the biggest names in Hollywood on a holiday box-office collision course.
Originally set to be directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, late of Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl, as a project for Hugh Jackman, Collateral Beauty is now set to be helmed by David Frankel of Entourage, Sex & The City and The Devil Wears Prada. Full details of the film’s plot are not readily available, but early synopses found Smith’s character as a powerful advertising executive who falls into a serious depression after a personal tragedy. His friends collaborate on an “unconventional plan” to help him get back on his feet, which works — but with “unexpected results.” A major lineup of talent including Edward Norton, Helen Mirren, and Michael Peña are scheduled for supporting roles.
While many are likely to scoff at Warner Bros. for “wasting” a potential hit drama by setting it up to be buried by a guaranteed hit, the math is not quite so simple as that. While the Star Wars brand name is more powerful than ever, Rogue One represents an unknown quantity in terms of being the first theatrical spinoff for the franchise rather than part of the main series’ storyline. While fans are expected to turn out big for Rogue One, it remains unknown in these new spinoff features will have the same drawing power with casual filmgoers who may not be as invested in the expanded Star Wars mythology.
Working against Warner Bros., at least potentially, is the fact that Smith’s box-office draw is not exactly what it used to be. While still one of the most well-known actors and powerful Hollywood figures on the planet, Smith has not had a major hit since Men In Black 3 in 2012. Since then he’s appeared primarily in underperforming fare like After Earth, cameoed in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and Winter’s Tale and starred in well received, but underperforming dramas like Focus and Concussion. On the other hand, Smith will be coming off of a big role as Deadshot in the DC Extended Universe feature Suicide Squad, so his stature may have been reinvigorated by that point.
Opening against a Star Wars movie — or even just being out at the same time — is generally considered ill-advised for rival films looking to turn a profit, with Lionsgate recently blaming The Force Awakens’ for the underwhelming performance of its final Hunger Games installment. But in other cases it has proven to be a smashing success: In 1999, Universal famously moved the Julia Roberts/Hugh Grant romantic comedy Notting Hill back nine days from its original planned release date in order to open closer to The Phantom Menace as an alternative option. The studio was rewarded for their risky gambit with one of the biggest hits of either star’s career to that point.
Star Wars: Episode 7 – The Force Awakens is now in theaters, and will be followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on December 16th, 2016, Star Wars: Episode 8 on December 15th, 2017, and the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25th, 2018. Star Wars: Episode 9 is expected to reach theaters in 2019, followed by the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.