Alita: Battle Angel exceeded box office expectations during its opening weekend, so how did that happen? After spending years in development, the James Cameron-produced, Robert Rodriguez-directed manga adaptation finally hit theaters last week, looking to become one of Fox's last big hits in the studio's pre-Disney era. Even though it sported an all-star creative team and had plenty of visual flair to spare, things didn't look particularly good for Alita at the outset.
The earliest box office projections for the film painted a disastrous picture, with estimates set at around $23 million for the first four days. Fortunately, Alita did much better than that. Its actuals came in at approximately $43 million over the extended Presidents Day weekend. The film obviously has a long way to go to turn a profit given its pricey production budget, but this was a solid start for a movie many thought would crash and burn as soon as it entered theaters. And there are a few reasons why that is.
For starters, Fox was very smart when they decided to shift Alita's release date. At one point, the film was scheduled to debut over Christmas, where it would have gone head-to-head against the likes of Aquaman, Mary Poppins Returns, Bumblebee, and others. In all likelihood, Alita would have been lost in the shuffle and struggled to stand out. Even Bumblebee, a spinoff of the popular Transformers franchise, stumbled commercially during this timeframe with Aquaman cruising to $1 billion worldwide. Moving Alita to a less-competitive February window definitely improved its box office prospects. Both Glass and The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part underperformed, opening the door for Alita to win the weekend by a sizable margin. It filled a void for general moviegoers.
Alita was also a movie that demanded to be seen on the biggest of screens. Marketing played up the incredible special effects and production design, billing the film as a one-of-a-kind 3D experience. For all the prevalence of streaming services and other home entertainment options, that kind of unique viewing can really only be attained by going to the theater. The spectacle of Alita drew curious eyes to the multiplex to see if the film really was a groundbreaking technical masterpiece. Having Cameron's name attached may have helped in this regard, since promotional materials were able to make mention of Avatar, a film that everyone remembers for its visual splendor and revolutionary use of completely immersive 3D. That connection may not have led to Alita breaking records, but it certainly got some people's attention.
Unlike similar titles such as the Ghost in the Shell live-action adaptation, Alita received generally positive reviews. It's by no means a critical darling and has its fair share of issues (like the lack of a clear ending), but word-of-mouth wasn't as negative as some might have thought it would be based on the history of the genre. There are several properties in Hollywood that are critic-proof and will make money no matter what, but in the case of Alita, it needed to land on the good side of the spectrum. It couldn't afford to be torn apart by reviewers, because then it would be dead on arrival. The reactions probably encouraged more people to check it out, since they knew their dollar would be well-spent. It'll be interesting to see what kind of legs Alita has, but it got off to a solid start.