‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ Overperforms With $40 Million Debut—But Can Its Spell Last?

July 29, 2019, 4:34 PM UTC

Opening against a Disney-minted box-office behemoth like The Lion King, silver was always going to be gold for Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the director’s R-rated requiem for 1969 Los Angeles and its fading film industry.

But with an impressive $40 million haul over its first weekend—pushing past some already-hopeful analyst estimates that put it in the $28-30 million range—Tarantino’s star-studded, adults-only drama is understandably the talk of the town.

The movie’s $40.4 million debut stateside puts it in line with—though a little below—Tarantino’s 2009 WWII flick Inglourious Basterds, a previous high-water mark for the director at the box office that earned $38.1 million ($45 million adjusted for inflation). For an R-rated movie that runs almost three hours (creating additional complications vis-à-vis the number of showtimes that can be logistically scheduled in a given day), that’s not a figure Sony can argue with.

Coming amid a summer crowded with franchise films, it’s also a triumph of counterprogramming and—karmically, given the subject matter—a persuasive argument for the continued survival of the movie star. Pairing Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, two of Hollywood’s biggest names who’ve never before shared a screen, provided the film with a blinding amount of star power, and the prospect of watching them trade one-liners crafted by the famously silver-tongued director evidently gave audiences compelling reason to get to a theater.

But for more bullish analysts who’d wagered the film could hit $50 million in its opening frame, the $40 million gross doesn’t choreograph a happy ending for the Tarantino pic. Once Upon a Time… cost Sony $90 million to make even without factoring in the flashy and extensive marketing campaign. Given that, without a cumulative gross of around $400 million, a figure this opening suggests may be hard to hit, some might consider the movie a disappointment.

The film’s biggest test will come during its second frame. Once Upon a Time… has critics on its side (it’s currently certified fresh with 85% on Rotten Tomatoes), but audience scores were initially lower than usual for the director. A mixed B CinemaScore has rarely been the kiss of death for a studio film, but Tarantino’s past two highest-grossers (Django Unchained with $450 million worldwide and Inglourious Basterds with $316.9 million worldwide) both received A- grades.

It’s critical to note, also, that the film isn’t hitting theaters overseas until August; those numbers are expected to give Once Upon a Time… a significant boost, given Tarantino’s track record of formidable grosses in Europe.

Also in the movie’s a corner: a cunning release strategy by Sony and its studio chief Tom Rothman. By allowing Once Upon a Time… to get kicked around by The Lion King on its opening weekend, Rothman’s gifted the movie with an exciting, weekslong stretch in which there are few major franchise films to speak of, save Universal’s Fast & Furious spinoff Hobbs & Shaw on Aug. 2. That opening should make Once Upon a Time… the destination title for seriously minded moviegoers looking to break from the mega-franchise machine after enduring a summer overrun with Marvel entries and big-budget sequels.

Sony’s strategy also sets the movie up—provided it avoids a total nose-dive in week two—for a protracted box-office stay through September, where it could pushed out into more theaters again, courting awards voters. Though critics were split on the film’s handling of history in its twisty third act, Once Upon a Time… absolutely remains an awards contender for its director, script and stars—not to mention key below-the-line departments like cinematography, costuming, and production design.

Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore, had predicted a strong opening for the film estimating a $30 million gross for the movie and noting that, should it hit that number, Rothman’s carefully chosen corridor could constitute a “sweet spot” for the title.

“If Once Upon a Time in Hollywood turns out to be just for Tarantino fans, then you may see a drop-off at the box office,” Deragabadian told Fortune last week. “But if it catches some Oscar buzz and is in the 80s or 90s on Rotten Tomatoes and becomes a cultural phenomenon, it could have a nice long run at the box office.” 

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