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Can a Couple of Creepy Clowns Scare Up Big Numbers at the Box Office?

Despite the summer crop of $1 billion mega-hits such as Toy Story 4 and Aladdin, it’s been a middling year for the movie business, with the domestic box office down 6.4% so far compared to the same time last year.

But “a couple of creepy clowns” could “get the box office going,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst at Comscore.

He’s referring to the iconic characters at the center of what are expected to be two of Hollywood’s biggest fall films, It: Chapter Two, the follow-up to 2017’s megahit It, and Joker, a dark portrait of Batman’s infamous archnemesis as a demented clown-for-hire. The films, both rated R, are designed to terrify and are generating buzz.

Pennywise the Dancing Clown returns this weekend with his ominous red balloon to strike terror in the hearts of children everywhere in New Line’s It: Chapter Two, and box office hopes are high—with good reason.

IT Chapter 2-Joker
Pennywise from "It: Chapter 2" and Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures; Columbia Pictures

When the original It opened the same weekend two years ago, it raked in $123.4 million, making it the best opening weekend ever for a horror film and the second highest R-rated debut ever (behind Deadpool’s $132.4 million). It was also the biggest September opening ever.

It went on to earn $700 million worldwide, making it the highest-grossing horror film of all time (not adjusting for inflation).

Boxoffice Pro estimates the new film will take in anywhere between $90 million to $130 million in its opening weekend. According to a recent survey from Fandango, the It sequel is the most anticipated fall movie with advance tickets sales the site’s best ever for a horror film. It: Chapter Two has also sold more advance tickets in presales on movie ticketing service Atom Tickets than any other horror movie on the site.

The first It film certainly benefited from pent-up interest in a feature adaptation of the epic 1986 Stephen King novel of the same name. Though it was adapted into a 1990 television miniseries starring Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown, the 2017 feature film adaptation of It marked the first time the source material made it to the big screen.

“The first It was huge. It powered the biggest September ever,” says Dergarabedian.

After proving his mettle with the first installment, Andy Muschietti returns to the director’s chair for the sequel, which features an impressive ensemble—James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, and Bill Hader—among the now-adult members of the so-called Losers Club, 27 years after the original film was set. Bill Skarsgard returns as Pennywise, one of the eponymous shapeshifting monster’s most terrifying incarnations.

The only thing working against It is its nearly three-hour run time, with Leah Greenblatt of EW writing: “The main problem with ‘Chapter Two’ is that it goes on, and on, for so very long. If brevity is not necessarily the soul of a good scare, it would certainly serve a story that sends in the clowns, and then lets them just stay there — leering and lurking and chewing through scene after scene — until there’s nothing left to do but laugh, or leave.”

A month after Pennywise scares audiences in It: Chapter Two, another deranged clown, Joaquin Phoenix as Joker, will hit theaters.

The standalone origin story of the iconic DC Comics supervillain directed by Todd Phillips, recently received an eight-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival and ranks as the second most anticipated fall film, according to Fandango.

Joker has become the must-see movie of the fall,” says Dergarabedian. “We know the DC Comics character, but we’ve never seen him portrayed this way in a standalone movie with a potential Oscar-winning performance.”

Early estimates from Boxoffice Pro project the movie to earn between $70-$95 million in its opening weekend. Joker could be the biggest October opening of all time if it surpasses last year's Venom (which earned $80 million in its opening weekend).

Since Warner Bros. released the final trailer for Joker last week, it’s racked up over 30 million views on YouTube. The first trailer, released five months ago, is close to 60 million views.

Though reviews have been widely mixed, overall, the film’s been well received (it currently has an 83% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). It seems likely that Phoenix will garner some attention come awards season.

Venice Film Festival artistic chief Alberto Barbero recently told Variety that he expects Joker will be “going straight to the Oscars even though it’s gritty, dark, violent. It has amazing ambition and scope.”

Warner Bros. Could Use the Help

It: Chapter Two and Joker, both distributed by Warner Bros. (though It: Chapter Two comes from Warner Bros. division New Line), are expected to give the studio a much-needed boost at the box office after a summer of disappointments.

“A year ago, Warner Bros. was on a roll at the end of the summer with Ocean’s 8, The Meg and Crazy Rich Asians. This summer, it was a different story,” says Dergarabedian.

Despite the star power of Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish and the DC Comics graphic novel source material, The Kitchen opened on Aug. 9 with a dreary $5.5 million domestically in over 2,700 theaters domestically.

Another Warner Bros. release, Blinded by the Light, inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen, opened with just $4 million in 2,300 theaters over the weekend of Aug. 16.

Warner Bros. also bet big on Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which cost $170 million to make (not including marketing costs) and has grossed $385.9 million worldwide since hitting theaters on May 31. That’s not exactly a bomb, but still a disappointment for the studio considering the film’s predecessor, 2014’s Godzilla took in $529 million internationally—and that’s not accounting for inflation.

“Now Warner Bros. is going to have their time to shine in a major way. They’ve got not only the big box office guaranteed hit with It: Chapter Two, but they’ve got a lock on an Oscar contender that will be a long-term box office hit with Joker,” says Dergarabedian. “That’s a really great place for a studio to be. Warner Bros. is poised for a spectacular fall.”

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