Commentary

There's Box Office Gold In Them There Grays

With 80% of the audience over the age of 35, Clint Eastwood’s “Sully” took in $35.5 million in North America over its opening weekend for Warner Bros., exceeding expectations by $10 million and proving once again the power of lingering stars.

“The pic recounts the tale of US Airways Flight 1549, otherwise known as the ‘Miracle on the Hudson.’ The plane, piloted by [Chesley ‘Sully’] Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), was met with disaster minutes after taking off from New York City's LaGuardia Airport on Jan. 15, 2009, when a flock of Canadian [sic] geese disabled both engines,” Pamela McClintock reminds us in the Hollywood Reporter. “With no other option, Sully was forced to make a water landing on the Hudson River. All 155 passengers and crew survived, with Sully becoming an instant hero.”

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The opening box office “was roughly 40% higher than what most analysts had predicted before the film’s release,” reports Brooks Barnes for the New York Times. “‘Sully’ cost Warner Bros. and financing partners like Village Roadshow about $60 million to make before promotion costs.”

“This is the kind of sophisticated drama that is the antidote for older audiences to the youth-driven blockbuster stylings of the summer season. It proves that going to the movies is not just a youth-driven habit,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore, tells the Associated Press’ Lindsey Bahr. 

“In fact, according to comScore's PostTrak audience survey, 39% turned out because of Hanks. Dergarabedian said that for stars that number is normally in the single digits,” Bahr reports.

“The director benefits from the era's bedrock actor in Tom Hanks, who captures the quirks and habits of Sullenberger, while maintaining just enough Hanks-ness to please the moviegoing masses,” writes Hearst Newspapers Peter Hartlaub. “This is the actor's gift. His success depends on taking the positive traits in a character and filtering them through his own persona, while still remaining believable.”

Promotion included Hanks appearing on shows as varied as “Jimmy Kimmel Live” (alongside “Sully” himself, who also stars in a fake biopic called “Hanks,” Brett Bodner reports in the New York Daily News) to a wide-ranging radio interview with WNYC’s Leonard Lopate.

All of which means that “the best days at the box office may be yet to come for ‘Sully,’ thanks to its appeal to older audiences,” writes Libby Hill for the Los Angeles Times.

“With adult dramas, it’s not about opening day,” says Jeff Goldstein, head of distribution for Warner Bros. “It’s not about opening weekend. Adults don’t rush out on release day, but they’re going to come see it.”

“It’s a part so perfectly tailored for Hanks — dutiful pilot, humble hero, American Everyman — that it would have seemed almost criminal to cast any other actor, akin to Frank Capra sending someone else to Washington in Jimmy Stewart’s place,” writes Christopher Orr in The Atlantic. But, overall, Orr finds the plot of the movie — one that has the disadvantage of everyone knowing the happy outcome of the dramatic element from the beginning — as overwrought and silly.

Without giving away the plot, let’s just say that the National Transportation Safety Board investigators who were charged with interviewing Sullenberger and deconstructing the crash landing were not pleased with their depiction.

“I think we’re getting the dirty end of the stick here, Robert Benzon, a 27-year NTSB veteran who oversaw the investigation before retiring in 2012, told Bloomberg’s Robert Levin before the release. “From what I hear, this is somewhere between ‘Sharknado 2’ and ‘Sharknado 3.’ I just hope it isn’t as bad as everyone is telling me it is.”

It was. 

“Director Eastwood has admitted that he needed a villain. ‘Where’s the antagonist?’ he reportedly asked when approached about the project,” writes Barbara Peterson for Condé Nast Traveler. “Sully’s best-selling book, Highest Duty, was more inspirational than a tell-all, and offered no candidates for the role of black hat. So the filmmakers solved their no-drama problem, in true Hollywood fashion, by making one up.”

USA Today’s Andrea Mandell spoke to Hanks, Eastwood and Sullenberger last week. She writes:

“Hanks, no stranger to playing real men, from astronaut Jim Lovell in Apollo 13 to the hijacked merchant mariner in Captain Phillips, says when he met Sullenberger to discuss the role, I said, ‘Look, I’m going to say things you never said and I’m going to do things you never did and I’ll be places you never were. Now, taking that into account ... 

“Eastwood laughs broadly. ‘Other than that, it’s a great film.’”

Not all critics went that far but it scored a respectable 83% among critics on Rotten Tomatoes and 89% from regular folk drawn by the light of star power.

3 comments about "There's Box Office Gold In Them There Grays".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics, September 12, 2016 at 9:01 a.m.

    Thom, your opening line raises a question. Are you saying that 80% of the Eastwood movie's theater attendees were over the age of 35 or is this a referrence to the movie attending public in general? If the latter is the case, I find the stat hard to accept though I have no doubt that Eastwood's film probably catered to an older than usual audience.

  2. Thom Forbes from T.H. Forbes Co., September 12, 2016 at 9:32 a.m.

    From another source, Ed, Variety: "Audiences were 80% over 35 and 56% female. Warner distribution exec Jeffrey Goldstein said strong support among older moviegoers means “Sully” will hold well in the coming weeks."

  3. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics, September 12, 2016 at 10:24 a.m.

    Thanks, Thom.

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