MLK Box Office Looks Beyond ‘Avatar’ And ‘M3gan’ And Sees Reason For Hope

We started the year on a strong note with the suspension of “Avatar: The Way of Water” (Disney) and a $30 million start for low-budget horror film “M3EGAN” (Universal). Now we have the Martin Luther King weekend, historically one of the strongest before May. This time around, he faces some impediments: a lack of carryovers, few stretch award pitches and no top-tier starters. Pre-Covid MLK debuts like “Bad Boys for Life,” “American Sniper,” “Glass,” and “Ride Along” opened to over $40 million.

Between 2018 and 2020, the three-day MLK weekend totaled between $130 million and $166 million (not calculating a 20 percent increase in ticket prices). This year it will be closer to $100 million. Still, that would be a significant improvement over last year ($72 million) and would continue the increase from earlier in the year.

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This weekend offers multiple possibilities to encourage long-term optimism and suggest better times are ahead in 2023. Here’s what the experts will be looking at:

Is the market expanding?

The best news last weekend was that “The Way of Water” was down just 31 percent after a holiday weekend, while “M3GAN” opened with an impressive $30 million. That made it clear that the James Cameron film wasn’t a market fluke (suggested by the weak Christmas totals) or that it strictly benefited from its lack of competition.

With the expansion of “A Man Called Otto” (Sony) and a grand opening of “Plane” (Lionsgate), this weekend has a shot at four movies grossing over $10 million. That hasn’t happened in almost six months, and it would be a sign that multiple movies can be successfully released at the same time, a critical factor in box office recovery.

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“Avatar: The Way of Water” - Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

“Avatar: The Way of Water” – Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Can originality overcome resistance?

Although the top 10 domestic releases of 2022 are franchise-related, six independent titles grossed more than $100 million. Still, more often than not (“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” “Babylon” last month), the original hit outside of horror movies remains the exception. This week you’ll see the originals “Plane” and “Otto” (although it’s a remake of the 2015 Swedish film “A Man Called Ove”); there’s also “House Party,” which may seem new to anyone under 35 (the last title in the initial franchise came out in 1994). None of these movies can claim multiple audience quadrants, but the success of at least two of them would be a win for theaters.

“A Man Called Otto”

After a disastrous week-long shelf (not helped by mixed-to-bad reviews), last weekend’s limited expansion of Tom Hanks’ comedy fared better than expected with a per-theater average of $6,597. If word of mouth is good, this title could be a pleasant surprise. Tracking suggests he will sit at No. 3 over the weekend, with the possibility of a mid-teens gross. It’s not a hit but it’s respectable, particularly when that would see it surpass “The Fabelmans” (Universal) and “The Banshees of Inisherin” (Searchlight), which have been box office disappointments despite the awards spotlight.

“Airplane”

Initial reviews of this Gerald Butler action game are not bad. It’s unclear if the marketing has hooked up, but if audiences respond to this as the right kind of goofy fun, it could exceed low expectations. As of now, $10 million is possible. Butler elevated “Greenland” to a decent response in late 2020 when theaters were just reopening, with his 2019 “Angel Has Fallen” (a particular Robert Downey, Jr. favorite) opening to $21 million. This type of film used to be Lionsgate’s bread and butter, but last year its biggest hit only grossed $20 million. It needs to get back to form, and theaters need Lionsgate.

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“Party in the House”

This is a wild card. Originally slated to go straight to HBO Max, it first moved into theaters on December 9 and then pushed forward to fulfill this weekend’s tradition of the black-oriented film. This has a more limited run (around 1,200 theaters) with exhibitors expecting early PVOD availability ahead of HBO Max at 45 days. That will reduce the gross, which according to industry projections is around $5 million. It’s a (weird) comedy aimed at a younger (even weirder) audience.

“M3GAN” - Credit: ©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

“M3GAN” – Credit: ©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

“Avatar: The Way of Water” and “M3GAN”

Any dip below 35 percent would be great for “The Way of Water” and raise expectations for its final domestic gross to $700 million or more, potentially competing with “Maverick” as the best release of 2022. Horror Movies they typically drop 50 percent on the second weekend. If “M3GAN” can keep that to 40 percent or less, particularly with increased competition, that’s a sign it could hit the unexpected $100 million.

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