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The Weekend Movie Takeaway: Audiences Find Faith in ‘I Still Believe’

March 16, 2020
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2 min read time

Turns out, a lot can change in a week.

Seven days after the previous weekend's results began to show the impact of growing fears around the coronavirus, this past weekend’s box office “cratered,” to use a term floating around the industry at the moment, with overall takings representing a 22 year low.

And now that both New York and Los Angeles have ordered all cinemas to close, it's probably the last weekend that we'll even have relevant box office results for a while.

Despite the huge downturn, three new releases plied their wares over the weekend.

Last week's champ Onward came in number one with a mere $10 million in weekend earnings. The running domestic total for the Pixar original is now at around $60 million, not a complete a total disaster, but still massively affected by the pandemic.

The most successful new offering that came out of the weekend was I Still Believe, a faith-based drama with a strong musical element inspired by a true story. It comes from filmmaker brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin, who also gave us the similarly-themed film, I Can Only Imagine, which defied expectations to become a breakout success in 2018. I Can Only Imagine eventually earned an astounding $83 million at the domestic box office.

The Erwin brothers’ early success indicated an audience hunger for faith-based narratives that the market wasn't serving, and so with bigger stars (Riverdale's K.J. Apa and Tomorrowland's Britt Robertson) and a bigger budget, I Still Believe was clearly designed to expand upon the embracing of I Can Only Imagine and push faith-based narratives further into the mainstream.

The relative take was healthy—$9.5 million, earning it second place—but the impact was obviously heavily diminished by warnings to the public about large gatherings, which took hold over the weekend.

Separated from the public health crisis, I Still Believe's showing nevertheless demonstrates that mainstream Hollywood isn't serving the large market that’s out there for faith-based narratives. These are narratives that have long since gone out of favor, but every few years, a film or two reminds us that audiences want these kinds of movies.

Coming in just behind I Still Believe was the Vin Diesel action flick Bloodshot, which earned $9.3 million. This narrative is notable in that while it's a superhero comic book adaptation, it’s not from a comic book published by either Marvel or DC, the two industry titans that made these adaptations mainstream.

It can be easy to forget that there are publishers beyond the big two, but in the comic book boomtimes of the early '90s, Valiant had a strong following. So with Disney and Warner Bros. gleefully mining all the worth they can scrounge out of their wholly-owned Marvel and DC subsidiaries (respectively), Hollywood was eventually going to start looking beyond these two publishers for material.

Bloodshot was one of the first big offerings on this front, and represents a necessary widening of perspective in terms of comic book narrative source material.

Down at the number five position was a film that can't seem to catch a break; The Hunt. The politically-themed darkly comic action thriller was originally supposed to be released in September, but was delayed after the film got caught up in a misinformed public furore over its perceived anti-conservative themes.

The release was delayed, and when a new opening date was announced, the marketing leaned into the controversy to try and draw in audiences. Then a global pandemic broke out, and The Hunt could only muster 5.3 million over the weekend to earn fifth place, behind The Invisible Man.

The fragility of its commercial fate speaks to the perils of courting controversy with narrative—we love to do it, but it can easily backfire.

Going forward, there is a lot of speculation over the comforting role that narrative will play as we all hole up in our homes. Like everything else about this situation, it's a story currently without an ending.

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