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The Weekend Movie Takeaway: Sequels Don’t Equal Success as Joker Has the Last Laugh

October 21, 2019
2 min read time

Over the past month or so, there’ve been various cases at the box office that could be considered as highly encouraging for big screen storytelling. Key developments following some of those trends occurred over the weekend.

But first, the weekend box office, led by the underperforming Disney live-action sequel Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. The film, which few would describe as having been eagerly anticipated, took in $36 million—approximately half the opening gross earned by the original in 2014—and not the kind of coin that would justify the massive expense behind the special effects-laden fantasy.

There aren't many times a mass-market Disney film misses the mark, but these results seem to point towards an overestimation in the audience's investment in these characters and this world. The original earned almost a quarter of a billion dollars, so a sequel isn't the craziest proposition in the world. However, the decision to go ahead with one appears to have been made without much regard for what the narrative demanded.

In its third weekend in theaters, Joker managed to snag second place in the box office charts, outpacing the weekend's other major new release: Zombieland: Double Tap. Another late-arriving sequel that overperceived both audience goodwill and a narrative reason for being. The original Zombieland came out a decade ago (something the film doesn't hesitate to make fun of), and while it was a grand old time for all involved, it's difficult to imagine viewers spending much time wondering what happened to the geographically-named characters after the credits rolled. At least enough to warrant revisiting this makeshift zombie-fighting family.

Back when Amazon Prime used to put their pilots out into the world for the audience to rate, a crummy series adaptation of Zombieland was offered-up, then never picked up. That, along with the surfeit of zombie-related content that flooded the market in the last ten years—something else the film has fun with—may have resulted in an audience far less excited about the prospect of a Zombieland follow-up than they might've been in say...2011.

Zombieland: Double Tap took in just under $27 million, trailing right behind Joker’s 29 million. But more important than Joker snagging second place over the weekend, is it became apparent that the film is on its way to becoming the top grossing R-rated film of all time.

In the slow-witted world of movie trends, that will hopefully result in a whole bunch of other movies attempting to replicate Joker's success by taking similarly bold narrative risks. Which is a great thing for storytelling.

All the talk of the film being “dangerous” amounted to little more than a lot of hand-wringing, but from some perspectives, that may have actually also helped the film. The old adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity seems to apply here. Again, if it results in more films leaning into controversial topics, then that can only be a good thing for storytelling.

The other key development out of the weekend’s box office is that Downton Abbey became Focus Features' highest-ever grossing film at the domestic box office, outpacing 2005's Brokeback Mountain.

Downton Abbey's success at the box office has been a classic case of a neglected section of the audience—in this case, older viewers—rewarding a film geared towards them. The success of the movie proves that blockbusters don't need to be glossy, special effects-laden action movies. Sometimes, captivating characters and a well-told good story can be just as impactful.

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