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Biopics Get a Brief Boost at the Box Office

‘The Disaster Artist’ and ‘I, Tonya’ make their mark in an otherwise poor year for biographical movies.
Da Dng
By  · Published on December 11th, 2017

‘The Disaster Artist’ and ‘I, Tonya’ make their mark in an otherwise poor year for biographical movies.

As Coco continued to dominate the domestic box office ahead of the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, some awards season titles also saw some success over the weekend. James Franco’s The Disaster Artist expanded into “wide” release (albeit still below 1,000 screens) and managed to take the fourth place slot behind Justice League and Wonder with $6.4M. And the Margot Robbie-led I, Tonya debuted on just four screens but impressively took in a quarter-million bucks for a per-location average of $61K.

Both movies are biopics — The Disaster Artist follows Tommy Wiseau (Franco) during the making of the notorious cult classic The Room and I, Tonya depicts the life of disgraced Olympic skater Tonya Harding (Robbie) — a genre that otherwise hasn’t been doing so well this year. Or in general in recent years. But this is the month for biopic boosts, especially for awards-buzz features like those and the Winston Churchill-focused Darkest Hour as well as the Golden Globes-honored P.T. Barnum musical The Greatest Showman, which opens next week.

Unfortunately, outside of Victoria and Abdul, starring Dame Judie Dench as Queen Victoria again ($22M domestic gross so far), most of the biopics released before December have been ignored by audiences. Even those that might have seemed like awards contenders. One such surprising bomb is Battle of the Sexes, which also received some Golden Globes love today but hasn’t been able to attract enough favor in theaters. The movie, about a landmark tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), has taken in just $12.6M at the box office, just slightly more than half its $25M budget.

Other biopics that fell by the wayside this year despite having rave reviews include:

Marshall, starring Chadwick Boseman as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall ($9.4M gross against a $12M budget).

The Lost City of Z, with Charlie Hunnam as explorer Percy Fawcett ($8.6M domestic gross against a $30M budget).

Only the Brave, about the Granite Mountain Hotshots ($17.9M domestic gross against a $38M budget).

Stronger, in which Jake Gyllenhaal plays Boston Marathon bombing victim Jeff Bauman ($4.2M against a $30M budget).

A United Kingdom, about the interracial marriage of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams Khama (Rosamund Pike) ($3.9M domestic against a $14M budget).

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, about the creator and inspirations for Wonder Woman, played by Luke Evans and Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote, respectively ($1.6M gross).

A Quiet Passion, starring Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson ($1.9M domestic against a $7.3M budget).

Megan Leavey, featuring Kate Mara as the titular Marine ($13.4M gross).

There’s also the semi-disappointment of the acclaimed Tom Cruise-as-Bobby Seale movie American Made, the domestic gross from which just barely surpassed its $50M budget. Another one of the highest-grossing biopics of 2017, second only to the Cruise film, is the critically panned Tupac movie All Eyez on Me, which also just barely overshot its budget, taking in $44.9M domestically against a reported cost of $40M. Then, do we count King Arthur: Legend of the Sword? Probably not, but even if so it’s a major flop with a $39.2M gross against a $175M budget.

Further disappointments include:

The relatively well-reviewed Holocaust-set Antonina Zabinski biopic The Zookeeper’s Wife ($17.4M domestic against a $20M budget*).

The acclaimed Ray Kroc biopic The Founder, which had debuted in a few theaters in 2016 for Oscar consideration (unsuccessful at that) before flopping in wide release in 2017 ($12.8M domestic against a $25M budget).

Rob Reiner’s poorly received LBJ with Woody Harrelson as President Lyndon B. Johnson ($2.5M against a $20M budget).

And the fairly well-reviewed A.A. Milne biopic Goodbye, Christopher Robin, which remains stuck in limited release ($1.7M domestic).

Besides The Disaster Artist and I, Tonya, though, there is some hope for the rest of this year, all three weeks of it. The Greatest Showman could do well enough, though it does have a high budget of $83M to surpass. And Oscar hopeful The Post, with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Kay Graham, respectively, ought to be a hit. Given the surprising Golden Globes attention, perhaps Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, about the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty III, will do some business to make up for that costly last-minute $10M reshoot to replace Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer. Meanwhile, currently in theaters with a domestic gross so far of $4.3M, the Charles Dickens biopic The Man Who Invented Christmas ought to pick up as the titular holiday approaches.

Could any 2017 release hit as big as last year’s top two biopics, Hidden Figures, which earned most of its money ($169.4M domestic) this year after a limited Christmas debut, and Sully, which opened in September and went on to make $125.1M domestically? Probably not. But maybe if The Disaster Artist can maintain its rep as a James Franco and Seth Rogen comedy rather than an Oscar-caliber biopic, the movie will maintain steady box office. We’ll see once it climbs to the number of theaters that the duo typically make their debut in.

Here is the estimated top 10 box office ranking for the weekend (total domestic grosses in parentheses; new titles in bold):

1. Coco – $18.3M ($135.5M)
2. Justice League – $9.6M ($212.1M)
3. Wonder – $8.5M ($100.3M)
4. The Disaster Artist – $6.4M ($8M)
5. Thor: Ragnarok  – $6.3M ($301.2M)
6. Daddy’s Home 2 – $6M ($91.2M)
7. Murder on the Orient Express – $5.1M ($92.7M)
8. The Star – $3.7M ($32.3M)
9. Lady Bird – $3.5M ($22.3M)
10. Just Getting Started – $3.2M ($3.2M)

All box office figures via Box Office Mojo

*Previously we reported the budget for ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ as $28M, but we’ve learned from screenwriter Angela Workman that it was actually just under $20M. 

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.