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Sorry Christopher Nolan, But ‘Girls Trip’ is the Box Office Story of the Weekend

Universal scores again with originality and inclusion. 
By  · Published on July 24th, 2017

Universal scores again with originality and inclusion.

With the success of DunkirkChristopher Nolan further proves that he’s a brand-name filmmaker who can draw fans to anything from superhero movies and heady sci-fi to period piece thrillers and war epics. Opening with a domestic gross of $50.5M (versus tracking predictions of $30-40M), the brief but intense World War II drama is Nolan’s fourth best debut — although it drops down to sixth when you adjust Batman Begins and Interstellar numbers for inflation, the latter only a few hundred thousand ahead.

Comparatively, Dunkirk is a harder sell than Nolan’s more successful movies. It doesn’t feature Batman nor any big stars, and war movies rarely open so big without also being a comic book adaptation or the work of another brand-name director like Michael Bay or Steven Spielberg (and even he couldn’t draw much for War Horse). Dunkirk also had the fourth best opening of a WWII movie, between Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan ($58M adjusted) and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds ($45M adjusted). Other recent WWII movies, to show what’s normal, include last year’s Allied ($13M) and Hacksaw Ridge ($15M) and 2014’s Unbroken ($33M adjusted), The Monuments Men ($25M adjusted), and Fury ($25M adjusted).

In addition to the Nolan name, Dunkirk likely benefited from positive reviews and word of mouth assuring audiences that this is a movie that has to be seen on the big screen. Most of that buzz urged moviegoers to seek out the largest size possible, too, endorsing the 70mm IMAX format as optimal. Nearly a quarter of Dunkirk‘s gross over the weekend, $11.7M, wound up coming from IMAX locations. Those tickets, of course, are much more expensive and bump grosses up as a result.

Dunkirk also took in about the same amount overseas in its opening weekend, giving it a worldwide total of $106M. Its international opening is a bit lower than Nolan’s past efforts, though understandably it was number one in the UK with $12.4M, which is better than the filmmaker’s bows in Britain for InceptionInterstellar, and even Batman Begins. It was also huge in South Korea ($10.3M), where it beat the opening of The Dark Knight, and pretty big in Australia ($4.7M). War movies often do even better overseas, but with the Nolan name, Dunkirk has an even greater advantage.

In second place for the weekend, Girls Trip is surely the more notable box office hit. Although late tracking predictions did have expectations for the movie in the $25-28M range, its $31M debut is a triumph for something that a month ago just looked like another female-driven Hangover meets Bridesmaids wannabe, similar to the $8M-opening Rough Night. We can chalk it up to Girls Trip actually being good, receiving mostly favorable reviews (including our own) and an audience-approving A+ grade from CinemaScore polling.

Girls Trip director Malcolm D. Lee is also a trusted name, regularly delivering decent-size hits like last year’s Barbershop: The Next Cut and his prior sequel, The Best Man Holiday, which took in about the same as his latest back in 2013 (adjusted for inflation, it’s only a couple million more). But Girls Trip is not a sequel, nor is it an adaptation or remake or based on a TV show. It’s an original comedy, and the most successful this year, at that (and with an R rating to boot). So far, 2017 has been terrible for pure comedies, with Snatched (also rated R) previously having the genre’s best opening (animated kid movies excluded) and with that and Baywatch (another R) being its top grossers of the year.

As far as original mainstream movies go, Girls Trip is also a rarity and one of the biggest hits in that small bunch. Technically, Dunkirk is an original film, credited solely to Nolan, but it’s also based on historical events and loosely inspired by real people so not totally a made-up work. Sure, Girls Trip is a familiar story of a group of friends having a wild little vacation and not nearly as original as Get Out, the champion of this year in this arena. Jordan Peele’s socially themed horror flick, which like Girls Trip is a Universal release (and another rated R), opened slightly better with $33M.

There’s also Universal’s Split, which debuted with $40M. Technically, it’s part of a franchise, but audiences didn’t know that going in because it was released as a secret “backdoor” sequel. Then after Girls Trip, we’ve got Baby Driver (rated R), SnatchedThe Great Wall (also Universal), Life (also rated R), How to Be a Latin LoverFist Fight (also rated R), and 47 Meters round out the original movie top 10 openers. Clearly, originality mostly does well just when it’s funny or scary, and even then most of those movies’ debuts were pretty low.

Girls Trip doesn’t have much of a hook save for the fact that it’s a quality comedy with characters we don’t often see on the big screen but who look like a large percentage of American moviegoers. It shouldn’t be a shocker that it did so well at the box office. That doesn’t mean it’s not the more important box office story from the weekend. Hollywood should recognize that this was not a surprise but a given. Moviegoers want originality, and they want inclusion, and they want female leads (note that the two top-grossing movies domestically are now Beauty and the Beast and Wonder Woman, both of which represent and have especially been hits with female audiences).

But they also want them to be good, which is one of the reasons Girls Trip worked and others haven’t. Ironically, the first thing Hollywood will do in response to the movie’s success is greenlight Girls Trip 2. That’s fine, as we need more franchises with all its qualities to balance out everything else. However, we also need other fresh and original features, too. No, they won’t benefit from IMAX screen surcharges. No, they won’t do much business outside the US. But they can turn a profit when done right (Girls Trip reportedly only cost $19M).

If there’s anything to take away from the weekend, it’s that Hollywood should make more movies like Girls Trip without them being specifically more Girls Trip movies. And make Tiffany Haddish a star (and maybe give her an Oscar, according to our reviewer), maybe leading some of those future original comedies. The industry will keep banking on Nolan anyway, so hopefully his latest number one doesn’t hog all the attention.

Here is the estimated weekend top 10 (updated with actual numbers Monday afternoon):

1. Dunkirk $50.5M
2. Girls Trip: $31.2M
3. Spider-Man: Homecoming: $22.2M
4. War for the Planet of the Apes: $20.9M
5. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: $17M
6. Despicable Me 3: $13M
7. Baby Driver: $6.1M
8. The Big Sick: $5M
9. Wonder Woman: $4.6M
10. Wish Upon: $2.5M

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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.