'Escape Room' is the First Breakout Hit of 2019

Sony might have a new horror franchise on its hands.

Escape Room
Sony Pictures

While 2018 holdover Aquaman continues to swim in cash and a niche segment of movie fans continues focusing on awards contenders, Escape Room debuted over the weekend as the first hit of 2019. Technically, the familiar horror film is the top moneymaking release of the year, and it very well could remain 2019’s best opener through next weekend, as well.

With just over 2.1 million tickets sold in North America, Escape Room came in second place, behind Aquaman‘s attendance of 3.5 million and ahead of Mary Poppins Returns‘ 1.8 million. This was much better than experts and Sony were forecasting. In both their long-range and last-call tracking reports, Box Office Pro called Escape Room‘s debut gross at $13 million. The estimated figure through Sunday wound up being $18.2 million.

That isn’t a lot of money, especially compared to, say, last year’s first hit was Insidious: The Last Key — also a horror film and also directed by Escape Room helmer Adam Robitel — with $30 million, but for a non-franchise (yet) early January release made for around $9 million, Sony should be very happy with the results. The studio might even see an opportunity to greenlight the sequel teased at the end of Escape Room.

The question is whether or not that box office success can be equated with audience satisfaction. Escape Room‘s CinemaScore grade, the result of polling exiting moviegoers on opening night, is just a mediocre ‘B,’ meaning there was some disappointment from ticket buyers compared to their expectations. Word of mouth may have even already been a factor in the movie’s box office decline from Friday to Sunday.

Escape Room also received mostly negative reviews. But the critics who gave it a pass, did so with an understandable caveat. Former FSR editor Kate Erbland gave the movie a ‘C+’ over at IndieWire, though she still recommended seeing it, if you’re in the mood for a schlocky Cube-esque thriller that entertains for the majority of its running time. Especially if you’ve already caught the prestige holdovers:

Going further, our own Matthew Monagle reviewed Escape Room quite positively for The Austin Chronicle, highlighting its performances and set pieces. “From a purely visual point of view,” he writes, “Escape Room is worth the price of admission.” He admits the movie is hardly perfect, but it’s good enough for what it is. “If you’re looking to cleanse your palate after December’s litany of prestigious releases, you could do a helluva lot worse,” he concludes.

Fifteen years ago, a little horror movie called Saw opened theatrically to about the same box office gross as Escape Room. Of course, with inflation, that figure jumps up to $25 million, but it’s not that much more. The first Saw also has a similarly low Rotten Tomatoes score, less than Escape Room by just a few percentage points, and it was graded even lower via CinemaScore polling: ‘C+.’ The thing had legs, especially on video, and became a huge franchise.

Considering its competition next weekend is more of the same (Aquaman will easily land at the top of the charts for the fourth weekend in a row, while surprise awards movies Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody could lure in people wanting to see what the buzz — positive and negative — is all about) plus a few lackluster new releases (A Dog’s Way Home, Replicas, The Upside), Escape Room could continue to its decent success, particularly as the primary offering for genre fans.

With one weekend behind us, movie attendance for 2019 is just okay overall. Mostly thanks to the continued domination of Aquaman, which can’t quite match the power of last year’s leggy holdovers including The Greatest Showman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and of course Star Wars: The Last Jedi, ticket sales have kicked off at just 30 million compared to 2018’s start of 33.9 million, which was the best in years, and is the lowest since 2015’s 29 million start.

Here are the weekend’s top 10 titles by the number of tickets sold with new and newly wide titles in bold and totals in parentheses:

1. Aquaman – 3.5 million (29.4 million)
2. Escape Room – 2.1 million (2.1 million)
3. Mary Poppins Returns – 1.8 million (15.7 million)
4.Bumblebee – 1.495 million (11 million)
5. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – 1.487 million (15.2 million)
6. The Mule – 1 million (9.2 million)
7. Vice – 0.6 million (3.4 million)
8. Second Act – 0.54 million (3.7 million)
9. Ralph Breaks the Internet – 0.53 million (21.2 million)
10. Holmes and Watson – 0.4 million (3.2 million)

All non-forecast box office figures via Box Office Mojo.

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.