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‘Hustlers’ Box Office: An Honest to Goodness Hit

No scamming or scheming was needed for Lorene Scafaria’s new movie to make money.
By  · Published on September 16th, 2019

While IT: Chapter Two floated to the top of the box office again over the weekend, Hustlers was the top-grossing new release. And the movie didn’t need to resort to any scamming or scheming to make so much money. Never mind the shocking B-minus grade from Cinemascore polling, which maybe was received by moviegoers on opening night expecting a more traditional nudity-filled stripper movie, because this is a crowd-pleasing drama. And it managed to break a few notable if not historical box office records.

Firstly, Hustlers gave STX Entertainment their best opening with 3.7 million tickets sold. The company has only been around four years, but they’ve had some major titles that didn’t pan out so well, including this year’s animated feature UglyDolls and notorious bombs Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and The Happytime Murders. Hustlers topped the debuts of their franchise-starting comedy Bad Moms and the recent sleeper hit The Upside. Both of those went on to big profits, but they also both had A grades from Cinemascore and so possibly better word of mouth.

Secondly, the movie gave Constance Wu her best opening. She hasn’t been in a lot of movies, but I still had to double-check that claim since she did play the lead in Crazy Rich Asians. But that was a leggy hit that began with an audience of only 3 million. And we don’t even have to exclude animated features with Wu since her major voice role was in The LEGO Ninjago Movie, which disappointed with an opening of only 2.3 million. Wu is better-known for TV roles, and technically there she had her best debut ever with 7.9 million viewers tuning in for the Fresh Off the Boat pilot in 2015.

Hustlers also sold more tickets in its opening weekend than any other live-action Jennifer Lopez movie. That doesn’t sound right, but the math holds up, even when we’re looking at inflated grosses and focused on movie attendance. Excluding animated family films (she voiced characters in Home and later installments of the Ice Age franchise), Lopez’ next-best debuts were with Anaconda and Monster-in-Law, which each drew about 3.6 million, which is close. All those years of her doing rom-coms and she really should have been making more women’s dramas (not that Enough had proven this to be correct). Or she just needed to be in a film where guys expected her to get naked?

The thing is, even on Friday night, the audience of Hustlers was predominantly older women (68 percent female, 73 percent over 25). So the Cinemascore grade and the estimated decreases in attendance over the course of the weekend are unexpected. The movie received great reviews (87 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and the buzz has seemed to be overwhelmingly positive regarding the empowering story, realistic characters, and non-exploitative direction from Lorene Scafaria.

Opening so well is not just a big deal for STX, Wu, and Lopez but for movies starring women and movies starring persons of color. There’s a good reason why the early forecast for Hustlers (via Box Office Pro) was for a little more than a third of the audience that it wound up with. Recent female-led crime films Widows and The Kitchen opened poorly, and even Ocean’s 8, which had the benefit of being part of a franchise, underperformed (its debut attendance isn’t that much higher than that of Hustlers). The question is, does Hustlers satisfy enough of the audience to be influential? Will this be a big enough hit, in the long run, to convince Hollywood to keep on making these movies?

In other box office news, The Goldfinch, despite being based on a bestselling book, bombed hard with only an estimated 297,000 ticket sales. The best per-screen averages went to the top-grossing wide releases of the weekend, but for smaller titles, the Sundance-winning thriller Monos and the documentary Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements had great turnouts for the respectively low theater counts. And speaking of documentaries, Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice expanded nationwide this weekend and seems to be another success for nonfiction cinema, while Amazon’s expansion of Brittany Runs a Marathon appears to be off to a modest pace.

Here are the weekend’s top 13 domestic release titles by the estimated number of tickets sold with new and newly wide titles (and still-limited titles) in bold and totals in parentheses:

1. IT: Chapter Two – 4.4 million (16.9 million)
2. Hustlers – 3.7 million (3.7 million)
3. Angel Has Fallen – 0.499 million (6.7 million)
4. Good Boys – 0.469 million (8.1 million)
5. The Lion King – 0.405 million (59.3 million)
6. Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw – 0.31 million (18.7 million)
7. Overcomer – 0.303 million (3.2 million)
8. The Goldfinch – 0.297 million (0.3 million)
9. The Peanut Butter Falcon – 0.205 million (1.7 million)
10. Dora and the Lost City of Gold – 0.204 million (6.3 million)
11. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark – 0.19 million (7.2 million)
12. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – 0.17 million (15.2 million)
13. Brittany Runs a Marathon – 0.16 million (0.4 million)

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

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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.