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‘IT: Chapter Two’ Box Office: The Mystery of the Missing 3 Million Moviegoers

The horror sequel still opened huge and came in first place, but it technically underperformed given the level of apparent anticipation.
It Chapter Two Bill Hader
By  · Published on September 9th, 2019

Remember the ABC miniseries adaptation of IT? Of course, you do. Even if you’ve never watched it, you’ve become aware of the TV version of Stephen King’s classic horror novel and seen images of Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown, if only thanks to the hype surrounding the theatrical films based on the book. A lot of people did watch that series, though. On November 18, 1990, 17.5 million households (many of them with multiple viewers) caught the first part. Two nights later, the broadcast of the conclusion drew 19.2 million households. By one account, the estimated total viewership of the whole program was around 30 million people.

Fast forward 27 years and the big-screen adaptation seemed like an enormous hit right from the start. And it was, in its own way, scoring a record-breaking box office debut for the horror genre, for the month of September, for the fall season. That’s with a three-day attendance of 13.8 million. And a domestic total attendance of 36.5 million. That’s just barely a larger audience than tuned in for the miniseries — if none of those ticket sales were repeat viewings, of course. Comparing the movie with the miniseries is probably a moot point since those 30 million sets of eyes didn’t have to leave their house or spend any money to watch the 1990 version. But that doesn’t mean the contrast isn’t interesting.

Two more years later, IT: Chapter Two is out in theaters, and an estimated 10.1 million went to see it over its opening weekend, including the Thursday night previews. The sequel trailed the first part each of the three days in ticket sales. And that’s kind of baffling to me. This isn’t some cash-grab follow-up coming out after a successful standalone hit. IT: Chapter Two is a conclusion to the story begun in the 2017 movie, a continuation of the adaptation of King’s novel. Sure, Chapter One could have existed in a vacuum, never to be followed by the story of the Losers Club as adults, and it wouldn’t feel like an unfinished or failed work. IT didn’t end on a cliffhanger (there was almost a post-credits one), so this isn’t necessarily a case like Avengers: Endgame or The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King finishing a story.

Typically, when a franchise does go for the two-part or three-part continuing storyline, the final installment opens with the largest debut audience. Especially if a cliffhanger was involved. Endgame not only topped Avengers: Infinity War‘s opening but all movies’ openings. The Return of the King brought the most people to theaters in its first weekend than its two predecessors in the trilogy. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 sold more tickets in its opening weekend than any other Harry Potter movie, including Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. It’s logical. Everyone who saw the previous movies in the series, whether on their opening weekends, later in their theatrical runs, or on home video or cable should want to see the finale as soon as they can, especially if spoilers are involved.

However, the audience doesn’t always flock to the finish. Look at the decline in opening-weekend ticket sales for Back to the Future Part III and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part II. Even if Warner Bros. had decided to make IT a definite double from the start and called the movies IT: Part One and IT: Part Two (or at least titled the first one IT: Chapter One from the beginning), that wouldn’t have assured IT: Chapter Two‘s escalation. But how could those 36 million people who went to see the first movie plus the millions more who saw it later on the small screen not be immediately compelled to see the perfect casting of the grown-up Losers against the continued antics of Bill Skarsgård as the dancing clown who eats little children?

A lot of people have been excited about this movie for a long time. Before the year began, IT: Chapter Two ranked high on Fandango’s poll results for anticipated movies of 2019, topping the horror/thriller category and showing up in results for actors, too. Earlier this month, Fandango focused on just fall 2019 releases and IT: Chapter Two came out as the number one most anticipated title of the season while also being represented in performances and pairings looked forward to by moviegoers. At the same time, the ticketing giant revealed that presales for the sequel were greater than for the original. Not surprisingly given the apparent hype, when Box Office Pro forecast IT: Chapter Two‘s box office opening back in mid-July, the range was $110-150 million with their prediction coming at $135 million.

They’ve tracked it since then as going down bit by bit over the weeks. A couple of weeks ago, due to decreased if not negative chatter, Box Office Pro reported a new range of $90-130 million with their guess for the gross being $105 million. Last week’s final forecast from them was slightly lower at $102 million with the range being $90-115, and they revealed that Warner Bros. was expecting the low end of that field. Fortunately for the studio, the actual gross of $91 million isn’t an underperformance by their call, though it’s definitely a disappointment considering what the first IT did ($123 million) and what the industry was anticipating based on supposed fan anticipation. The global opening gross of $185 million was also down from the first movie ($190 million) despite it faring better in some foreign markets.

So, what happened? Can we get the Losers on the case? They’re not really detectives, so how about Nancy Drew (played recently by one of the Losers Club players, Sophia Lillis)? Let’s try to crack the case of the missing millions of moviegoers. Were they turned off by the reviews? Unlike the first movie, IT: Chapter Two was not Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, though its 63% Tomatometer score is not that far removed from the original’s 86%. And the audience approval score for the new movie (verified from ticket buyers) is 80% versus the predecessor’s (unverified) 84%. Speaking of the moviegoers’ reception, the opening night crowd graded IT: Chapter Two a B+ via Cinemascore polling, the same as they gave the first movie. It’s not ideal, but it’s also not a sign there’ll be any bad buzz.

The three-hour running time shouldn’t have deterred people, either. Not after they managed just fine with the similarly long Endgame. If they really want to see a movie, especially a franchise finale, they’ll control their bladders and attention levels and make it work. Still, according to Deadline, even though its screen count was the fifth-largest ever, showtimes were fewer than they could have been at many of these locations due to the length, and apparently R-rated horror movies, even those as big and bright and broad as IT: Chapter Two, don’t play well during matinee hours. The studio’s head of domestic distribution, Jeff Goldstein, stated that they’re proud of the opening and claimed the marketing team “hit it way out of the park.” Maybe, but they hit it 26 percent further out of the park the last time.

Maybe more of the original crowd will trickle through for IT: Chapter Two, but there’s not likely to be a lot of word of mouth in its favor. The consensus seems to show that, generally, audiences are enjoying the sequel but not finding it as scary or fresh as they’d hoped. Outside of praises for Bill Hader and James Ransone‘s performances and comic relief (whether or not the humor dilutes the horror), there’s no big sell for even the satisfied to recommend to others. IT may have been popular, but it’s not the zeitgeist event entity that Harry Potter and Avengers are, and while Endgame absolutely had to be seen opening weekend to avoid spoilers, IT: Chapter Two offers nothing in the way of pressing content. Even if it is a must-see movie, the seeing can wait for relaxed home viewing. And for many, it will.

Here are the weekend’s top 12 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 – 10.1 million (10.1 million)
2. Angel Has Fallen – 0.7 million (5.9 million)
3. Good Boys – 0.6 million (7.4 million)
4. The Lion King – 0.5 million (58.7 million)
5. Overcomer – 0.42 million (2.7 million)
6. Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw – 0.41 million (18.2 million)
7. The Peanut Butter Falcon – 0.2527 million (1.3 million)
8. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark – 0.2525 million (6.9 million)
9. Ready or Not – 0.247 million (2.8 million)
10. Dora and the Lost City of Gold – 0.241 million (6 million)
11. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood – 0.239 million (14.9 million)
12. The Angry Birds Movie 2 – 0.18 million (4.2 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.