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‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ Box Office: A Nostalgic Horror Hit

Both ‘Scary Stories’ and ‘Dora and the Lost City of Gold’ aimed for teen audiences, but each got a different crowd.
Scary Stories Reader
CBS Films
By  · Published on August 12th, 2019

Two movies went after teenagers this past weekend, to varying results. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Dora and the Lost City of Gold are both based on properties initially geared toward children. The former is adapted from books for young readers, aged from 8 to 12 (controversially so). The latter is a live-action version of Nickelodeon’s educational cartoon Dora the Explorer, which is popular with preschoolers. For the big screen, both properties have been aged up a bit, with Scary Stories becoming a PG-13-rated horror movie and Dora focused on a teenage update on the titular little girl. But only the former succeeded beyond expectations at the box office.

Early tracking for the two movies had Dora as the greater hit of the two, with Box Office Pro predicting the family adventure grossing enough to open at number one. But Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw repeated at the top over the weekend, while Scary Stories won for new releases in second place. The adaptation drew about 2.3 million people to theaters in its first three days (including Thursday night previews) versus the 1.9 million tickets sold for Dora, which wound up in fourth place on the box office chart, behind The Lion King. Back in June, insiders expected Scary Movies to only sell about 1.1 million tickets. Even last week, Box Office Pro forecast a low-ball gross figure equivalent of about 1.8 million tickets.

But who is going to see Scary Stories, and do they like it? The movie received relatively positive reviews and wound up “Certified Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes and the third-best Tomatometer score for a horror movie this season (slightly behind the tied Crawl and Midsommar) — and in turn, Scary Stories had the best debut of any horror movie released in summer 2019 (slightly above Annabelle Comes Homes‘ 2.2 million tickets). Yet it also received a disappointing ‘C’ grade from first-night audiences via Cinemascore polling. That’s even lower than the ‘C+’ stamped on Midsommar and the Child’s Play remake. And audience scores at Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb are on the mediocre side, as well.

The word of mouth on the André Øvredal-helmed movie is not looking good. But the interesting thing is the primary demographic of Scary Stories‘ audience. Despite it seemingly being geared toward teens and despite producer Guillermo del Toro‘s celebration of its success being partly from families going to see it together, only 12 percent of the audience was aged 13 to 17, according to Deadline. The majority of ticket buyers, at 69 percent of the audience, were adults aged 18 to 34, and among those, the 18 to 24 range weighed a bit higher than the 25 to 34. That looks like most of the crowd was made up of former Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark readers and the movie drew in nostalgic fans over newcomers.

As for Dora, Nickelodeon and Paramount’s attempt to get into the live-action-reimagining trend was comparatively underwhelming. Long-range tracking put the movie at a possible audience size of 3.1 million. Last week’s prediction was still on the high side with 2.4 million. The underperformance could be due to a number of factors, one being that it’s a rather irritating property for parents (from personal experience) and the translation to the big screen looks cheaply produced and extremely corny. But its reviews claim it better than expected, and it’s also Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with a score slightly above that of Scary Stories. And those who did see it opening night gave it an impressive ‘A’ grade via Cinemascore.

The advanced age of the main character in Dora didn’t help bring in an older crowd, however. Only eight percent of ticket buyers were teens. Much of the audience, at 43 percent, was parents and younger children. That seems appropriate, especially since the Dora cartoons — including Dora and Friends, which features a middle-school-aged Dora — are still watched by the preschooler crowd. Never mind that moviegoers who were that demo when the show began back in 2000 are now in their early twenties. Unlike Scary Movies, Dora doesn’t seem to have an appeal for nostalgic Millennials. Meanwhile, a large percentage of the audience — 46 percent — was also Latinx, the highest of any of the racial demographics.

In other box office news, The Kitchen bombed pretty bad, selling about half as many tickets as were initially expected for the period-set crime film and far less than the somewhat similar movie Widows, which itself was already seen as having a disappointing debut. Fellow new release The Art of Racing in the Rain fared a bit better, drawing a crowd consistent with most dog-centered movies such as this year’s A Dog’s Journey. And rounding out the top 10 is the latest BTS concert film, Bring the Soul: The Movie, which opened last Wednesday. In less than a week, the Korean boy band spectacular is already the fourth best-selling 2019 documentary (fifth if we include re-starter Amazing Grace), greater than the last BTS film, Love Yourself in Seoul, which opened in January — but that one was a Fathom Events release with only a few screenings.

Another new doc, One Child Nation, did decently on just two screens, though the doc Jay Myself had a slightly better per-screen average, still at just one location in its second week. Indie drama The Peanut Butter Falcon posted the best average, however, earning a good chunk of change from 17 screens, while the remake of After the Wedding performed fine at its five locations. Looking internationally, with $1.3 billion worldwide, The Lion King became the highest-grossing animated (nope, not live-action) movie of all time over the weekend, passing Frozen. Domestically, though, the 1994 original still reigns, at least with inflation, and without it’s below Pixar sequels Incredibles 2 and Finding Dory.

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. Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw – 2.8 million (12 million)
2. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark – 2.3 million (2.3 million)
3. The Lion King – 2.2 million (52.5 million)
4. Dora and the Lost City of Gold – 1.9 million (1.9 million)
5. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – 1.3 million (11.1 million)
6. The Art of Racing in the Rain – 0.9 million (0.9 million)
7. The Kitchen – 0.61 million (0.6 million)
8. Spider-Man: Far From Home – 0.586 million (41.2 million)
9. Toy Story 4 – 0.502 million (46.6 million)
10. Bring the Soul: The Movie – 0.26 million (0.5 million)
11. Brian Banks – 0.24 million (0.2 million)
12. The Farewell – 0.23 million (1.1 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.