Steven Spielberg Beat Liam Neeson at the Box Office

The Post Ensemble

The director went up against his former star and topped all new wide releases.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Schindler’s List, a film that remains the best-reviewed of both writer/director Steven Spielberg (according to Metacritic) and actor Liam Neeson. Since then, the two have gone their separate ways. Neeson nearly starred in Lincoln, but that didn’t pan out. Instead, he became an action hero, starring in stuff like the Taken trilogy, The A-Team, and a slew of thrillers by Jaume Collet-Serra. Over the weekend, for the first time, Neeson and Spielberg went head to head at the box office. Spielberg won.

Technically, the filmmaker’s latest, The Post, opened on Christmas, but the movie finally went wide on Friday, showing on nearly as many screens as the new Neeson and Collet-Serra collaboration, The Commuter. Spielberg’s, a historical drama about the publication of the Pentagon Papers starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, added an estimated $19.3M to its gross ($23.4M, including the Monday holiday), while Neeson’s, about guy who gets mixed up in a murder conspiracy while riding the train, bowed to an estimated $13.5M ($16.4M with the holiday). They came in, respectively, second and third place.

In terms of subject matter, it would have been more notable if Neeson’s previous movie, the Watergate-focused “Deep Throat” biopic Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, was the release that went up against The Post. Both of these deal with the Washington Post, the Nixon White House, and government lies, and both feature actor Bruce Greenwood. Unfortunately, Mark Felt came and went last fall after receiving poor reviews. Opening in limited release and never moving forward to a full expansion, the film only grossed $769K.

But the match this past weekend was still pretty interesting. Movies like The Post and The Commuter are rare cases where name-brand talents are driving audiences to theaters. The Post has the luxury of not just being a Spielberg drama but a Tom Hanks vehicle and a Meryl Streep vehicle all in one. All are popular and quality talents that together also bring major awards potential. Others making the same movie might deliver something closer to Mark Felt. Meanwhile, people go see The Commuter specifically for Neeson and his particular set of skills.

Compared to Neeson’s other recent action thrillers, his latest opened on the lower end of the scale. The Taken movies do the best, with nothing else really comparing, but his work with Collet-Serra has been on a bit of a decline — his debuts (adjusted for inflation) for UnknownNon-Stop, and Run All Night were, in order, $24.8M, $32.4, $12.1M. Oddly, the last one had slightly better reviews (59 score on Metacritic), where generally these pairings of director and actor garner a consistently mixed reception (all three have a 56 score on Metacritic). But it also had the lowest-concept premise of the three, meaning there’s more to the appeal of the rest than their being fronted by Neeson.

The Commuter Neeson

Maybe the combination of this director, this actor, and this sort of plot is waning, though. Either the fans are growing tired of their familiarity or they just cared less for The Commuter specifically, because its ‘B’ grade via CinemaScore polling Friday night is the lowest for this formula — Unknown received a ‘B+’ and Non-Stop and Run All Night both received an ‘A-.’ Neeson and Collet-Serra movies tend to fall short of the expected final gross for their CinemaScore-related level of word-of-mouth (Run All Night especially), so The Commuter could finish with only $36.5M domestically. That doesn’t mean it really is time for Neeson to retire from action movies, however, since it’s still more money than his dramatic work has made lately.

For Spielberg, The Post is his fifth movie as a director starring Hanks, and their collaborations fall mostly on the prestige side of the director’s filmography (as opposed to the blockbuster side). Compared to others in that bunch, its wide opening is satisfactory, albeit on the lower end for Spielberg/Hanks pairings. Their debuts together (adjusted for inflation) for Saving Private RyanCatch Me If You CanThe Terminal, and Bridge of Spies were, in order, $58.2M, $46.2M, $27.4M, and $15.8M. Diminishing returns over a 20-year period, but now The Post has brought a bit of an upswing with its wide-release figure.

The Post also received the best reviews from major outlets (according to Metacritic) for the pair since Saving Private Ryan — the five movies’ scores in chronological order are 90, 75, 55, 81, and 83. And its CinemaScore grade of ‘A’ is the same as Saving Private Ryan and Bridge of Spies compared to the ‘A-‘ for Catch Me If You Can and ‘B+’ for The Terminal. Spielberg movies, especially those with Hanks, tend to have great legs, even when they’re not certain Oscar contenders. And The Post additionally has the benefit of implicit relevance with current events and politics, similar to Lincoln, which was another of the filmmaker’s rare limited-release starters. At this rate, in the end The Post could turn up with a domestic total above $100M.

Both The Post and The Commuter lost out overall to Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which topped the box office for its second weekend in a row with an estimated $28.1M ($35.4M for the four-day holiday weekend frame) — taking in an estimated domestic total of $284.3M in just four weeks ($291.6M including the holiday). The sequel/reboot is now in eighth place for 2017 releases and is coming fast for a top five slot (it’ll pass Thor: Ragnarok in the next two weeks).

But they both did much better than the other new and wide-expanding releases, including Paddington 2, which opened 50% lower than the original despite garnering even better reviews and audience scores and an equal CinemaScore grade (at least it did much better on the Monday holiday than Sunday), and the heavily hyped but all-around poorly received action thriller Proud Mary. In better news, The Greatest Showman has apparently, according to Forbes, turned out to be the leggiest movie ever to open on more than 3,000 screens.

Meanwhile, down the list, both I, Tonya and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri seemed to get a post-Golden Globes boost, but continued Best Animated Feature honoree Coco is falling behind last year’s Disney effort, Moana. And finally, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is doing fine in limited release despite initially giving the filmmaker his most disappointing debut since the start of his career.

Below are the weekend’s top 20 titles on the domestic box office chart with figures for both the three-day and the four-day frame, with new releases in bold and domestic totals in parentheses.

1. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle – $28.1M / $35.4M ($291.6M)
2. The Post – $19.3M / $23.4M ($27.9M)
3. The Commuter – $13.7M / $16.4M ($16.4M)
4. The Greatest Showman – $12.5M / $15.6M ($98.4M)
5. Star Wars: The Last Jedi – $12.1M / $15.3M ($595.6M)
6. Paddington 2 – $10.9M / $15M ($15M)
Insidious: The Last Key – $12.45M / $14.6M ($50.8M)
8. Proud Mary – $9.9M / $12M ($12M)
9. Pitch Perfect 3 – $6M / $7.3M ($96.3M)
10. Darkest Hour – $4.5M / $5.6M ($36.8M)
11. Ferdinand – $3.5M / $5M ($77M)
12. Molly’s Game – $3.9M / $4.8M ($21.6M)
13. Coco – $3.37M / $4.7M ($198.2M)
14. I, Tonya – $3.36M / $4.2M ($10.9M)
15. The Shape of Water – $2.9M / $3.6M ($27.3M)
16. Three Billboards… – $2.5M / $3.2M ($29.4M)
17. Lady Bird – $1.7M /$2M ($37.2M)
18. Wonder – $1.3M / $1.7M ($129.1M)
19. All the Money in the World – $1.2M / $1.5M ($23.2M)
20. Phantom Thread – $1.1M /$1.4M ($2.5M)

All box office figures via Box Office Mojo.

More to Read:

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.