Box Office: ‘Challengers’ Scores First Place Finish With $15 Million Debut

Game, set, now what to make of this match?

“Challengers,” a sexy, subversive, R-rated drama set in the world of tennis, easily took first place at a sluggish domestic box office this weekend with $15 million from 3,477 locations. On one hand, it’s a respectable result for an artsy movie aimed at discerning, adult audiences, but what keeps it from being a championship performance is that “Challengers” has a hefty $55 million budget (to say nothing of its marketing costs). The Amazon MGM Studios release will need strong word-of-mouth if it’s going to keep rallying — and next week brings Universal’s “The Fall Guy,” a Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt action-comedy that marks the start of summer blockbuster season. The competition only stands to get fiercer from here.

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Amazon MGM would probably argue that “Challengers” doesn’t need to be a box office phenomenon in order to be successful. The higher profile that comes with a theatrical release will lift “Challengers” when it debuts on Prime Video, Amazon’s streaming service, and set it up nicely for other home entertainment revenue streams, or so the thinking goes. Those revenues and that viewership data go largely unreported or are spun within an inch of their life, so it’s getting harder to know what constitutes a true win in this new streaming era. Kevin Wilson, the head of theatrical distribution at Amazon MGM Studios, said he expects that the film will score with Prime Video subscribers, comparing it to “Saltburn,” the steamy drama that the company released last fall which went on to be among its most-watched streaming releases.

“This movie is going to way over-perform when it gets on our platform,” he said, noting that the theatrical revenues are essentially helping to off-set “Challengers'” marketing costs. “Amazon’s financials are a little bit different in terms of comparing them to other studios,” Wilson added.

That’s certainly true and with its $1.87 trillion market cap, Amazon can afford to take a bet on something like “Challengers” even if its ticket sales are unlikely to fund Jeff Bezos’ next space excursion. Just look at how the major media conglomerates compare to the e-retailer behemoth — Warner Bros. Discover has a market cap of $19.79 billion, Disney’s stands at $206.78 billion and Comcast’s hovers at $153.19 billion.

Some veteran box office sages aren’t on board for this new “trust us, it’s a hit” approach to Hollywood economics now that tech giants like Apple and Amazon have crashed the party. “Everybody is using this same line that the box office will propel viewership and you can’t say this is a miss,” notes Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “And they all use this obscure downstream revenues verbiage. But when seen in terms of decades of box office numbers, something like ‘Challengers’ seems middle of the road to me.”

“Challengers” with a cast that includes Zendaya and rising stars Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist, could factor into the awards season race. Critics praised director Luca Guadagnino’s look at the tangled lives of a trio of tennis pros, with Variety‘s Peter Debruge calling the drama “steamy and stylish” and effusing that it is “that rare film where you’ll work up a sweat just from spectating.” “Challengers” has a solid 88% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with audiences giving it a B+ CinemaScore.

Zendaya, riding high off the “Dune” films and “Euphoria,” was the movie’s primary attraction. Roughly 55% of ticket buyers were inspired to check out “Challengers” because her name was above the title, according to PostTrak. In another bit of news that should boost Zendaya’s asking price, “Dune: Part Two” crossed $700 million globally this weekend. The actress is part of a new constellation of stars, one that includes her “Dune” colleague Timothee Chalamet, “Creed’s” Michael B. Jordan and the “Anyone But You” duo of Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell, that are enlivening the A-list. The youth infusion comes as prior generations of stars, ones the include Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Cruise, are entering their sixth or seventh decades. “Challengers” also got a bump from Imax screenings, earning $1.2 million from those engagements.

Elsewhere, “Unsung Hero,” a drama about the formation of the popular Christian rock duo For King & Country took second place with $7.7 million from 2,832 North American locations. Joel Smallbone, one of the group’s members, co-directs the Lionsgate and Kingdom Story Company release with Richard Ramsey. He also stars in the film, playing his father. The faith-based film cost a mere $6 million to produce, giving “Unsung Hero” a clear path to profitability. It will also benefit from the fact that faith-based audiences appear to have embraced the film, handing “Unsung Hero” a heavenly A+ CinemaScore.

Legendary Entertainment and Warner Bros.’ “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire” earned $7.2 million to nab third place.  The clash of the primordial titans now commands a $181.7 million domestic gross. A24’s “Civil War” took fourth place, picking up $7 million. That brings the domestic haul for the political thriller to $56.2 million. Universal’s “Abigail” rounded out the top five with $5.2 million. The vampire flick’s North American gross stands at a bloodless $18.8 million after two weeks.

Among other new releases, Roadside Attractions’ “Boy Kills World,” an action adventure with Bill Skarsgård, opened to roughly $1.6 million on less than 2,000 theaters. And everything old is new again, as Ridley Scott’s masterpiece “Alien,” picked up nearly $1.6 million after Disney and 20th Century Pictures re-released the 1979 deep space exercise in terror.

Overall revenues for the weekend were down nearly 35%. Last year, at this time, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” was still heating up the box office, earning more than $40 million in its fourth weekend of release.

“Challengers” was originally slated to kick off the Venice Film Festival, before opening last fall. However, the actors strike scrambled those plans when it became clear that Zendaya and the rest of the cast wouldn’t be able to promote the movie. The delay may have helped movie theaters, which are mired in a prolonged downturn and desperate for films to put on their screens — COVID combined with the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes upended film production, leaving studios with fewer movies to release. Without enough product, ticket sales in 2024 have plunged nearly 20%. So cinemas can use a splashy new film like “Challengers” to fill their marquees, even if its ticket sales aren’t on a blockbuster level.

Amazon MGM noted that in post-COVID times, among R-rated dramas, only “Don’t Worry Darling,” which debuted to $19.4 million in 2022, grossed more in its inaugural weekend than “Challengers.”

“The reality of the box office for original R-rated dramas has been tough,” said Wilson. “When you look at the landscape, I think it’s a really good result.”

“Challengers” is the biggest debut of Guadagnino’s career, but the acclaimed filmmaker has always been more of an arthouse favorite, rather than a populist talent. Its opening weekend topped “Bones and All,” his cannibals-in-love drama, which debuted to $2.2 million in 2022, to earn that eminently achievable distinction.

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