Can ‘Elvis’ or ‘The Black Phone’ Break Through in This Blockbuster-Heavy Box Office Season?

·4-min read

No, Warner Bros.’ “Elvis” and Universal/Blumhouse’s “The Black Phone” won’t light up the box office charts the way “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Jurassic World: Dominion” have, but they will provide the sort of variety that movie theaters need to keep what has been a strong summer going.

As “Elvis” director Baz Luhrmann quipped while promoting his film at CinemaCon, “Man cannot live on Batman alone,” and neither can the box office. During the wildly strong summers of 2018 and 2019, the box office got relatively smaller but essential support from documentaries like “RBG,” horror films like “Hereditary” and “The First Purge,” and music films like “Rocketman.” Such films helped bring a steady stream of moviegoers to theaters in between the big studio tentpoles.

“The Black Phone” is the sort of midsummer, low-budget horror offering theaters usually see midway through the summer, and should find an easy path to box office success. With a reported $18 million budget, this tale of stranger danger starring Ethan Hawke and directed by Scott Derrickson is actually one of the pricier projects from Blumhouse, which is famous in Hollywood for its microbudget strategy.

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Still, “The Black Phone” should easily make its money back with opening weekend projections set in the high teens from 3,100 theaters. Critics’ reviews and early social media buzz have both been strong with an 85% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes, and with no other major horror films coming out for the next month until the release of fellow Universal title “Nope,” “Black Phone” should have plenty of time to build word-of-mouth and leg out.

“Elvis,” on the other hand, is a much bigger gamble. Projections have the film earning an opening of $28-30 million from 3,900 theaters, which is just a step below the $31 million opening of the Elton John musical biopic “Rocketman” in 2019. But in keeping with Baz Luhrmann’s penchant for spectacle and excess, “Elvis” has more than double the budget of “Rocketman” with a reported price tag of $85 million.

After the April release of “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” “Elvis” is the latest film to try to appeal to older demographics after such titles have almost entirely flopped in the COVID era. The muted run of “Downton Abbey 2” — while well below its 2019 predecessor with $42.5 million domestic and $88 million worldwide — is still one of the more successful titles with a predominantly boomer audience released in the past year.

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While Warner Bros. has relied on Elvis Presley’s mythological legacy to draw in those old enough to have seen him perform — along with Tom Hanks’ performance as Elvis’ sleazy promoter Tom Parker — the studio has tried to sell younger audiences on the film through Luhrmann’s signature, energetic style that brings Elvis’ music to life. That style has earned plenty of praise from critics, who have given “Elvis” an 83% Rotten Tomatoes score.

The question is whether 45 years after the rock star’s passing, there’s still enough widespread interest in Elvis to bring in audiences for a 2.5-hour spectacle about his life, especially with the other films still in theaters. While younger audiences are expected to turn out for “The Black Phone” and “Jurassic World,” older moviegoers, especially male ones, have been turning out strongly for “Top Gun: Maverick” and are expected to do so again this weekend.

In the best-case scenario, hitching trailers for “Elvis” to “Maverick” showings increases core demo interest and helps it meet or even exceed tracking. In the worst-case, “Elvis” loses all but the most devoted of The King’s faithful fans to “Maverick” and other competing films.

Either way, it wouldn’t be surprising if “Top Gun: Maverick” reclaims the No. 1 spot in its fifth weekend given its record-setting holds. Over the next week, “Maverick” should join “Spider-Man: No Way Home” as the second COVID-era film to gross over $1 billion worldwide, a remarkable achievement given that the majority of its grosses are coming from domestic theaters rather than international.

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