“Nope,” releasing Friday, will be only the third film from Oscar winner Jordan Peele, but already the filmmaker has carved out a very interesting track record at the box office with “Get Out” and “Us,” two horror titles that made the same amount of money but in very different ways and in the process made Peele into the increasingly rare director that is the core draw of his movies.
In today’s franchise-driven industry, filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino who are dedicated to making original wide release films have gained devoted cinephile followings. In the absence of recognizable characters, those directors are heavily featured by studios in trailers and posters. But even with such directors, releasing a trailer that can clearly convey to the audience what the film is about has been key to the success of films like “Inception” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
Peele, on the other hand, has built a reputation for working with Universal to ensure that the marketing for “Nope” is as light and cryptic on plot details as possible, and his fans have come to like it that way. This goes back to when the first trailer for “Get Out” was released in October 2016, which conveyed the basic story of a visit by a Black man to his white girlfriend’s parents going horribly wrong, but concealing exactly what this white family’s sinister secret is. That such a horror film rooted in race and class conflict was being directed by one-half of the comedy duo behind Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele” just escalated the intrigue among hardcore horror fans.
Then, when “Get Out” came out in February 2017, it became the newest microbudget horror hit. From a $33 million opening weekend, the film became a slow-burning cultural phenomenon. As phrases like “The Sunken Place” entered the pop culture vernacular and the phrase “I would have voted for Obama a third term” became used to needle performative white liberalism, “Get Out” dropped just 15% in its second weekend and never dropped more than 40% until its ninth weekend in theaters.
In the face of major spring blockbuster competition like “Logan,” “Kong: Skull Island” and Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” remake, “Get Out” legged out to a $176 million domestic total — just over five times its opening weekend — and $255 million worldwide, all against a paltry $4.5 million production budget. It made Peele the first Black writer-director to gross over $100 million in his feature debut and won him the Best Screenplay Oscar as well as nominations for Best Picture and Director.
With a winning formula in hand, Peele and Universal ran it back with “Us,” premiering a trailer with “Black Panther” star Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke playing both a well-off couple with kids and twisted, murderous copies of themselves. Again, details about the origins of these strange doppelgangers were kept under wraps ahead of its April 2019 release.
With “Get Out” buzz still going strong, Universal premiered “Us” at the SXSW festival in Austin to wild acclaim from critics and attendees. With so much momentum behind it, “Us” opened to an excellent $70 million launch, a total that still stands as the best opening ever for an original horror film.
But while “Us” had its fans, it never caught anywhere near the word-of-mouth that “Get Out” did. While “Get Out” earned a strong A- from audiences on CinemaScore, “Us” got a B — a grade that is par for the course for films that win praise from horror buffs but don’t get embraced by wider audiences.
And with that weaker audience reception, “Us” couldn’t leg out like its predecessor. Through the month after its release, “Us” took weekend drops of more than 50%, having the sort of front-loaded theatrical run that’s generally expected of horror films.
By its sixth weekend, “Us” was finished in theaters as the record-breaking “Avengers: Endgame” took up both theater space and pop culture breathing room. The final tally? $175 million domestic and $255 million worldwide, virtually identical to what “Get Out” earned as it grew from cult horror darling to widely acclaimed hit.
And now it’s time for round three with “Nope,” a film that won’t have the buzzy festival premiere that “Us” enjoyed nor the status as the immediate follow-up to an award-winning classic. But even if “Us” wasn’t as universally loved, Peele’s status as a popular filmmaker who makes scary, humorous and thought-provoking horror films is still strong.
Right now, “Nope” is projected to open somewhere in between what “Get Out” and “Us” earned in the $45-$50 million range with a reported budget of $40 million, twice as much as what “Us” cost to produce. It should be another hit film for Universal in what has been a very successful summer so far, but to match the results of Peele’s first two films, it will need to build the post-release audience excitement that “Get Out” got five years ago.
And theaters could really use that buzz too. While Sony’s “Bullet Train” may get some surprise momentum in August, there will likely not be another $100 million-plus opening until “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” in November. Until then, and especially during August and September, cinemas will see the windfall that they enjoyed this summer quickly dry up, and even the holdover money from Marvel’s “Thor: Love and Thunder” will be lower than hoped considering the film’s disappointing second weekend.
The only relief that will come during this looming dry spell will be from films that beat expectations and organically grow their word-of-mouth. If there’s any film that could do it, it’s probably the one from Jordan Peele.