‘1917’ Hits No. 1 at the Box Office and Takes Aim at the Oscars

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LOS ANGELES — Since the Academy Awards began more than nine decades ago, films have had to thread two needles to win the best picture statuette: art and commerce. Netflix’s business model is changing that dynamic: “The Irishman” officially has ticket sales of zero, since the streaming service does not release movies in a traditional way. But over the weekend, with the war epic “1917,” came an old-fashioned example of a film delivering both artistic wows and big ticket sales.

“1917,” a front-runner for multiple Oscars, nominations for which will be announced on Monday, collected roughly $37 million at 3,434 theaters in North America, an astounding result for an R-rated period film with no marquee stars. Directed by Sam Mendes and telling the story (in under two hours) of a spindly World War I soldier (George MacKay) in a race against time, “1917” cost roughly $90 million to make, not including marketing expenses.

Universal Pictures released “1917,” which was produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners. The film’s wide rollout (a limited release to build buzz started on Christmas Day) was timed to follow the Golden Globes, where voters honored Mendes as best director and the film as best drama. David A. Gross, who runs Franchise Entertainment Research, said on Sunday that “1917” was on track to generate $350 million or more in worldwide ticket sales.

For the weekend, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (Disney) fell to second place, taking in about $15 million, for a four-week domestic total of $478 million and $990 million worldwide. “Jumanji: The Next Level” (Sony) was third, collecting an estimated $14 million, for a five-week total of $257 million ($671 million worldwide). The two blockbusters have contributed to a strong start to 2020, with ticket sales running 7 percent ahead of last year.

Then came a pair of new releases, both of which attracted decent attention.

Determined not to stumble out of the gate with another drama, Warner Bros. used theater buyouts from celebrities like John Legend, companies like Microsoft and churches like New Light in Houston to push “Just Mercy” to an estimated $10 million in ticket sales. “Just Mercy,” starring Michael B. Jordan as the civil-rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as a wrongly condemned death-row prisoner, cost about $21 million to make. It received an A-plus grade from ticket buyers in CinemaScore exit polls.

“Like a Boss” (Paramount), a poorly reviewed raunchy comedy starring Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne and Salma Hayek, also collected about $10 million, according to Comscore, which compiles box-office data. It cost around $29 million to make.

The weekend marked another Kristen Stewart misfire, however. The modestly marketed aquatic horror movie “Underwater” (20th Century Fox, a division of Disney) was just that in a financial sense, costing TSG Entertainment an estimated $50 million to make and taking in $7 million. “Underwater,” essentially “Alien” except at the bottom of the ocean, took in another $7 million overseas. After a well-regarded run in art films like “Clouds of Sils Maria,” Stewart has made a turn back toward mass-appeal movies lately. She last appeared in “Charlie’s Angels,” which was similarly rejected by ticket buyers.

In other box-office news, the National Association of Theater Owners and Comscore said on Friday that final ticket sales for 2019 in North America, as expected, totaled $11.4 billion, a 4 percent decline from the year earlier. But overseas ticket sales helped the global box office pass $42 billion, the best ever. “Unaffected by streaming,” the trade association said.

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