Behind ‘Gravity’s’ Historic Box Office Hold: 3D, Word-of-Mouth and Sandra Bullock

Warner Bros. marketers made it a “must-see-in-3D” movie — and it didn’t hurt that critics and audiences loved it

In the box office world, having a movie hold onto 50 percent of its opening weekend gross is the gold standard. “Gravity” went platinum this weekend.

The best box-office debut ever in October was a tough act to follow, but the second-week performance of Warner Bros.’ space thriller may be even more impressive. It brought in an estimated $44.3 million over the weekend, just 21 percent down from its $55.7 million debut, the best retention rate ever for a film that opened to more than $50 million.

To put that in perspective, look at the year’s three biggest movies. “Iron Man 3” fell 58 percent in its second weekend after opening with $174 million. “Man of Steel” plummeted 64 percent from its $116 million debut. Even the family film “Despicable Me 2” dropped 47 percent from its $83 million first weekend. “Marvel’s The Avengers” fell 50 percent in its second week last year, according to BoxOffice Mojo.

Also read: ‘Gravity’ Leaves Tom Hanks’ ‘Captain Phillips’ In Box-Office Wake With Huge 2nd Week

What did the Sandra Bullock-George Clooney space epic have that those summer blockbusters didn’t when it came to second-week staying power?

The 3D and Imax, along with through-the-roof word of mouth, are the biggest factors, and the combination created a perfect storm over the past three days. And Warner Bros. marketing team successfully sold the concept that “Gravity” had to be seen in 3D or on a giant screen to be fully appreciated.

“The credit goes to the movie,” Warner Bros. President of Worldwide Marketing and International Distribution Sue Kroll told TheWrap Monday, “and it’s still driving the campaign.

“From the first time we saw it, there was a collective ‘Oh my god, this is spectacular, unlike anything else we’ve seen in 3D,’ and we knew that was how we’d sell it.”

With its visually stunning panoramas, the space epic is ideally suited for the added dimension and director Alfonso Cuaron takes breathtaking advantage. Still, convincing the masses – particularly the over-35 crowd that has made up the bulk of its audience so far – to don those plastic glasses is no small feat.

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“Not everyone’s experiences with 3D have been great,” Kroll said. “I’m not a huge fan myself, but I loved this one. This movie made it easy to sell the fact that 3D really would enhance the experience, because it really did. Nobody was coming out of the theaters and saying, ‘Don’t bother with it.’”

Kroll and her team took advantage of the massive debut by pushing positive 3D reaction quotes on social media and in commercials. The buzz from the record opening built through last week, as the film posted $6 million weekdays, the sort of numbers summer tentpole movies put up.

The studio stacked the deck at the multiplexes. It added 85 locations, with more than 75 percent of its market-high 3,660 theaters featuring the format, and it paid off handsomely. Roughly 82 percent – or $36.2 million – of the grosses came from 3D. “Gravity” also brought in $9 million from Imax, the best second week ever, besting the $8.9 million second lap of “The Dark Knight Rises” last year.

Kroll and her team successfully walked a fine line and kept the focus on the technique of Cuaron, rather than the technology behind the “Gravity.” Last year, when “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” came out, static over the high-speed frame rate cut into the buzz for Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth epic.

Also read: ‘Gravity’s’ Sandra Bullock Spits ‘Rapper’s Delight’ to a Delighted Tom Hanks

“There are aspects and details of the technology that we haven’t revealed yet, and that’s to keep the focus on the film and not take away from the experience of seeing it,” she said.

But wasn’t all the visuals.

“Once we got past the wow of it all, we knew we could sell this beyond the 3D. We knew that if we did our job right, there was something for everyone,” Kroll said.

Both critics, who have it at an incredible 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and audiences, who gave it an “A” CinemaScore, loved the movie.

The Oscar talk around the film and its director and stars has given it a prestige aura — it packed the Academy’s screening seat-for-seat —  and contributed to the “event” feel. Bullock’s box-office appeal is peaking, and her presence in the film helped draw women who might otherwise have passed on a lost-in-space saga.

“The 3D aspect of this film has been great, but I’m convinced we wouldn’t be where we are today if this weren’t great storytelling,” said Kroll.