Why ‘First Man’ Didn’t Launch Into the Box Office Stratosphere

Despite critical raves, Damien Chazelle’s fact-based space drama had a good but not great opening weekend

Last Updated: October 15, 2018 @ 7:42 PM

A $16 million opening weekend for Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” isn’t necessarily a failure to launch, but the space exploration film’s box office success hinges on long-term audience turnout. And that might not happen, due to the most competitive October movie market of all time.

For the second straight weekend, comic book blockbuster “Venom” and awards contender “A Star Is Born” took up much of the oxygen on the domestic charts, combining to gross $63.8 million and accounting for 46 percent of this weekend’s business at the movies.

The two also combined to win over interest from all four quadrants: “Venom” found its success with younger males while “A Star Is Born” courted women and older audiences.

It’s the latter group with whom “First Man” needs to earn traction. And if distributors at Universal can attract baby boomers, who watched the Apollo 11 moon landing 50 years ago — even better.

But there’s a foreboding sign: Polls from opening weekend audiences gave the film a B+ on CinemaScore.

Jeff Bock, analyst for Exhibitor Relations, pinned the good-but-not-spectacular early reception on the film’s serious, deeply personal approach to Neil Armstrong and his famously reserved personality.

He compared the film to Chazelle’s engaging feature debut “Whiplash,” which was made with a production budget of $3.5 million and opened in limited release. Compare that to the $60 million spent to make “First Man,” a wide release.

“It’s a very dour film,” said Bock. “It’s not ‘La La Land.’ It’s not a film that’s trying to be a crowd-pleaser, and it’s going to be harder to build audience interest for it when it’s going up against very successful crowd pleasers like ‘A Star Is Born’ and ‘Halloween,’ which Universal is putting out next week.”

By comparison, “A Star Is Born” earned an A CinemaScore, while “Argo,” a film that opened to $19 million and legged out to $136 million and a Best Picture Oscar six years ago, earned an A+. Meanwhile on Rotten Tomatoes, audience scores for “First Man” sit at just 61 percent, compared to 84 percent for “A Star Is Born” and 90 percent for “Argo.”

This coming weekend will reveal the long-term prospects for “First Man.” If second frame totals amount to $10 million or more — as was the case for “Argo” — then the Neil Armstrong biopic has a better shot at finding traction with older audiences, particularly older men who are a periphery demographic for “Venom” and “A Star Is Born.”

But if not, then the moviegoing populace is likely sending the message that “A Star Is Born” is going to be the prestige film of choice for October. If so, “First Man” will likely have to hope for major awards consideration to get audiences to revisit the film on home release early next year.

“There’s still a chance that boomers will come around to see the film in a few weeks,” said comScore’s Paul Dergarabedian. “But I don’t think Universal or anyone else for that matter could have predicted how competitive this October was going to be.”

“We are 50 percent ahead of last year’s October and 6 percent ahead of the all-time best October, and that’s because there are multiple films getting major interest,” added Dergarabedian. “So even something with such a pedigree like ‘First Man’ could get squeezed out even if critics are largely loving it.”