5 Reasons Why ‘Don’t Breathe’ Had a Shockingly Massive Debut

Scary movie surprises with opening numbers close to triple its budget

Modestly-budgeted home invasion thriller “Don’t Breathe” seemed to come out of left field, opening to a whopping estimated $26.1 million this weekend, more than double predictions.

“It is a wow number, there’s no doubt about it,” said Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribution at Sony, the film’s distributor.

One of the many reasons the scary movie did so well, said Bruer, was horror movie director Fede Alvarez‘s skill at keeping audiences on the edge of their seats. “It paid off in a big way,” he told TheWrap on Sunday.

From Stage 6 Films headed by Steve Bersch, which also produced the “Insidious” series, and marketing by Screen Gems, “Don’t Breathe” is produced by horror guru Sam Raimi and also co-written by Alvarez. It stars Jane LevyDylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto and Stephen Lang in a story about a group of young adults who wrongly assume a wealthy blind man will be an easy mark for robbery.

Made for less than $10 million in productions costs (not counting marketing), the movie nearly tripled its budget upon debut and more than doubled the expected opening box office grosses set by trackers earlier in the week.

So why didn’t anyone see this summer sleeper hit coming? Here are five reasons why the film over-performed:

1. It represents a craved communal experience.
In darkened theaters surrounded by other tense onlookers, audiences scream and react together. Scary movies are “one of the few communal experiences as moviegoers that we have left,” said Alexandra West, cohost of the “Faculty of Horror” podcast, who spoke with TheWrap last week. “Horror and porn are film genres that elicit a physical sensation,” she added. “It provokes people in so many different ways.” Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations agreed: “Horror is one of those genres where audiences definitely have a pack mentality, and the communal, big-screen experience of that is a large part of the attraction.”

2. Students wanted one last summer scare.
College kids, some just heading back to school, got a final scary movie in before classes heated up. The R-rated movie was seen by mostly by those under the age of 25. Skewing young, under 50 percent of the audience was over that age. The movie was also well attended by Hispanic moviegoers as well as those in urban areas — where scary movies tend to be the most popular.

3. The word went out early.
Like Sony’s “Sausage Party,” “Don’t Breathe” debuted at this year’s South by Southwest film festival in March. The early buzz machine kept chugging as it hit all of the major “Cons,” including San Diego Comic-Con. Director Alvarez did the rounds, including a live-streamed Q&A from Alamo Drafthouse, in tandem with an early screening.

4. Digital-heavy marketing was key.
Including the launch of the first-ever 360 Snapchat ad for a film, Sony has been changing up the ratio, focusing marketing budgets much more heavily on digital than print and television. As it did with “Sausage Party” and “The Shallows” — which both had very strong box office debuts — the studio devoted 50 percent of its marketing to digital campaigns, which is more than double the industry norm.

5. It got great reviews.
By appearances alone, audiences might assume “Don’t Breathe” is a run-of-the-mill fright fest. But critical raves, with an outstanding Rotten Tomatoes score of 87 percent, likely bolstered confidence among moviegoers that that their money would be well spent on tickets. The movie won praise for being both thoughtfully made and entertaining. “You could treat it as a casual primer on suspense-film craft, or you can just watch through splayed fingers, like the women who sat next to me at the screening I attended,” wrote Time Magazine‘s Stephanie Zacharek.