Knives In: Lionsgate Bounces Back in 2019 After Worst Box Office Year in Over a Decade

“We are building a diverse slate of comedy, genre, elevated action, faith, horror, and a few director bets,” Nathan Kahane, co-head of the studio, says

Lionsgate, the film distributor behind “The Hunger Games,” “La La Land” and “John Wick,” is making a rebound after the worst year in company history. 

Following a 2018 in which it earned a mere $357 million at the domestic box office and less than 3% of all ticket sales, the company just passed $700 million in annual domestic grosses thanks to hits like “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” and the Daniel Craig whodunit “Knives Out.” The Santa Monica-based studio currently holds a market share of just under 7%.

“We are a mid-tier major that is not reliant on tentpoles for our strategy,” studio co-head Nathan Kahane told TheWrap. “When we have a ‘John Wick’ hit, that’s a bonus.”

This year, six of Lionsgate’s releases have passed the domestic run of last year’s top grosser, the Paul Feig thriller “A Simple Favor,” which grossed only $53 million domestically.

While not all of this year’s releases have been hits, the misfires have not come with a big financial hit. One example is “Hellboy,” an R-rated reboot of the Dark Horse comic book character that failed to make back its reported $50 million budget. (Lionsgate merely distributed the film and had no production stake.)

Lionsgate, however, was all in on its biggest hit of the year: “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum.” The latest installment in the Keanu Reeves assassin saga was co-produced by Lionsgate-owned Summit Entertainment and grossed $171 million in North America. That’s especially encouraging for Lionsgate because it is the biggest hit in the “John Wick” series, as audience interest in both the franchise and Reeves has only grown since the first film was released in 2014.

With a fourth film slated for release in 2021 and plans to use the BlackList spec script “Ballerina” to make a spinoff, “John Wick” has become a reliable moneymaker for a studio that badly needed one since the lucrative big-screen “Hunger Games” saga ended four years ago.

Meanwhile, last month’s “Knives Out” has grossed $124 million worldwide through two weekends in theaters, with $63.5 million domestically against a reported $40 million budget. The film has a good chance to join “Parabellum” as Lionsgate’s second $100 million-plus domestic grossing film this year.

“We are focused moving forward on building a diverse slate of comedy, genre, elevated action, faith, horror, and a few director bets,” Kahane said.

Outsiders note that the approach is working so far. “Lionsgate isn’t competing with the major studios, but a big blockbuster hit like ‘John Wick’ helps them with more than just box office,” Boxoffice.com analyst Shawn Robbins said. “When they create franchises like this and make distribution deals with production outlets, they’re building a pool of creative voices they can keep coming to in order to appeal to a wider audience.”

Beyond tentpoles, Lionsgate has spent the past year trying to hit the reset button and establish a new identity for itself. At its CinemaCon presentation last spring, studio heads Joe Drake and Nathan Kahane extolled a new vision for Lionsgate as “a place where artists can thrive.” To that end, the presentation heavily promoted two new slate distribution deals with Point Grey Pictures, the production banner created by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; and Kingdom Studios, a new faith-based banner created by Jon and Andrew Erwin, the directors of “I Can Only Imagine.”

The Kingdom Studios deal, in particular, is one to watch. Faith-based films have had a modest but growing footprint on the box office in recent years, with films like the “God’s Not Dead” trilogy and this year’s anti-abortion drama “Unplanned” finding success with Christian moviegoers.

What sets Kingdom apart isn’t just that it is the first major faith-based partnership by a Hollywood studio, but also one from filmmakers who have shown an incredible return on investment. “I Can Only Imagine,” a film co-distributed by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, grossed $86 million against a $7 million budget.

What’s more, unlike many faith-based films that are a hit with evangelicals but panned by critics and ignored by wider audiences, “I Can Only Imagine” had a more positive reception and some crossover appeal, something that Kahane told TheWrap will be a focus for Kingdom and Lionsgate going forward.

“Kingdom is primarily developing two kinds of films. The first are are aimed towards the faith-based audiences that gave the Erwins their lift in the business,” he said. “But the second will be aimed towards moviegoers that identify more as ‘spiritual’ than ‘religious.’ The Erwins are very interested in expanding their audience, and they’ll be developing and making a slate of films that speak broadly to more than those of any specific faith.”

Director Rian Johnson’s mystery “Knives Out” represents the studio’s effort to burnish an “artists first” image. While stars like Daniel Craig and Chris Evans were the primary element of marketing, the film was also heavily promoted as the passion project for the former “Star Wars” filmmaker. He went on a major media tour to promote the film, discussing the inspiration he took from films like “Sleuth” and “Deathtrap” and even creating online videos to promote the film.

“Part of what we are doing today with the Motion Picture Group is helping filmmakers as they build their brand,” Kahane said. “We feel that, in time, if we stick to that, it will be apparent to filmmakers that we are providing a more bespoke experience for them.”

In 2020, the challenge for Lionsgate will be to keep this success going without a reliable name like “John Wick” on the schedule. The company is counting on its first Kingdom release, “I Still Believe,” and the long-delayed sci-fi film “Chaos Walking,” which will star Marvel and “Star Wars” alums Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley.

The studio will also try to bring back a franchise with “The Organ Donor,” the working title for the ninth installment of the “Saw” franchise starring Samuel L. Jackson and Chris Rock, the latter of whom wrote the story treatment for the project.

Lionsgate tried and failed to revive interest in the horror series with “Jigsaw” in 2017, Rock and Jackson might lure moviegoers who may have forgotten about the dormant series. And if that happens, Lionsgate may soon find themselves in a position where they no longer need to search for the next “Hunger Games” to maintain success.

Kahane said he was taking lessons he learned as a producer of films like “Juno” and “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” — and last summer’s Universal R-rated comedy “Good Boys,” which he said “none of the prognosticators predicted would be a big success” but grossed $83 million domestically on a reported $20 million budget. “I think our 2020 slate has those: films that many aren’t paying attention to now but will shock and awe audiences when they arrive,” he said.

Jeremy Fuster

Jeremy Fuster

Box Office Reporter • [email protected]



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