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Why ‘Interstellar’ Didn’t Fly Higher at Box Office

The $50 million debut of Christopher Nolan’s space epic was impressive, but could it ever measure up to the buzz?

To be totally clear, no one involved is complaining after a $132 million first weekend at the worldwide box office for Christopher Nolan‘s space epic “Interstellar.”

But the sci-fi tale starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway couldn’t beat Disney Animation’s “Big Hero 6” at the domestic box office, and Paramount Pictures had to be aggressive in its projections for Sunday to get its weekend estimate to $50 million.

That’s obviously a good launch, but it’s a little under the expectations of Paramount and most analysts. The studio’s marketing campaign had raised awareness to a fever pitch, and with the buzz that turns all of Nolan’s films into events, it was hard for some not to feel a little underwhelmed. Don’t count Paramount’s President of Worldwide Distribution and Marketing Megan Colligan among them, however.

“It’s no small feat to have two original movies play as strongly as these did in November, so we’re very happy with this start,” Colligan told TheWrap.

Still the opening by “Interstellar” is the lowest of any of Nolan’s recent movies, well under the $62 million that another one of the director’s originals, “Inception,” debuted with in 2010 and nowhere near the first weekends of “The Dark Knight” ($158 million in 2010) or “The Dark Knight Rises,” ($160 million in 2012).

“Ultimately, I think the serious undertones and sci-fi elements of ‘Interstellar’ kept it from reaching the heights of ‘Inception,’ which was more of a pure action adventure,” said Exhibitor Relations vice-president and senior analyst Jeff Bock. “Sometimes, thoughtful and somewhat dark material doesn’t transcend to the masses as easily, but still, $50 million is a great start.”

There were several factors that kept “Interstellar” from a higher orbit over its opening weekend:

No 3D
With his artistic and commercial resume, Nolan has earned the right to call the shots on how he shoots his films and how they’re projected. But his decision to avoid 3D, and the higher ticket charges those screenings bring, comes at a cost. IMAX screens brought in a massive $13.6 million, accounting for a record 26 percent of the “Interstellar” grosses. But 3D accounted for 29 percent of the “Big Hero 6” grosses, or $16.2 million.

Its older skew
Three-fourths of the audience for “Interstellar” was over the age of 25 years old. That’s a crowd that tends not to rush out for opening weekends — many older moviegoers avoid them, in fact — so this could work in the film’s favor over the next few weeks. But you’re not going to get to the very highest box-office ranges without connecting in all four age and gender quadrants, and “Interstellar” didn’t this weekend.

Its 2-hour, 49-minute run time
Part of the appeal for many is the epic scope of “Interstellar,” and that accounts to a degree for its length. But at an hour longer than most movies, including “Big Hero,” the math says that no matter how popular your movie is, you get fewer screenings and sell fewer tickets in a day.

Less-than-stellar reviews
They’re good, but not great, at 74 percent “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes. You can make the case that Nolan’s movies are by design thoughtful, purposely provocative and not always critical favorites. But the “B+” CinemaScore that “Interstellar” received from audiences — the same as “Inception” got — suggests audiences had some reservations too.

“This is a movie that needs to be thought about, but we live in a world of instant reactions and that makes it tough for more complicated films,” said BoxOffice.com vice-president and senior analyst Phil Contrino. Paramount’s Colligan saw an opportunity. “This is an intelligent film that takes on complex subjects, and the discussion around it is only going to help in the coming weeks.”

Great expectations
“Interstellar” may to a degree have been a victim of its own marketing success. The awareness level for the film felt stratospheric, driven in part by Nolan’s mystique, a campaign that kept key plot elements shrouded until late in the game and capped by mainstream plays like a Time Magazine cover and putting Matthew McConaughey in the “Monday Night Football” booth.

That all worked extremely well, but translating it into comparable ticket sales was certain to be difficult. “We’ve always seen our campaign for this film as a marathon, and there are elements of the marketing that will be kicking in only now,” Colligan said. “We have Matthew [McConaughey] and Mackenzie Foy, who plays his daughter, on ‘Good Morning America,’ tomorrow for example. We think the next couple of weekends will feel a lot like openings for a lot of people.”

And things do look good for “Interstellar” in the next couple of weeks.

On the domestic front, “Dumb and Dumber To” opens Friday, but it’s hard to see that one cutting into the audience for Nolan’s epic. “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” opens the following week and looks huge, but doesn’t target the “Interstellar” demo either.

The results from overseas, where Warner Bros. is distributing and saw an $80 million first weekend, are encouraging as well. On Wednesday, it’s very likely to open at No. 1 in China.

So, with a possible $200 million-plus domestic haul and a foreign take that could double that, the bottom line on the $165 million space epic looks pretty good.

Just not, at least at this point, out of this world.