Denzel Washington Flight has strong, but hardly sensational debut
Denzel Washington’s R-rated drama Flight, Robert Zemeckis’ first live-action feature since 2000, way overperformed as the no. 2 movie on the North American box-office chart this weekend, Nov. 2-4. With an estimated $25.1 million at 1,884 locations, Flight trailed only Disney’s 3D animated feature Wreck-It Ralph‘s estimated $49.1 million at 3,752 venues according to studio figures found at Box Office Mojo.
Wreck-It Ralph, by the way, has been hailed as a — non-Pixar — Disney record. It could well be — weekend box-office actuals come out on Monday — but only if you choose to ignore pesky details such as inflation, and the fact that Tangled collected $48.76 million on its "opening weekend" even though that film had a Wednesday debut. Talk about comparing apples and bananas.
Back to Denzel Washington and Flight: Budgeted at $31 million (as per the Los Angeles Times) or $45 million (as per Deadline), not including marketing and distribution (and upcoming awards-season) expenses, Flight averaged a strong — particularly for an R-rated movie — $13,275 per theater. That’s higher than Wreck-It Ralph‘s $13,086, but before claiming that the adult movie was more successful than the kiddie flick, bear in mind that you’re comparing apples and mangoes here: Wreck-It Ralph has the advantage of 3D surcharges; Flight has the relative advantage of being screened at fewer locations. All things being equal, the lower the number of theaters, the higher the per-theater average should be.
Flight: Gigantic Denzel Washington box-office hit?
Now, is Flight a gigantic Denzel Washington success like some have been claiming? Hardly. Despite the film’s much better-than-expected opening, one must remember it wasn’t that long ago — like, last February — that Daniel Espinosa’s R-rated Safe House opened with $40.17 million at 3,119 theaters, averaging $12,880 per site. Back in 2010, The Book of Eli debuted with $32.78 million at 3,111 locations, averaging $10,540 per site. And even The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, considered a major box-office disappointment, opened in June 2009 with $23.37 million ($25.12 million adjusted for inflation) at 3,074 locations, averaging $8,200.
Flight‘s only chance to reach $100 or whereabouts is if the movie — like Ben Affleck’s Argo — continues to get solid buzz this awards season. And remember, $100m in 2012 ain’t what it used to be. Something called inflation.
Denzel Washington: Top domestic box-office draw?
Though considered a top box-office draw in the United States (and to a lesser extent overseas), only three Denzel Washington movies have grossed more than $150m at the domestic box office — and even then, only after factoring in inflation: The Pelican Brief, co-starring Julia Roberts, which scored an adjusted $194 million back in 1994; Crimson Tide, co-starring Gene Hackman, with $168 million in 1995; and Remember the Titans, with $171 million in 2000. Notice that two of those titles feature strong co-stars and that Washington’s last truly major box-office hit was released twelve years ago.
Without taking inflation into account, so far this century only two Denzel Washington movies have grossed more than $100m in the US/Canada, both featuring another leading man besides Washington: the aforementioned Safe House, co-starring Ryan Reynolds, took in $126.18 million, while Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, co-starring Russell Crowe, pulled in $130.16 million in late 2007.
Once you factor in inflation, Washington has only three more over-$100m hits since 2000: Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day, co-starring Ethan Hawke, with approximately $108 million in 2012 dollars; Tony Scott’s Man on Fire, with approx. $100m; and Spike Lee’s 2006 thriller Inside Man, co-starring Clive Owen and Jodie Foster, with approx. $108m.
Note that not one of those titles managed to surpass the inflation-adjusted $110m mark. Really, it’s time for the $100m box-office bar to be raised to $110m or $120m or $130m. Else, the way things are going in a few years just about every wide release will be reaching the magical $100m milestone.
Robert Zemeckis’ previous two live-action movies
For the record, Robert Zemeckis’ two live-action 2000 releases were the Harrison Ford / Michelle Pfeiffer thriller What Lies Beneath and the Tom Hanks / Helen Hunt Robinson Crusoe-ish drama Cast Away. Both PG-13 movies, I should add, opened with much stronger inflation-adjusted box-office figures than Flight: What Lies Beneath with approx. $44 million and $15,700 per site, and Cast Away with approx. $43 million and $15,500 per site.
Written by John Gatins, besides Denzel Washington Flight features Bruce Greenwood, Melissa Leo, John Goodman, and Don Cheadle.
Denzel Washington Flight image: Paramount Pictures.