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 U.S. and 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.
Denzel Washington Flight image: Paramount Pictures.