After a Slow Box-Office Summer, 'It' Shatters Records

By Ben Fritz Features Dow Jones Newswires

Hollywood got a much-needed jolt after a disappointing summer thanks to two letters: "It."

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The adaptation of Stephen King's 1986 novel broke several box office records as it opened to a massive $117.2 million in the U.S. and Canada, according to studio estimates. "It" more than doubled the prior highest September opening, $48.5 million for "Hotel Transylvania 2" in 2015, and the record opening for a horror movie, previously $52.6 million for 2011's "Paranormal Activity 3."

Early September is typically one of the slowest times of the year at the box office. But "It" proved that in the current environment, people go to theaters not based on a calendar date but because a movie breaks into the zeitgeist and becomes must-see.

"It" has been building buzz since its first trailer, released in March, set a record with 197 million global views in one day.

Time Warner Inc's Warner Bros. had relatively modest expectations when it started making "It," which is why it spent only $35 million on production.

"In today's theatrical marketplace you can get extremely lucky and you can get extremely unlucky," said Toby Emmerich, president and chief content officer of Warner's motion picture group. "This movie will be super-profitable."

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The film's success is good news not just for Warner, but all of Hollywood. It comes following a summer with the lowest total box office grosses since 2006 and the smallest number of tickets sold since 1992.

Many movies with well known titles and huge budgets, like "Transformers: The Last Knight," "The Mummy" and Warner's "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword," flopped when they failed to grab audience's attention as "It" did. A handful of hits, like "Despicable Me 3" and Warner's "Wonder Woman," took most of the buzz.

"It" also opened well overseas, grossing $62 million in 46 markets and posting the highest ever horror openings in the U.K., Brazil, Russia and Australia.

The U.S. opening would have been bigger if not for Hurricane Irma. More than 175 theaters in Florida closed down over the weekend, likely costing the movie about $5 million, said Warner head of domestic distribution Jeff Goldstein.

Warner has been working on "It" since 2009, during which time the project survived multiple rewrites and a shutdown in production in 2015 just three weeks before it was to start shooting with director Cary Fukunaga. After Mr. Fukunaga departed over creative differences, Andy Muschietti took over and shot "It" in 2016.

The prior year, Warner assigned oversight of "It" to its New Line Cinema unit. In recent years New Line has had a run of successful horror films including "The Conjuring" series and its "Annabelle" spin offs.

The success of "It" appears to have been driven by the fact that it is different than the sequels, reboots and comic book adaptations that dominated multiplexes in the summer but still has a brand-name title. In addition to the best-selling book, many people know "It" from a popular 1990 television miniseries adaptation made by a company now owned by Warner.

While the book was set in the 1950s, the movie takes place in the 1980s and nostalgia for that era among adults may have also increased its appeal. Last year's hit Netflix Inc. series "Stranger Things," itself inspired by "It," also took place in the 1980s. 65% of the audience for "It" was over 25, according to exit polls.

After March's trailer proved so popular, Warner considered moving the opening of "It" up to the summer or increasing its marketing spend, but ultimately stuck with its original plans, said Mr. Emmerich. "In hindsight, that was the right call," he noted.

Reviews were solid if not spectacular, and opening night audiences gave "It" an average grade of B+, according to market research firm CinemaScore. Horror movies typically have limited appeal beyond fans who turn out on opening weekend and fade quickly at the box office, but it remains to be seen if "It" will adhere to conventional Hollywood wisdom in the coming weeks after shattering it while opening.

The movie adapts only part of the 1,000-plus page book, in which its main characters are children. New Line is currently working on a screenplay that adapts of the rest of the book, in which the main characters are adults. Warner hopes to release the "It" sequel in the summer or early fall of 2019, said a person with knowledge of the matter.

Write to Ben Fritz at ben.fritz@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 10, 2017 13:11 ET (17:11 GMT)