‘Knives Out’ To Beat ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’ Domestic B.O.: How Rian Johnson & Ram Bergman Hatched A Potential Franchise With $238M+ WW Hit

Movies

Not to gush, but let’s seriously behold the success of Media Rights Capital and Lionsgate’s Knives Out

We’ve already overwritten how the whodunit is a win for original movies in last year’s Disney franchise-laden theatrical environment.

Daniel Craig, Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan in 'Knives Out'

But this Rian Johnson-directed, star-studded film just won’t give up in its current sixth weekend of release, poised to make $9.5M, repping a -4% dip — the best post-New Year’s weekend hold currently in the top 10.

By Sunday, the movie will count a running domestic tally of $130.7M, and get this: the pic has a very good shot to take over Quentin Tarantino’s Leonardo DiCaprio-Brad Pitt-Margot Robbie feature Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ($141M) as the second-highest grossing original release of 2019, after Universal’s Us ($175M). Final domestic end game for Knives Out is projected to be around $150M, with a current $238.7M-plus worldwide B.O. — and that’s in a fiercely competitive market against such mass-appealing movies like Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Jumanji: The Next Level and Frozen 2. Typically, such adult-driven fare drops to around 1,000-1,500 theaters during the post New Year’s period. But exhibition has held over and supported Knives Out with a current location count of 2,142.

Studio development executives remain in distress in this streaming era: What, exactly, works on the big screen? So many genres like comedy and drama are finding better traction in the home. It’s a quandary they continually grapple with, along with the challenges of creating an experience that’s different from what you get in a Netflix menu.

One would think that the concept of a whodunit would be ripe for streaming. But what Knives Out continued to show in the wake of Kenneth Branagh’s surprise 2017 remake Murder on the Orient Express ($102.8M domestic, $352.7M WW) is that when packaged with stars who appeal to varying demos, coupled with an intriguing script, moviegoers will get in their cars for an old-fashioned mystery.

Comscore/Screen Engine’s PostTrak shows that some of the big reasons why movieogers went to see Knives Out include the type of movie it is (36%), subject/matter plot (36%), and the pic’s ensemble cast of Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Christopher Plummer and more (32%).

Knives Out continues to draw an incredible amount of repeat business, not only fueled by Johnson’s fans, but the pic’s Easter Eggs and the new details audiences find with repeat viewings. Plus, there’s that bounce from three major Golden Globe nominations tomorrow (Best Comedy/Musical, Craig in the Best Actor Comedy/Musical category, as well as Ana de Armas in the Best Actress slot).

Another detail indicating demand is the amount of walk-up business Knives Out has clocked, with 61% of moviegoers buying their tickets at the theater, according to PostTrak. Word-of-mouth has been no less than hot, with a 63% definite recommend and 4 stars on PostTrak, with attendees saying that the main reason why they went to the film was because they heard it was fantastic from friends (33%), not to mention TV ads (35%), in-theater trailers (23%), and YouTube trailers (22%) also being persuasive.

Knives Out

“Part of the fun for me from the very first preview screening was observing how a full house had a communal experience in watching the movie. It’s so gratifying,” said Knives Out director-writer-producer Johnson.

After spotting great test scores for Knives Out over the summer, Lionsgate blasted the pic out of TIFF to a great audience response and reviews (97% Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes). While Frozen 2 would own the Thanksgiving box office, Knives Out launched in the wake of that Disney female- driven ‘toon as a big, star-studded choice for adults on the Wednesday before the holiday. Paid previews during Frozen 2‘s opening weekend, promoted by theaters chains and by Johnson on social, were another indication that the want-to-see was strong, grossing $2M.

And the sell that Lionsgate’s President of Worldwide Marketing Damon Wolf and his team pitched: pure fun. One aspect of the social media campaign highlighted the three businesses of the bickering Thrombey family members: Real Estate, Book Publishing, and Beauty/Lifestyle.

Each of the Thrombey empires were brought to life through creative online hubs aimed at a swath of demos – including innovative advertisements for each business, branded website portals, a give-away paperback Novella, and a Pop-Up Beauty Boutique. Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon and Toni Collette each stumped their characters’ fictitious businesses—Thrombey Real Estate, Blood Like Wine Publishing and Flam, respectively—in social videos directed by Johnson.

“Lionsgate didn’t try to sell the movie on what it’s not. They loved the script and what we made. Lionsgate believed from day 1 that we could go wide, not just to a sophisticated adult crowd, but reach everyone,” said Knives Out producer and Johnson’s T-Street partner Ram Bergman, “They came up with a really clever (marketing) campaign; they killed.”

Ana de Armas and Daniel Craig in 'Knives Out'

Another aspect of the campaign, of course, entailed keeping the lid on a key character in the movie sans any clues. It’s a surprise to learn that Knives Out is about one character in particular out of the great ensemble, and it’s no one you would ever expect, especially since they’re not nefarious. Said Johnson, “You’re typically leading with the biggest, most appealing thing in the film. We could sell it effectively while hiding this big element in the movie. You don’t get to do that with movie marketing.”

Another big surprise for Lionsgate, MRC, and the filmmakers is the pic’s $28M box office in China, impressive for a non-event film.

“China is an anomaly. We had zero expectations and what’s surprising is how audiences there discovered the movie. The reviews there were so great that it led to people going,” observes Bergman.

Johnson, being a fan of Alfred Hitchcock and 1970s whodunits like Sleuth and Death on the Nile, started formulating the basic structure for Knives Out ten years ago, but didn’t put pen to paper until January 2018, following the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. 

“I wrote it very fast. I wrote it in about six months, and then we had wrapped the movie by Christmas. It came together really, really quickly, mostly because Daniel [Craig] signed up for it, and had a very brief window that he was available before he went into Bond world,” Johnson told Deadline’s Joe Utichi.

And while auteurs in the wake of a massive box office hit typically are granted a great license by the town to do what they want, Johnson says that even without the $1.3 billion success of Last Jedi, Knives Out would have been completely possible.

“This was a medium budget movie (Editor’s note: $40M before P&A), so it wasn’t a massive swing, and it’s a project we could reasonably have gotten off the ground even following the relative success of Looper. However, coming off of Star Wars didn’t hurt,” Johnson told me.

Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Don Johnson and Michael Shannon in 'Knives Out'

The project, according to Bergman, wasn’t shopped around to various financiers. The duo had been talking with Media Rights Capital for some time about collaborating on a project, the studio-financier having a strong reputation for mounting original, mass-appealing works by auteurs, i.e. Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver ($227M WW), Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium ($286.1M WW) and Alejandro Inarritu’s Oscar-winning Babel ($135.3M).

MRC boarded six weeks before the start of production. While Johnson and Bergman met with a number of studios over the pic’s domestic distribution, it was Lionsgate that won them over with their passion for the project two weeks before production. “They believed in the film and put their backs in it,” says Johnson, “Lionsgate and MRC were on the same page. It wasn’t like we had to tap dance.” MRC and Lionsgate split the production cost 50/50.

Production, which lasted seven weeks outside of Boston at a private residence, went rather quick. Initially, Craig wasn’t available to play crusty Southern P.I. Benoit Blanc. But then his schedule opened up when MGM’s 007 pic No Time To Die got pushed. Additional stars boarded, with the cast coming together seven weeks before filming. Johnson had a sense that Craig was looking “to cut loose and play” after going against his type in such comedies like Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, in which he also played a Southerner.

As of right now, for Johnson and Bergman, their next project at T-Street seems pretty obvious.

Says Johnson, “I don’t know about a Looper sequel, but a Knives Out one, instead. It would be so great to get together with Daniel again on another Benoit Blanc mystery, with a new cast and new location, just like Christie did with Poirot.”

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