Before the summer started, anyone handicapping this past weekend's "The Internship"-vs.-"The Purge" showdown would likely have picked the former. After all, "Internship" is a broad comedy about the world's most talked-about company, from the stars of "Wedding Crashers," opening on 3,366 screens, rated an audience-friendly PG-13. "Purge," however, is a micro-budgeted sci-fi/horror film with a restrictive R-rating, a star who's never been a box office draw, a release pattern of just 2,536 screens, and a premise that's hard to describe in one sentence. The battle should have been a lop-sided one.
Well, it was lop-sided, all right, but the other way around. "Purge," which had been expected to open somewhere between $18 and $25 million, outperformed even the most wildly optimistic projections to debut with an estimated $36.4 million, dethroning two-time box office champ "Fast & Furious 6." "Internship" also did better than expected -- recent tracking guessed it would earn as little as $15 million -- grossing an estimated $18.2 million and settling for a fourth-place debut.
How did "Purge" transform from underdog into sure thing? How did it earn twice as much as the wider-released big-budget, heavily promoted comedy? Here are some possible reasons:
Originality still counts. As we saw last week with the surprise surge of magician caper "Now You See Me" over yet-another-post-apocalyptic-epic "After Earth," many moviegoers are eager for novelty, especially in a summer full of sequels and reboots. The premise of "The Purge" -- a future where crime goes unpunished one night each year -- may have seemed like a tricky sell, but it was intriguing enough to spark discussion across the social media world for weeks in advance of the film's release. Granted, "The Internship" is also built on a new idea -- Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are middle-aged salesmen interning at Google alongside computer-savvy kids half their age -- though it also sounds a lot like a movie Vaughn and Wilson's brother Luke made a decade ago, "Old School."
Jason Blum. Producer Blum may be the MVP of "The Purge." A horror producer best known for turning bite-sized-budget movies like "Paranormal Activity" and "Sinister" into hits, he made "Purge" along the same lines, for just $3 million. As with his "Paranormal" movies, he let social media carry the heavy lifting of marketing. His frugality doesn't ensure hits, but it certainly lowers the bar his movies have to clear in order to be seen as hits.
Ethan Hawke. He's never been a box office draw, but Hawke is a reliable, underrated actor whose quiet intensity and earnestness lend themselves well to imperiled genre-movie heroes. His effective performance in Blum's "Sinister" last fall helped make that film a hit, one recent enough for fan goodwill to carry over to "The Purge." Plus, it didn't hurt that he's been all over the media lately promoting his current indie romance hit "Before Midnight," allowing for some free marketing piggybacking.
Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. "Wedding Crashers" was eight long years ago. Neither of its stars wields that kind of box office clout anymore. Both actors have had hits since then, but not much lately. Vaughn in particular has been in the box office doghouse thanks to movies like "The Dilemma" and "The Watch." Plus, even though he and Wilson have comic chemistry, moviegoers knew that they wouldn't get into any raunchy "Crashers" shenanigans, since "Internship" is rated a tame PG-13.
Product placement. "The Internship" was written with Google in mind, and it certainly wouldn't have worked without the active cooperation of the Web titan. Still, the movie plays like a very long infomercial. A lot of viewers found that off-putting.
The marketplace. "Internship" must have expected to have the comedy field all to itself, especially after "The Hangover Part III" tanked. Well, sort of tanked. In its third weekend, "Hangover" earned an estimated $7.4 million, enough to finish in eighth place and to cross the $100 million mark in total domestic revenue. So that took a bite out of "Internship." Meanwhile, "Purge," for all its futuristic trappings, played less like a sci-fi flick than a horror home-invasion chiller. Among horror movies, it had no competition.
Might "internship" have fared better if released on a different weekend? Maybe. One thing's for certain, though: both "Internship" and "Purge" are likely to get crushed next week by the star-driven horror comedy "This Is the End," as well as by a little movie called "Man of Steel."