It was a big weekend for romantic comedies at the multiplex, with three of them entering the top 15 on the box office chart. The experts predicted that the one that would come out on top was "Don Jon," given the star power of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson, as well as a wide release in 2,422 theaters. It was expected to make $10 to $12 million, while "Baggage Claim," with no A-list stars and a 2,027-screen release, was supposed to be way behind, with $7 or $8 million. But that's not how it turned out.
In fact, when Sunday's estimates were released, "Baggage Claim" had a slight edge over "Don Jon," with $9.3 million to $9 million for "Don Jon." (The third rom-com, "Enough Said," played on just 227 screens, but it did very well, earning an estimated $2.1 million and finishing at No. 11.) That $300,000 difference is slim, and it's possible that when Monday's final numbers are released, "Don Jon" could still come out ahead. Nonetheless, it's clear that "Baggage Claim" outperformed expectations, while "Don Jon" underperformed them. Here are some reasons why the battle of the romantic comedies played out as it did.
Word-of-Mouth: Critics gave far stronger reviews to "Don Jon" than to "Baggage Claim," but audiences had the opposite response. "Baggage Claim" earned very good word-of-mouth (measured by it's A- grade at CinemaScore), but moviegoers did not strongly recommend "Don Jon" (its grade was a weak C+). That had to hurt.
Female Appeal: Of the three romantic comedies playing, one was more of a wry dramedy about a tentative middle-aged couple ("Enough Said"), one was about a porn-addicted womanizer who meets a feisty Jersey girl who won't fall for his usual approach ("Don Jon"), and one was a familiarly frothy and formulaic tale of a flight attendant who criss-crosses the country while reuniting with ex-boyfriends in a frantic 30-day race to find a fiancé ("Baggage Claim"). Which one do you think women looking for a fun night at the movies would be most likely to choose? Yup, thought so.
Star Power: "Don Jon" has bigger marquee-name stars than the other two films. (Sure, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini, the stars of "Enough Said," are big names, but only on TV.) But the "Don Jon" stars aren't necessarily big names in this kind of romantic comedy. Scarlett Johansson, with her heavy-lidded eyes and that smoky voice, suggests a woman worldly beyond her years, not the wide-eyed, clumsy ingenue that rom-coms are usually built around. Gordon-Levitt scored as the male version of that character in "(500) Days of Summer," but here, he's playing a more jaded, testosterone-heavy character, of the sort he's played in guy-appeal movies from "Inception" to "Looper." So that's also not necessarily the guy women want to see. On the other hand, "Baggage Claim" star Paula Patton seems ready to break out as a rom-com heroine, for reasons I detailed here.
Crossover Appeal: This one is tricky. "Baggage Claim" has a primarily black cast. It stars Patton (who's biracial) and a number of black leading men (including Taye Diggs, Derek Luke, Djimon Hounsou, and Trey Songz) who are well-known to black audiences but aren't quite household names to everyone. Its writer-director is David E. Talbert, who comes from the same African-American morality-play theater circuit as Tyler Perry. Fox Searchlight has been trying for years to duplicate the kinds of successes Perry has scored for "Lionsgate," but such Searchlight films as "I Think I Love My Wife," "Our Family Wedding," and "Just Wright" have topped out at around $20 million. With "Baggage Claim," the studio had a strong chance of reaching that often skeptical African-American audience, thanks to the presence of Talbert and that cast, while the marketing of the movie has been generic enough for the film to have a chance at crossing over to non-black audiences as well. It's not clear yet whether that two-front strategy worked. That said, however, it is clear that the movie at the multiplex this weekend with the greatest chance of appealing to African-American audiences (at least the ones who've already seen "Lee Daniels' The Butler") was "Baggage Claim."
Rating: "Baggage Claim" was rated PG-13, while "Don Jon" was rated "R." Not that either movie held much appeal for teens, but to the extent that they did, more would have been able to get in to see "Baggage Claim." Plus, the religious-minded audience that goes to see Talbert's plays is much more likely to choose a PG-13 movie and avoid the potentially more explicit language and sexuality of an R film.
Release Pattern: Then again, "Enough Said" was also PG-13. About the only thing that kept it from competing on the same level as "Baggage Claim" and "Don Jon" was that it was playing in a tenth as many venues. Per screen, however, it did better than any other movie playing this weekend, more than twice as well as "Baggage Claim" and "Don Jon" ("Enough Said" averaged $9,317 per screen, compared to $4,588 for "Baggage Claim" and $3,716 for "Don Jon.") Had "Enough Said" released a similarly wide release, it could have given the other two romantic comedies a real run for their money.