Sure, the success of "Guardians of the Galaxy" was a foregone conclusion. It had the widest opening of any August release ever (4,080 screens), resulting in the biggest August debut ever (not adjusted for inflation), an estimated $94.0 million. Even so, the movie did way better than even the most optimistic projections, which ran as high as $80 million.
Credit Disney's well-orchestrating marketing campaign, which introduced the five little-known heroes, played up the film's tongue-in-cheek tone, flooded the talk-show zone with its large cast (from leads like Zoe Saldana to supporting players like John C. Reilly), and even capitalized on the social media following of director James Gunn, whose online fanbase belies the cult-hit status of his earlier films (he directed genre spoofs "Slither" and "Super," as well as scripting the more popular "Scooby-Doo" live-action movies). Credit the Disney/Marvel collaboration, which seems to work like magic on ticketbuyers ever since "The Avengers."
But give credit also to older moviegoers, since 55 percent of those who went to see "Guardians" were over 25.
How did the comic-book fantasy draw these older viewers? Stellar reviews certainly helped, since this is the age group that still reads what movie critics have to say. So did excellent word-of-mouth, as measured by the film's A grade at CinemaScore. And so did the movie's family-friendly nature. A lot of parents accompanied their kids, judging by the 26 percent of audiences that Disney characterized as family viewers.
Indeed, the movie did so well among older viewers that it may have hurt the James Brown biopic "Get On Up," clearly intended as counter-programming meant to draw viewers old enough to remember James Brown. After all, three years ago, "Get On Up" director Tate Taylor proved with "The Help" that older audiences would come out in August to see the kind of prestige movie usually reserved for the fall and Oscar season. "Get On Up" seemed to borrow from the same playbook; not only did it feature many of the same actors as "The Help," but it also shared the 2011 movie's Deep South setting and its thematic preoccupation with the racial turmoil of the Civil Rights era. (Last year, "Lee Daniels' The Butler" also proved that August is a good time to release prestige dramas about the Civil Rights era.)
Based on the example Taylor set with "The Help," plus the new film's strong reviews and its A grade at CinemaScore, pundits had expected "Get On Up" to open with about $15 to $20 million. Instead, it opened at just an estimated $14 million, settling for a third-place debut. Of course, the movie had an impeccable soundtrack of period chart hits. But then, so did "Guardians," with '60s and '70s hits by the likes of Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, David Bowie, the Runaways, and others. If you're over 35 and prefer vintage top 40 to vintage R&B, then "Guardians" had the edge over "Get On Up."
Then again, "Get On Up" could have lost potential moviegoers to any number of films this week that also drew older ticketbuyers. "And So It Goes," the romance featuring oldtimers Diane Keaton and Michael Douglas, added 54 screens this weekend (for a total of 1,816) and scored an estimated $3.34 million, good for ninth place. International thriller "A Most Wanted Man" doubled its theater count to 729 and saw its business improve 23 percent over last week's debut, earning an estimated $3.32 million and finishing in 10th place. And at No. 11, tripling its theater count to 311 and earning an estimated $2.5 million was Richard Linklater's acclaimed art-house drama "Boyhood."
Further down the chart, Woody Allen's "Magic in the Moonlight" upped its theater count from 17 to 65 and earned an estimated $770,000, for a healthy per-screen average of $11,846, the third biggest per-venue average of any movie this weekend. The only films that did better on a per-theater basis were "Guardians" ($23,039 per screen) and "Cavalry," the art-house film starring Brendan Gleeson, which opened on just four screens but earned an estimated $18,200 on each (for a total of $72,800).
Add to these such still-strong older-appeal movies as "Lucy" (No. 2 this weekend with an estimated $18.3 million), "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" (No. 5, with an estimated $8.7 million), "Sex Tape" (No. 8), "Tammy" (No. 13), and even indies "Begin Again" and "Chef," and it's clear that there was plenty of grown-up fare this weekend, and that the multiplex was by no means a kid-only zone.
Of course, when the kids go back to school in a month, and Hollywood finally releases most of this year's awards-hopeful movies, the multiplex will go back to being a playground for grown-ups. Still, of all the prestige movies coming out this fall, few will have a cast as strong as the current film that features such frequent awards-nominees as Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro, John C. Reilly, Lee Pace, and Djimon Hounsou. And none of them will feature a raccoon with anger issues and a big gun.
Photos courtesy Universal / Marvel