One of Paramount’s biggest blockbusters this year is a surprise hit that hasn’t slowed down at the box office since opening at No. 1 a few weeks ago. No, I’m not talking about “Top Gun: Maverick.” I’m talking about “Smile,” the studio’s creepy horror hit.
The film, which stars Sosie Bacon as a psychiatrist being tormented by visions of horrifying smirks, opened to $22.6 million at the domestic box office late September. That total is not so remarkable on paper, but it was enough to take the top spot its opening weekend and exceeded the film’s modest $17 million production budget.
“Smile” then did something Hollywood didn’t expect: it made nearly the same amount of money in its second weekend, with ticket sales dipping just18% to $18.5 million. That’s an almost unheard of hold for a major film. For example, “Thor: Love and Thunder” dropped nearly 70% in its second weekend in July.
And “Smile” has continued to find an audience, notching nearly $200 million worldwide over the last month.
“When we first saw it, you could see how the audience reacted to it. They were just completely scared. It played through the roof,” Marc Weinstock, Paramount’s worldwide marketing and distribution president, told CNN Business. “We knew this was a movie people wanted to experience in theaters.”
“Smile” also had a solid roll out and marketing campaign to go with strong word of mouth. The trailer smartly teased sinister snippets of the film rather than giving everything away. Paramount also promoted the film by having actors smile in the background of televised events.
“We had people creepily smile at a morning show, a bunch of baseball games and it took off better than we had hoped,” Weinstock said. “Even if you weren’t a fan of baseball, it went viral on social media.”
And “Smile” is not alone in bucking industry trends at the box office.
Many horror films this year have done the same, showing that — aside from superhero movies — horror is Hollywood’s most dependable genre at the box office.
The collective experience of being scared
The film industry is still recovering from the pandemic. Audiences have been sporadic and the overall North America box office is down about 34% from the pre-Covid levels of 2019. In short, it’s a spooky time for Hollywood.
Yet horror continues to be seemingly immune to the streaming revolution. “Smile,” Universal’s “The Black Phone” and 20th Century Studios’ “Barbarian” are all examples of low cost horror films pulling audiences off the couch and into theaters.
Even “Terrifier 2,” a slasher film about a murderous clown that has reportedly caused viewers to vomit and faint in theaters, is finding an audience. The film, which came with a reported budget of just $250,000, has made more than $7.6 million worldwide — more than 30 times its production cost.
“Marginalized no more, the horror genre has audiences gravitating toward the chills and thrills that only the movie theater, with its communal and immersive experience, can deliver,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore (SCOR), told CNN Business.
Horror not only has broad appeal — and is typically produced on the cheap — the genre is also unique in this moment in Hollywood because the experience is distinctly different for viewers watching at home or in theaters. Studios benefit from the high rate of return and theaters are able to pry audiences away from Netflix (NFLX).
“Where else can you be with hundreds of strangers in a room all having the same exact experience?” Weinstock said. “You’re not distracted, you’re just sitting there and you have no idea what’s going to happen next. I think that’s something you can only experience in a theater.”
Dergarabedian added that “a systematic increase in quality over the years hasn’t hurt either.”
“The old model of sub-par, money grabbing scare fests aimed at a kill it on Friday and drop huge on Saturday is mostly a thing of the past as the new creative custodians of the genre are more focused on a solid overall experience for the viewer,” he said. “The box office results have been scary impressive.”