When violent movies succeed at the box office: 5 things to know

Published: Monday, Jan. 7 2013 10:35 a.m. MST

Christoph Waltz (left) as Schultz and Jamie Foxx as Django in the film "Django Unchained," directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Associated Press

This week’s Monday morning entertainment headlines ubiquitously crowed that “Texas Chainsaw 3D” ($21.7 million) and “Django Unchained” ($20.1 million) had finally displaced “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” ($17.5 million) from atop the list of highest-grossing movies at the domestic box office. Some media outlets found irony in having two ultra-violent films like “Texas Chainsaw 3D” and “Django Unchained” selling so many tickets at a time when prominent national organizations like the NRA are pointing fingers at Hollywood for allegedly inspiring real-life tragedies like the Newtown, Conn., massacre that rocked the nation last month.

In assessing the relative significance of last weekend’s box office data, at least five pertinent points merit consideration.

The success of the Texas Chainsaw franchise is nothing new. “Texas Chainsaw 3D” is the eighth iteration of a brand that began with 1974’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” As Ray Subers wrote Sunday for the entertainment website Box Office Mojo, the new movie’s opening weekend haul of $21.7 million "was directly between the 2003 remake ($28.1 million) and the 2006 prequel ($18.5 million), though attendance was about in line with the 2006 movie.”

Weak competition played a large part. Heading into last weekend “The Hobbit” had ruled the roost at the box office for three straight weeks, but those weekly totals were steadily declining: $113 million, $76 million and $32 million, respectively. As Bloomberg Industries media analyst Paul Sweeney pointed out, “Chainsaw” didn’t have to contend with any surefire successes in new release. “The surprise winner this week speaks to the fact that there were no other major titles released,” Sweeney said.

Cross-promotion and celebrity contributed to the outcome. Sixty-four percent of the moviegoers who watched “Texas Chainsaw 3D” are under the age of 25, and the inclusion of singer Trey Songz held huge sway within that 25-and-under demographic. “While the film includes no major actors, younger audiences were drawn to the presence of singer Trey Songz, with one out of three moviegoers under the age of 25 saying his starring role was a primary reason for attending the film,” the Wall Street Journal’s Erika Orden wrote Sunday evening.

The marketing department at Lionsgate knows how to drum up audiences for the studio’s small-budget films. The Hollywood Reporter’s Pamela McClintock wrote, “‘Texas Chainsaw,’ costing $20 million to produce, marks another victory for Lionsgate, which crossed $1 billion in domestic ticket sales in 2012 for the first time.” Back at Box Office Mojo, Suber added, “More so than any other studio, Lionsgate has consistently been successful at making and marketing low-budget genre fare like 'Texas Chainsaw 3D.' They execute cost-effective advertising that smartly hones in on the prospective audience while ignoring everyone else, and the results generally suggest that this is a worthwhile strategy." That said, Lionsgate has employed some provocative marketing techinques with "Chainsaw" that raised parents' eyebrows via graphic content — such as the movie poster showing "a figure with a muscled, bloodied arm holding a gore-smeared logging implement" that New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead had difficulty explaining to her curious 7-year-old son.

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