Meanwhile, Blumhouse horror movie The Lazarus Effect also opens nationwide; unless it seriously over-performs, it will have to settle for runner-up status.
Opening at 3,323 locations, Focus marks the first time that Will Smith has headlined an R-rated movie since 2003's Bad Boys II. That was in the middle of Smith's nearly unprecedented box office run from the mid-1990s to late 2000s, during which 11 of 13 live-action movies earned over $110 million at the domestic box office. That culminated in a stunning streak in which four movies in a row took in over $160 million—none of which were sequels.
In the past six years, though, Smith's output has declined dramatically. Initially, he moved behind the camera to help produce the Karate Kid remake, which starred his son Jaden. After a three-and-a-half year absence from the big-screen, he returned to the Men in Black franchise in MIB 3, which was the lowest-grossing installment yet (though it was still a worldwide hit). He followed that up with After Earth, an odd sci-fi movie that featured Will playing support to Jaden's lead. That was a massive disappointment domestically, topping out at $60.5 million.
Nearly two years later, Focus looks like a return to form of sorts for Smith. While the movie seems to tip in the direction of a drama, Smith's trademark charm and wit are on display more here than in After Earth. It also appears to be a smart decision to move toward adult-friendly content, given that Smith's fans from the 1990s have probably refined their tastes a bit in the past decade.
Smith shares top billing with Margot Robbie, who's only on her second major big-screen role. Of course, she left a major impression in her first role as the "Duchess of Bay Ridge" in Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, and subsequently became one of the most in-demand actresses in Hollywood; among other projects, she's slated to appear in next Summer's Tarzan (2016) and Suicide Squad (with Smith).
We're still early in the year here, but there's already been a slew of R-rated hits so far in 2015. American Sniper, Fifty Shades of Grey and Kingsman: The Secret Service have already earned well over $500 million combined, which accounts for nearly one-third of total box office in January and February. Previews for Focus have likely been playing in front of many screenings of those movies, meaning awareness is sure to be at a high level.
Without question, the movie's one major weak point is the marketing material itself. For a movie titled Focus, there doesn't seem to be a lot of focus in the messaging here. There are at least a dozen distinct TV spots for the movie, and each seems to be telling a different story. Even after seeing all of those, one would be hard-pressed to provide a basic description of what the movie is actually about.
While Focus appears to be about some kind of big con, it's not clear what exactly that con is. Ocean's Eleven was about robbing three casinos in Vegas; what's the target in Focus? The Super Bowl in New Orleans seems to be involved, but beyond that, there's not much to go on.
Still, this doesn't seem like a fatal issue; it looks entertaining enough, and unraveling the mystery of the thing may actually increase interest among some moviegoers. On the low end, Focus should open at least on par with 2009's Duplicity ($14 million). On the high end, there's a chance it matches 2013's Now You See Me ($29.4 million). Warner Bros. is expecting something in the middle—around $22 million or so.
Opening at 2,666 locations this weekend, The Lazarus Effect is the second of at least nine 2015 releases from prolific producer Jason Blum.
Last month's The Boy Next Door didn't do much to leverage the Blum brand; while it had some chilling elements to it, it didn't quite fit in to Blum's horror movie wheelhouse. The Lazarus Effect, on the other hand, seems to feature the kind of supernatural occurrences that fans have come to expect from the producer of Paranormal Activity and Insidious. Advertisements have been referencing both of those movies, along with The Purge.
Two years ago, that might have suggested that an opening north of $20 million was possible for The Lazarus Effect. Unfortunately, original horror movies have struggled to hit that number lately; last October's Ouija came closest with $19.9 million, but it's a stretch to call that "original."
A strong comparison can be drawn to Relativity Media's Oculus, an original horror movie that opened to $12 million last Spring. Relativity is expecting a similar result—$12 to $14 million—for The Lazarus Effect this weekend.
Pantelion Films (a division of Lionsgate) is releasing Spanish-language comedy A La Mala at 384 locations this weekend. Pantelion had incredible success with Instructions Not Included, which earned $44.5 million back in 2013. That's an outlier, though; the rest of their output typically winds up in the $3 to $7 million range. Assuming this fits in there as well, look for it to open in the $1 to $2 million range this weekend.
Forecast (Feb. 27-29)
1. Focus - $21 million
2. Kingsman - $11.5 million (-37%)
3. The Lazarus Effect - $10.5 million
4. SpongeBob - $10.2 million (-38%)
5. Fifty Shades - $10 million (-55%)
Bar for Success
Focus is in good shape if it hits $20 million this weekend. Meanwhile, The Lazarus Effect gets a pass at $10 million.
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