In one of the biggest box office surprises in recent months, Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" exceeded pre-opening estimates and overcame mixed reviews to gross over $19.4 million on Friday (including Thursday night late shows), nearly equaling the more than $19.7 million that "Iron Man 3" took in for the day.
The total for "Gatsby" topped huge opening Christmas Day numbers for "Les Miserables" and "Django Unchained," despite not being a holiday or school vacation, although 3-D and other surcharges for the Luhrmann film means that the overall audience is smaller.
The combined total of these two films made up most of the business Friday, with the #3 film "Pain & Gain" grossing a lowly $1.3 million and the only other new wide release, Lionsgate's "Peebles," ranking only #4, a rare flop from producer Tyler Perry.
Encouraging though from an overall industry perspective is that the top gross for the top 10, around $46 million, is just above that for last year, despite "The Avengers" doing $29 million on its second Friday. The difference comes from a much better top new film this year -- Warner Bros. released "Dark Shadows" last time, which delivered a disappointing $9 million, which began a period of underperforming May releases that helped to make 2012 a slightly down year overall. With "Star Trek Into Darkness" expected to be powerful next week and Memorial Day weekend featuring three strong tentpoles, it's possible the total 2013 box office could start to close the sizeable gap from last year.
The initial Cinemascore rating for "Gatsby" was a mediocre B, but that might not fully represent audience reaction. With an appeal stronger for female than male audiences, and with Mother's Day coming tomorrow, the weekend could end up in the low to mid 50s (with "Iron Man 3" perhaps $10 million or more ahead to reach a staggering domestic $275 million in just 10 days and over $900 million worldwide over a slightly longer period).
With pre-release tracking for "Gatsby" predicting a gross around $37 million (which went up closer to opening), the gross is a major triumph initially for Luhrmann, Leonard DiCaprio, and Warner Bros., which now has (along with "42") two hits after a long drought.
The final verdict for "Gatsby" will come from foreign grosses, which will follow the film's presentation as the opening night gala at Cannes next Wednesday. That was a risky move -- had the film underperformed in the U.S., it could have cast a pall over the event. But with this result, the anticipation and more importantly the parallel media coverage of the event in Europe and elsewhere should justify its placement there.