‘Color Purple’ Struggles at Box Office After Big Christmas Opening

‘Color Purple’ Struggles at Box Office After Big Christmas Opening

“The Color Purple,” a new musical take on Alice Walker’s landmark novel, seemed to arrive as an instant hit.

Awash in critical exultation, the movie rolled into theaters on Christmas Day and sold more than $18 million in tickets, a near record for the holiday. Audiences gave it an A grade in CinemaScore exit polls. Oprah Winfrey, who produced the film with Steven Spielberg, celebrated on Instagram. “I’m overwhelmed with gratitude,” she wrote, adding, “For y’all to buy tickets, dress up in purple, and show up in droves is filling me up.”

But the sizzle has turned to a sputter.

The Color Purple,” which cost Warner Bros. at least $90 million to make and another $40 million to market, collected an estimated $4.8 million from 3,218 theaters in the United States and Canada over the weekend, according to Comscore, which compiles box office data. It was enough only for seventh place, behind George Clooney’s “The Boys in the Boat” — a period drama that also arrived on Christmas Day — even though “The Boys in the Boat” had only 2,687 theaters.

What happened?

In Hollywood parlance, the movie has not broadened beyond a “specialty audience.” To put it more candidly, “The Color Purple,” enthusiastically received by Black moviegoers, needs more white, Hispanic and Asian ticket buyers to give it a chance. The film’s opening-weekend audience was 65 percent Black, 19 percent white, 8 percent Hispanic and about 5 percent Asian, according to PostTrak, a service that provides studios with demographic information on ticket buyers.

Warner Bros. has not given up.

“I think the jury is going to be out for several weeks, as people talk to their friends about what movies they have seen and enjoyed — what has moved them and uplifted them — and the film continues to be honored by awards groups,” said Jeff Goldstein, Warner’s president of domestic distribution.

“What we know about older audiences is that they don’t rush out to theaters,” he added.

In total, “The Color Purple” has now taken in about $55 million, with advance group sales contributing to the large Christmas Day result. (Theaters and studios split ticket sales roughly 50-50.) The film will start its overseas rollout on Jan. 18.

In a promising sign for the film’s box office, more white and Hispanic moviegoers came out in recent days. The film’s second-weekend demographic breakdown was 47 percent Black, 39 percent white, 10 percent Hispanic and less than 4 percent Asian, according to PostTrak data.

As Mr. Goldstein said, “The Color Purple,” starring Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks and Colman Domingo, could also benefit from awards attention. Two of the film’s actresses, Ms. Barrino and Ms. Brooks, have been nominated for prizes at Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards. (In what was viewed as a snub, Globe voters did not nominate “The Color Purple” for best movie, musical or comedy.) Oscar nominations will be announced on Jan. 23.

“The Color Purple” was always viewed by box office analysts as a question mark. Ms. Winfrey continues to command enormous attention — when she disclosed in mid-December that she had started taking a medication to manage her weight the world seemed to stop spinning, at least for a few seconds. But she does not appear in the film.

Warner Bros. backed the movie with a jubilant marketing campaign that emphasized uplifting images. The film opens with a splashy production number that features at least 40 people wearing their Sunday best and dancing in formation while singing about making a “joyful noise.” The film’s ending is also notably uplifting.

But much of the material in between is difficult. The central character, Celie, lives in poverty in rural Georgia in the early decades of the 1900s and must survive being repeatedly raped by a man she believes is her father. He forces her to give away her newborns and later marry a man who severely beats her and treats her as his household servant.

Some box office analysts wonder if the story is overworn. Ms. Walker’s best-selling and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, published in 1982, has already spawned a major film (Mr. Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation starring Whoopi Goldberg and, in an Oscar-nominated turn, Ms. Winfrey) and two successful Broadway productions. Musicals can also be a hard sell, and Warner Bros. currently has two in the marketplace. “Wonka,” starring a singing Timothée Chalamet, was No. 1 for the weekend, collecting about $14.4 million for a new domestic total of $165 million ($466 worldwide).

The only new wide-release movie, “Night Swim,” a low-budget horror film from Universal Pictures and Blumhouse, arrived in second place, selling an estimated $12 million in tickets.

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