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The Vast of Night

‘Wretched’ may be #1 but family films rule theater-free season

If you look at official box-office results, The Wretched is the uncontested coronavirus-season champion.

The indie horror flick just passed the $1 million mark, theatrically speaking—an impressive achievement, given the lack of theaters actually open. Indeed, Box Office Mojo says it’s been the No. 1 movie in the land since the first week in May.

But that record comes with, of course, a whole bunch of asterisks. We’ve already covered the first: The lack of theaters. Second, while some theaters are open, most studios rolling films out to them aren’t necessarily reporting earnings from them. IFC, the studio behind The Wretched, is the only outfit still serving up its numbers as if things were normal. Every other studio is pretty mum.

Take Amazon and The Vast of Night, which we talked about last Monday. While Amazon did send the flick to a number of drive-in theaters before unveiling it on its own streaming service, the normally authoritative Box Office Mojo doesn’t have Night listed anywhere on its site. Sure, maybe not many took in this retro-sci-fi flick at the drive-in, but I hardly think it was that much of a pre-streaming bust. The film is light for parents and teens but too much for younger kids.

It is, frankly, a pretty impressive bit of moviemaking—something that feels quite new even as it feels quite old. It pulls us in like good storytelling should, mostly eschewing the splashy crutches of sprawling sets and CGI. This Night may indeed be vast. But this movie, focusing on two small-town kids in small-town America, feels intimate in a way that sci-fi films rarely attempt.

Speaking of crutches, it throws away two others for the most part: sex and violence. We feel the movie’s central, threatening dangers more than we see them. And any would-be romance is tabled in light of the night’s adventure. All of the movie’s suspense and peril feels like a snapping turtle lurking in murky water … there, but unseen, and all the more threatening because of it.

But if you dive into some of the other numbers a little more deeply—ferreting out the movies that people are still paying to see, albeit not in theaters—you’ll find the list dominated not by horror movies like The Wretched, but by family fare.

Trolls World Tour is a good example. It made quite the splash when it was released direct-to-video at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. Way back at the end of April, Universal Pictures announced the film had made nearly $100 million, shocking the film industry. But here’s the thing: It’s still racking up the dough. It’s No. 2 on Amazon’s list of best-selling videos, No. 2 on FandangoNow’s list of rentals and No. 10 on Apple iTunes.

In a pre-coronavirus age, it was pretty remarkable if a film stuck around the top five for a month. Trolls is still making plenty of noise a full 12 weeks after its release.

And then there’s Scoob!, which is listed at No. 1 on FandangoNow, No. 3 and 4 on Amazon (it counts both rentals and sales, apparently) and No. 4 on iTunes. I don’t think anybody thought that Scoob! was a tremendous movie, but in this difficult season it’s still doing some tremendous business.

Another family animated flick, Sonic the Hedgehog, is No. 3 on iTunes and No. 5 on FandangoNow, just to underscore our collective hunger for family fare.

And it’s not just new movies making waves. Take a look at the charts, and you’ll see some familiar, relatively clean hits from the last couple of years making a return: Harriet, last year’s inspirational biopic (and Plugged In’s choice for Best Movie for Teens last year), is second on iTunes’ charts. Emma., a new (and relatively clean) take on Jane Austen’s timeless heroine, is No. 6. Over at Amazon, The Greatest Showman is No. 9.

This all suggests, to me, something important: Even as we’re all hungry for entertainment during this strange, stressful time, we’re especially interested in entertainment we can watch as a family.

Sure, you’ll find some grittier, more problematic stuff sprinkled across the charts, too. But if you’re looking at trends, this one is unmistakable, and one that we’ve been telling moviemakers for a long time: The most timeless, the most popular stories are almost always those that don’t bury the story underneath a lot of R-rated content.

–Paul Asay | PluggedInOnline

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