It dominated the box office this past weekend, crushing analysts’ $70 million projection with a whopping $123 million in domestic box office sales. It broke records, including the largest September opening and the highest-grossing opening weekend ever for a horror film. I can’t even imagine how big the opening would have been had the southeast not been under water.
There are a lot of factors that made It a success (including a smart marketing campaign), and surely the studios are going to try to repeat its success — with varying results.
First, It had a built-in audience. It is one of Stephen King’s most popular books, and it already was made into a 1990 made-for-TV movie that's been watched for nearly three decades. And this one took the best part and went all-in on it: The miniseries gave birth to many fears about clowns, but Pennywise (played iconically by Tim Curry) only had about 15 minutes of screen time in about three hours. Andy Muschetti’s It took made Pennywise much more central. Diehards of the original miniseries will hate to hear this, but take out Pennywise from the original It, and what you are left with is a reasonably bland made-for-TV movie that shows its age.
Horror always does well at the box office. It’s simple economics. Horror films are often made for very little money (It reportedly came in with a $35 million budget — a far cry from $150-plus million that blockbusters-in-waiting cost). Plus, there is loyalty among horror fans. I have been a die-hard horror fan my whole life and part of Los Angeles’ unofficial “horror community” for over a decade, and we will see just about anything if we are promised a monster or a haunting or copious blood.
In order for a film to turn a profit, conventional wisdom says that it generally needs to make two to three times its production budget. When most horror films are produced for around $20 million (and often significantly less, as is the case with low budget chills like Paranormal Activity, Get Out, and The Devil Inside — each made for less than $5 million), it is almost impossible for it not to make its money back.
(Interestingly, another Stephen King property — The Dark Tower — got a high-profile movie adaptation a few months ago, but was universally panned before it stalled at $48 million in domestic grosses. And as a fantasy film, it cost far more than $35 million, by orders of magnitudes.)
And then there is the most important fact here: It was great. A solid script, an engaging cast, and a director who truly loves and respects the material made this my favorite horror film of the year. With It, you get the sense that the studio left Muschetti alone to make the film that he wanted to make. The 86% score on Rotten Tomatoes didn't hurt, either.