Heading into last weekend’s box-office battle royale, the big new movies in wide release arrived as heavyweight contenders from opposing ends of the pop-cultural spectrum. In one corner, you had Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s $165 million sci-fi mind-trip—a 169-minute movie freighted with Big Ideas, serious actors, and sky-high commercial expectations thanks to months of mounting buzz. In the other corner: Big Hero 6. The CG-animated film, based on an obscure Marvel comic book, hit theaters with less name-brand recognition but substantially bolstered by its Disney pedigree—drafting on the blockbuster success of the studio’s 2013 smash Frozen.
One film was family-skewing, the other, fanboy-friendly. Interstellar basically monopolized the country’s IMAX theaters while Big Hero 6 made use of 3-D. According to pre-release audience awareness surveys, both movies were on track to do massive business. But when the box-office receipts were tallied, Big Hero 6 hauled in $56.2 million in its opening three days, handily edging out Interstellar’s $47.5 million gross for a surprise upset.
Heading into wide release, Fandango ranked Interstellar as the site’s top advance ticket-seller among all 2014 films based on original screenplays. So on Monday, Hollywood’s Monday morning quarterbacking began in earnest. Did the movie’s nearly three-hour running time cost it the win?
Nolan’s inter-dimensional sci-fi epic is his first film not to capture the top opening weekend slot since his 2002 drama Insomnia and his first movie since Batman Begins to take in less than $50 million in its debut weekend. But Intestellar opened in 3,561 theaters—200 fewer than Big Hero 6, according to boxofficemojo.com—with anecdotal evidence suggesting Interstellar was simply screened less overall thanks to its hemorrhoid-inducing length.
But according to industry observers, Interstellar’s running time was not what lost it the weekend. “Conventional wisdom says that longer movies are at a disadvantage because there are theoretically fewer showings per day,” says Rentrak’s senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “However, there are many other factors affecting the box office and this is just one piece of the puzzle. And there have been a host of long running time films that have done well.”
Among them: Nolan’s last three films (Inception, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises—all of which clock in at more than 145 minutes), Avatar (178 minutes), Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (228 minutes) and last summer’s Transformers: Age of Extinction (165 minutes).
Interstellar may have also suffered from a foregone conclusion of presumed success while Big Hero 6 cruised into the top spot on a double-dose of brand goodwill.
“Christopher Nolan hasn’t missed and that creates massive expectations,” says BoxOffice.com’s chief analyst, Phil Contrino. “The Disney brand is so strong these days. And Big Hero 6 is a combination of Disney animation—which people go to see on reflex—combined with themes familiar to people who see Marvel films.”
According to several industry analysts who requested anonymity, however, Interstellar’s second-place finish can be attributed to a single, over-riding factor: bad buzz. The sci-fi opera—which earned a B+ CinemaScore— jumped out to an early lead in limited release Thursday and was beating Big Hero 6 (CinemaScore: A) in wide release on Friday. Then early audiences took to Facebook and Twitter and those fortunes quickly changed.
“Word of mouth really hurt Interstellar,” says one veteran box-office tracker. “There was a backlash against it. A lot of people liked it. But the people who didn’t like it were very vocal about it. And that word of mouth spread like wildfire.”
Of course, a nearly $50 million opening weekend hardly constitutes a failure to launch. And given the audience viewing patterns for Nolan’s previous movies, Interstellar appears to be on track to more than recoup its costs (including its immense, nine-figure advertising budget).
But for the notoriously exacting director—a guy who kept Interstellar veiled in black-ops-level secrecy, fiercely guarding any mention of its third-act inclusion of a certain A-list star—the movie’s biggest surprise most likely had nothing to do with big reveals. It came from a cuddly cartoon robot named Baymax’s rage against the dying of the light.