The Greatest Showman features acrobats swinging from trapezes and lions jumping through flaming hoops, but the film’s greatest trick might be its own box office performance.
The movie musical made a dismal $8.8 million its first weekend — a veritable death sentence for a big-budget film at a moment in the industry when studios rely on wide releases and big openings. But then something strange happened: In its second weekend in theaters, The Greatest Showman brought in $15 million, nearly twice as much as it had the previous week. The film continued to bring in audiences, and since its release on Dec. 20, The Greatest Showman has grossed more than $160 million domestically, making it the fourth most successful movie musical of all time — just below Chicago, and above La La Land, Les Miserables, Mamma Mia, and Enchanted.
A shorthand way to measure a film’s word-of-mouth staying power is its multiplier — the number you get by dividing its box office total by its opening weekend. (Because it’s a ratio, it conveniently makes inflation irrelevant.) As The Atlantic explained it: “A solid multiplier for a film that opens wide is around 3: Beauty and the Beast, one of 2017’s biggest hits, opened to $174 million and made $504 million over its entire run, or 2.9 times as much. A very good multiplier for a blockbuster is 4 (in 2017, Wonder Woman and Coco are good examples), which indicates an extremely positive audience reaction and a lot of return viewings.”
Titanic is famous for its massive multiplier, the largest in history. The film ended up with a domestic gross of $600 million after a $28.8 million opening weekend, which gave it a multiplier of 21.
The Greatest Showman’s multiplier is currently over 18 — and it’s still in theaters. All that is without even mentioning that the film has already grossed more than $200 million internationally, for a global total of $361.2 million. In less than a month, on March 20, it’ll hit VOD and it’ll be released on DVD and Blu-ray April 10, making its cultural impact even greater.
But here is the strangest thing: Unlike Chicago or Titanic — both of which went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture — The Greatest Showman is a profoundly average film, critically speaking, with its current score on Rotten Tomatoes at a “rotten” 55 percent. Meaning: Explaining its incredible box office legs as a word-of-mouth phenomenon becomes slightly more complicated.
So here’s why it might have managed its death-defying feat:
The Greatest Showman’s music — poppy numbers by Dear Evan Hansen and La La Land team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — has been a tremendous factor in its staying power. The soundtrack hit No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart in January and stayed for two weeks, after debuting at No. 71. Now, two months after the film’s release, it’s currently the top album on iTunes.
The songs’ lyrics are simple (the opening line of “Rewrite the Stars” is “You know I want you,” which has also been a sentiment uttered by Pitbull), as they were on “City of Stars” (“Are you shining just for me / City of stars / There’s so much I cannot see”), the song for which Pasek and Paul took home the Oscar for La La Land, a feat they’re hoping to repeat. Showman‘s “This Is Me” (notable lyrics: Look out ’cause here I come / And I’m marching on to the beat I drum”) already claimed the Golden Globe earlier this year for Best Original Song.
Twentieth Century Fox has capitalized on the soundtrack’s popularity, sponsoring videos from YouTube influencers covering the songs and putting sing-along screenings of The Greatest Showman in theaters.
Super-fans. Teenage super-fans.
Like Dear Evan Hansen, the musical has captured the adoration of a massive teenage fanbase, who have flooded Tumblr with memes and artwork devoted to the film (which, aside from Hugh Jackman, stars millennial favorites Zac Efron and Zendaya). Repeat viewers — stans who see the movie two, three, 20 times — also account for its box office longevity.
No other decent movies to take the kids to
The Greatest Showman and Sony’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle were both released before Christmas, opposite Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and both smashed expectations. Superhero and Star Wars films have become grittier over the past decade; Showman and Jumanji were both prime options for families, especially families with young children who may not be ready for the Kylo-Rey sexual tension and full-on lightsaber massacres afforded in the most recent Star Wars film.
Something to think about other than the news
The Greatest Showman also offers the promise of Old Hollywood-style escapism. Once zap-and-punch-’em superhero movies have begun to more broadly incorporate political themes like imperialism and the military-industrial complex, for better or for worse, The Greatest Showman asks for no moral deliberation. Cheerfully ignoring the unsavory elements of the real P.T. Barnum’s life, the movie is a story about a determined ragamuffin who dreams big and wants everyone to feel special. In many ways, the film itself a perfect meta-representation of Barnum’s work: a falsification meant to delight and distract.
Fans appreciate a film like The Greatest Showman in a way critics don’t, or can’t. It channels the voice of its own naysayers into the mouth of the newspaper critic character James Gordon Bennett, pre-empting those who would call the movie lowbrow or frivolous and giving the opportunity for Jackman to defend his circus — and movie — with charm and a megawatt smile. Come on, the movie seems to say, are you really going to be the grouch who can’t enjoy a good old song and dance?