In the wake of a summer where Disney IP steamrolled over movies big and small, the industry wondered if we were truly living in a hell of haves and have-nots at the box office. Was it just all about event films succeeding on the big screen, with anything that was low-to-mid-budget counter-programming intended for streaming?
Gradually, as we got out of the belly of Lion King, Spider-Man: Far From Home (which was made with Disney’s Marvel), and Hobbs & Shaw, we saw more original counter-programming pop at the box office – i.e. Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, and Good Boys – bust through. Now, further underscoring that a diverse slate works theatrically, especially among adults, is STX’s Hustlers this weekend, which notched a $33.2M opening –their best debut ever and a record for Jennifer Lopez among her live-action pics– 33% ahead of where tracking was seeing it.
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At the same time, Warner Bros.’ adult drama based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Goldfinch died with $2.6M. Both Hustlers and Goldfinch blasted out of a cannon at TIFF with world premieres. In the end, one would win and the other would lose at the B.O. What does this have to say about the potential of adult counter-programming on the big screen?
As we mentioned over the summer, counter-programming, like Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, has to be eventized, which both Hustlers and Goldfinch went about doing. It’s just that Hustlers, from the onset, had a more immediate, fervent, and viral appeal in its high concept female empowerment theme about a group of strippers takedowns of the 1%. Goldfinch‘s shortcoming at the B.O. stems from what the project exactly is: Un-adaptable. Some books have a literary patina that makes them impossible to translate to the big screen, and cramming a near 800-page novel into the visual medium might have been better served as a limited series. Not to mention, it’s a gloomy tale. Goldfinch was acquired by Warners in 2014 before the whole Big Little Lies craze.
As one rival studio marketing boss remarked to Deadline after Hustlers hit tracking with a surprise $25M-$26M projection, “You’ve got to hand it to STX, they cast this one up.” What they meant was that in assembling Hustlers, there was a star who appealed to every female and multi-cultural moviegoer; stars who brought their own cadre of fans: not just Jennifer Lopez, but Constance Wu and her Crazy Rich Asians and Fresh Off the Boat crowd, Cardi B’s posse, and Lili Reinhart and her Riverdale gang.
Last fall, when Hustlers was rejected by Annapurna, which was undergoing its own financial turmoil at the time, there was some buzz that this project, based on the Jessica Pressler New York magazine article, “The Hustlers at Scores,” was damaged goods. In hindsight, the success of Hustlers has to be frustrating for Annapurna, which kicked this pic to the curb after firing their production exec Chelsea Barnard. After all, it was about exotic dancers. While male-dancer pic Magic Mike between two movies cashed-in $290M worldwide from female moviegoers, female stripper pics were different, and back in the 1990s, between Striptease and Showgirls, didn’t work. STX sought and succeeded in erasing that stigma.
“We didn’t think of it foremost as a stripper movie,” says STX Motion Picture Group Chairman Adam Fogelson about the mini-major’s approach to the project about the Scores strippers who turned the tables on their greedy Wall Street clients following the millennial recession. “Rather, (we saw it) akin to Wolf of Wall Street or films that had an interesting layer of characters who were entertaining, but also doing wrong and raising interesting larger questions about the world we live in.”
The other studios who heard Hustlers’ pitch didn’t get it: Why couldn’t the strippers just drug the bad guys? Well, you’d never ask that of Leonardo DiCaprio in Wolf of Wall Street: Just scam the bad guys. Fogelson went with the true story that Scafaria and producers Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas and Jessica Elbaum wanted to make. The pic was made using the STX model of economized budgets with higher-end rewards (Lopez and cast cut their upfront fees for a greater back-end) with a production cost of $20.7M, shot in 29 days before Lopez had to rehearse for her summer concert tour. Playing Ramona, the queen-pin stripper who orchestrates the big shakedown, was a prime part for Lopez at this time in her career. Having built a resume on largely romantic comedies, Ramona was an edgy role that Lopez could sink her teeth into while flaunting her pop idol stature. In some ways, Ramona was a throwback to Lopez’s more serious roles in Out of Sight and Blood and Wine.
Hustlers was launched using STX’s marketing m.o. for laser-targeted campaigns, largely digital, with specific TV buys. Reportedly, they spent 50% less of what a major studio would on a film of this type ($50M average). Once the film was complete, STX leaned into the high social media wattage ensemble that had been assembled, focusing on Lopez, Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart, Cardi B, and Lizzo, who, all together, count close to 320M followers. STX double downed on Cardi B’s authentic voice and used her song “Money” as an anthem throughout the campaign.
Following the first trailer’s drop in July, there was a sense that it would be a breakout hit after it accrued 100M views in its first eight days. The first official trailer was launched in a Facetime call by Lopez on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon and pushed out by the social media-savvy cast. Fandango partnered with STX on the trailer debut and leveraged a bespoke FanAlert collaboration that garnered 15K signups (82% higher than historical comparative titles) and kicked off an advance ticketing effort, which paced ahead of its historical competitors. For quite some time, Fandango saw advance ticket sales for Hustlers pacing well ahead of Bad Moms, STX’s previous record opening ($23.8M).
Additionally, STX created pieces in print and in audio visual that gave each member of the key cast their own individual character posters to debut and share exclusively with their fans on their own social pages.
In regards to digital reach for Hustlers, STX leveraged the strongest qualified moviegoer signals across tried and true social and video platforms, including YouTube, Facebook/Instagram, and Twitter. One example was STX utilizing specific moviegoer data that identified audiences who were “fence sitters,” and was able to reach an incremental 15M fence sitters on Facebook alone. Digitally, the #HustlingIn promotion allowed fans around the world to share their personalized #HustlingIn social messaging.
STX invited the top 25 media influencers into the world of Hustlers ahead of the pic’s opening. Attendees were selected to cover a broad mix of categories (fashion, beauty, fitness, LGBTQ, and more). The event culminated in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to snap a photo with the pic’s girl gang cast, and then all attendees were invited to a specific exclusive early screening of the film. The total yield from this stunt was well over 18M+ followers.
There was also a Hustlers Inspired: Power Moves workshop hosted by Jacq the Stripper (the pic’s consultant and actress) which was shot on location from a club in LA, joined by select influencers who were given a crash course on the “power dynamics” employed by strippers, which focused on confidence and empowerment.
Twitter hosted the all-female #SheInspires panel with the Hustlers cast and filmmakers, which served as an exciting lead-up to the film’s world premiere at TIFF. Total yield from this event was 6.3M views.
Simultaneous with the pic’s world premiere at TIFF, STX held fan screenings in six major markets: New York, LA, Miami, DC, Chicago, and Atlanta, hosted by influencers within the Hispanic/AA/Asian/LGBTQ+/sex worker communities. In addition to their data strategy, STX amplified the organic groundswell that was surrounding this movie, leveraging top radio personalities, including Howard Stern, Big Boy, Charlamagne tha God, The Bodega Boys and other key influencers in key multicultural markets. Lopez and Keke Palmer surprised fans on the Hustlers-branded double decker bus in NY, which ended with a surprise screening of the film. Fashion designer Alexander Wang hosted a NY tastemaker screening during Fashion Week, which was attended by filmmakers and members of the Hustlers cast (including G EAZY) along with various celebrities, athletes, and fashion influencers. During the week of opening, press, promotional, influencer and girls-night-out screenings were held in the top 50 markets. The studio also had several LBGTQ screenings in NY, SF and LA.
Of course, Lopez and Wu have been everywhere on the daytime and late night talk show circuit. Lopez appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, where she participated in “The History of Music Video Dancing.” Like her how-she-worked-the-pole video (3.8M views) on her YouTube channel, it was another viral sensation, clocking 4.7M views.
Hustler‘s win comes at a time for STX when they weathered three misfires in a row, including UglyDolls, Poms, and The Best of Enemies. Following some release date changes on their sked, the town was abuzz with schadenfreude about the mini-major having financial problems. The current state of STX is that they’ve been seeking a half billion to expand their footprint in the evolving entertainment landscape. They have a $300M credit facility from JP Morgan Chase (for productions against receivables when a pic works), and an estimated $100M in the bank for operations. Hustlers is STX’s second big win of the year following their release of Lantern’s The Upside, which was the studio’s first No. 1 win and second-highest grossing film of all-time with $108.2M.
Is Hustlers the start of a revival for STX or is it their “My Sharona”? We will see. On the horizon is their horror pic Countdown about a killer app on Oct. 25, AGBO Studios’ 21 Bridges on Nov. 22, Brahms the Boy II and Playmobil the movie on Dec. 6, the Dave Bautista kid film My Spy on Jan. 10 and Guy Ritchie’s return to British action The Gentleman on Jan. 24.
Says Fogelson about the health of low-to-mid budget adult sized pics, “We have believed since inception, and continue to believe, that if you structure these films accordingly, and are able to attract top tier talent and make the film for the right price and market, you give yourself incredible opportunities to succeed.”