“Arrival,” a brainy sci-fi thriller, scored at the weekend box office, debuting to an impressive $24 million and muscling its way into the awards race. It’s a much-needed win for Paramount, the studio behind the alien invasion tale, as it follows a series of flops such as “Zoolander 2” and “Ben-Hur.” It also proves that audiences will show up for films that are willing to grapple with big ideas and that use spectacle and computer imagery to make larger philosophical points.
Here are five reasons that “Arrival” stuck the landing.
1.) Sci-fi isn’t just for boys
Amy Adams is front and center in “Arrival” as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist who must figure out a way to communicate with alien visitors in order to find out if they come in peace. It’s a meaty part, one that has earned Adams Oscar buzz. The film also gives Banks a personal tragedy to grapple with that, like Sandra Bullock’s grief-stricken astronaut in “Gravity,” grounds the fantastical story in human emotion. In the case of “Arrival,” Adams’ presence helped broaden the film’s appeal. Science-fiction films tend to draw a heavily male crowd, but “Arrival’s” opening weekend audience was 48% female.
“Having Amy in the lead is fresh in the best way,” said Kyle Davies, Paramount’s distribution head. “There’s also a real emotional storyline that speaks to women.”
2.) The marketing didn’t give too much away
“Arrival’s” posters and trailers left audiences wanting to know more. At a time when marketing campaigns routinely give away major plot points or jam the best jokes and money shots into TV spots, Paramount showed impressive restraint. They leaned heavily on moody shots of the monolithic ships and brief glimpses of the aliens themselves, but refrained from spilling too many of the film’s twists and turns. Analysts compare the rollout to the ones that Paramount orchestrated for “Cloverfield” and “Super 8,” two hit thrillers that kept audiences largely in the dark about their plots before they debuted.
“Their trailers were just enough to whet the appetite,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “That kind of suspense is rare these days.”
3.) It kept a lid on costs
“Arrival” represents a risk. Adams is more respected than bankable, the film isn’t a sequel nor is it a superhero film, and it’s not an alien invasion film like “Independence Day” that basically exists as an excuse to blow stuff up. It’s also a sci-fi movie for older audiences, which tend to come out slowly, attracted by reviews and word-of-mouth, instead of rushing out in droves on opening weekend.
Because it bucks convention, the film’s financiers — a group that includes FilmNation Entertainment, LavaBear Films, and 21 Laps Entertainment — wisely reined in spending. “Arrival” cost $47 million to make, less than a third of the budget of “Independence Day: Resurgence” and a fraction of most major studio releases. That puts the film on the path to profitability after its solid opening. It’s also in contrast to a number of recent releases, such as “Deepwater Horizon” and “Inferno,” that were aimed at older crowds, and carried steep price tags that left them in the red.
4.) Riding the festival circuit built buzz
Film festivals tend to focus on lower-budgeted dramas and prestige fare, but “Arrival” was the rare sci-fi film to grab a spot at these tastemaker gatherings. The film started screening in September, kicking off with a world premiere at the Venice Film Festival before showing at festivals in Toronto, London, and Telluride, earning strong reviews as each port of call. That built up a wave of critical support heading into the opening weekend and put “Arrival” on cinephiles’ radars.
As Paramount’s Davies notes, “Sometimes the best advertisement for the movie is the movie itself.”
5.) It helped cure the election hangover
The overall box office was up roughly 50% this weekend as audiences flocked to the multiplexes to help them forget about the presidential race. Donald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton has sparked waves of protests, a flood of social media hand-wringing, and a lot of bruised feelings. “Arrival” and other theatrical releases like “Doctor Strange” and “Trolls” were able to provide moviegoers with some escapism at a time of great political polarization.
“People have gone to the movie theater for respite throughout history,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with comScore. “It’s one of the few places left where you can go and unplug for two hours.”