Long Range Oracle — Joker

Welcome to the Long Range Oracle, in which we journey into the not-too-distant future to discuss the prospects of potential blockbusters down the road. This will be similar to what we already do in Box Office Oracle, and with almost identical guidelines, but it will also allow for us to go more in-depth in our conversation than the weekly prediction column, which has a certain number of restrictions due to time and space.

And as with the weekly column, this is also something I’m going to keep as free of “controversy” as I can. This means that if, I don’t know, Jon Voight is voicing an evil government agent talking bear in a DreamWorks movie, I’m not going to make a bunch of Trump jokes. If a Tom Cruise actioner comes out, I’m not going to make a bunch of Scientology cracks. You get the idea. I want for this to be kept fun and simple.

So, without further discussion, let’s dive deep into our very first Long Range Oracle topic: Joker.

The Player

What if Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver had actually been the origin story of a famous comic book villain? This more or less seems to be the approach Warner Bros. is taking with Joker, which is a bold and even controversial move to say the least. Joaquin Phoenix is donning the clown makeup this time, with The Hangover’s Todd Phillips in the director’s chair.

Phoenix, of course, is no stranger to “weird” roles, having more or less made a mini-career out of them over the last decade or so. He’s also got the experience playing villains, having earned an Academy Award nomination for Gladiator. More bizarre to some extent is having Phillips at the helm, as his resume consists primarily of R-rated goofy comedies, including all three Hangover films as well as the Robert Downey Jr. road trip flick Due Date. All of those movies were able to cross the $100 million mark stateside, but given that Joker is a very different beast, it’s unlikely Phillips’s involvement will have any major influence as far as audience reception goes (which is probably why none of the posters are proclaiming “From the man who brought you Old School!”).

Adding heavily to the “hype” factor are reviews, which have been astonishingly positive so far. The biggest headline made in that regard has been winning the top prize at The Venice Film Festival, where it premiered to a reported eight-minute standing ovation. This means that The Clown Prince of Crime is probably heading to the Oscars, but will it be enough to get fans to land their butts in movie seats for a very “unique” take on such an iconic figure of pop culture?

The Future Looks Bright If… Joker is able to maintain its “everyone is talking about this” status until it opens on October 4th. Even with the strong critical reception, we’re not looking at a film that everyone is going to love here in the manner they, say, fawned over The Dark Knight or the original The Avengers. People are going to split over this kind of take on the property, as many fans prefer The Joker when he has no specific backstory (with Mark Hamill and Heath Ledger being the most important examples of this, but even Suicide Squad felt it was best to not give its Joker a history, even as it maintained Harley Quinn’s). Making someone who is normally a psychopath into someone who life just dealt a bad deck of cards to is risky, and some fans might even declare Joker a good movie while still saying they didn’t like what it did with its main character. In other words, we won’t be looking at an “A” CinemaScore here. And that’s fine so long as Warner Bros. continues to play their game according to the strategy they’ve used so far (the final trailer, for instance, has more than 32 million views on YouTube to date).

Which is to say they shouldn’t promote Joker like a superhero movie. As far as marketing goes, they’ve chosen to emphasize Phoenix’s “strange” performance, which sees his character going from a failed stand-up comedian to Gotham’s most ruthless criminal. There’s also, as far as we know, no Batman to speak (something that could be remedied in a sequel). And I should mention that Joker exists outside of DC’s Extended Universe, which means everyone doesn’t have to worry about having any continuity with that franchise (even though I’m sure some filmgoers will still get confused by why Aquaman’s nowhere to be found). For this reason, Joker is allowed to be a “hard R”, with the MPAA giving it that rating for “strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images.”

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And, again, there is that “controversy,” which can work in the movie’s favor so long as the studio is able to own it. Whoever said “there’s no such thing as bad press” never got much bad press, but the fact that people are talking about Joker is basically giving it free marketing. Fans are debating whether or not the movie looks good, which can draw potential moviegoers into cinemas just to see what all the fuss is about. Make no mistake; if ticket-buyers in general hate the movie, it’s not going to last long. But the good reviews and awards show buzz more or less ensure that Joker is going to be able to secure its fair share of supporters.

The Future Looks Grim If… The hype for Joker dies down before the film’s release, which is quite possible as its still nearly an entire month away. Part of me doesn’t like Warner Bros. lifting the review embargo right after the film’s premiere. It’s great that they were confident in what they had, but at the same time, we’ve seen movies like Spy and Kick-Ass fall way below expectations because those good write-ups maybe came out a little too early (though, in fairness, Spy did make it to $110 million, but there was the general attitude that money had been left on the table there).

Also, tracking has to be kept on some sort of a reasonable level with this movie, lest the press frame it as a “disappointment” if it’s unable to meet bullish projections (we’re already witnessing this with the coverage of It: Chapter Two). Joker is a comic book movie in which the trailers feature a grand total of zero action scenes. That’s not going to propel it to blockbuster proportions, at least not easily, so expecting for this to be able to meet Venom’s $80 million debut by default might be unfair.

Yes, Venom opened on the same date last year, but even with its weirdness and occasionally twisted sense of humor, it was still a traditional superhero movie at the end of the day, with plenty of whiz bang special effects and a teen-friendly PG-13 rating. And people who claim its Joker’s counterpart in that it focused on one of Marvel’s most famous bad guys are wrong, as Venom has been the hero in a good number of comics for decades, which is what that film opted to go for. It paid off to the sound of $800 million worldwide, something Joker is almost definitely not going to be able to accomplish, as international audiences do love their spectacle.

There’s also the potential that Joker could end up backfiring on DC long-term if the studio takes its success (assuming it is a success) the wrong way, as I don’t like the idea of them pursuing an R rating for too many future projects. Sure, that might work for a character like The Joker, but making an adults only Harley Quinn movie–considering a huge portion of Suicide Squad’s fans were teenagers–is a tad too risky as far as I’m concerned (granted, we have yet to get a non-leaked version of a trailer for that one, so maybe it will work).

The biggest misconception the entertainment press gives you about comic book movies is that DC’s are financial bombs while Marvel’s are huge hits. This is not the case. In fact, outside of Shazam! earlier this year, every single DC Extended Universe movie has crossed $200 million stateside. Of course they aren’t doing as well as Marvel, but guess what? No one is doing as well as Marvel these days, so not being able to measure up to them should not be considered “failure” as a result.

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Which is to say that, on some level, even DC underestimates their success, and since there aren’t going to be any new Avengers movies for quite some time, it might be a good time for them to pursue another Justice League movie while there’s still a void to fill. What’s not a good idea is if the top brass decides to make “everything like Joker” going forward if it does turn in a solid profit, and reboots their entire DC slate because it’s “what the fans want,” which would be ridiculously sloppy.

The Crystal Ball Predicts That… Things are looking pretty good for Joker for the time being. Reviews and buzz should be enough to guarantee a good opening, but where word-of-moth takes it from there is anyone’s guess. The casting of Joaquin Phoenix may have seemed like an odd decision when it was first announced (you know, after that whole publicity thing where he pretended to go completely insane and become a “rapper”), but it seems to have been the right call.

Phoenix is far from the most commercial actor to go for–he hasn’t had a film gross more than $100 million since 2005’s Walk the Line–nor does he have the “hunk” status that the late Heath Ledger had when he was first announced for the character. Still, star power doesn’t exactly matter much here. Phoenix brings at least a moderate level of marquee venue value with his name, but at the end of the day, it’s the character who’s selling the film.

Joker is going to face major competition the week after its release, however, as Gemini Man is set to attack theaters on October 11th. That film has absolutely breathtaking trailers and a terrific pitch behind it, so the promise of Will Smith fighting himself is going to keep Joker from enjoying the top spot for more than one week. Also opening the 11th is The Addams Family, which may have more grown-ups going to it than you might think thanks to its extended franchise history. The following weekend brings a Maleficent sequel for some reason (why release a summer blockbuster in the middle of October? We’ll discuss this later), plus the long-delayed Zombieland 2, and who knows how that’s going to perform?

In other words, no matter how good it is, Joker is at risk of being a one weekend wonder. It is in good company with the early October release, at least as far as last year is concerned: in addition to Venom, it also saw the release of A Star is Born, which displayed very helpful legs. That was at least in part due to its awards momentum, and if Joker behaves more like an Oscar contender than a comic book movie, it might have a chance of sticking around for a while.

In any case, as far as opening weekend numbers go, we could be looking at anything from $60 million to $110 million, and it’s simply too early to make any accurate predictions in that regard. Should Joker debut to three figures, it would be the first movie of 2019 not released by Disney to do so. And if Joker can’t manage it, I don’t think any non-Disney film has even a shot at doing so, except for possibly Jumanji, but I expect for that movie to be more of a Christmas holiday player like the last one was (it does open seven days before The Rise of Skywalker, so there’s also that).

Granted, a lot can change in a few weeks, but as things stand now, Joker’s worst case scenario is an opening of around $40 million and a total of $85 million (unlikely, but possible if the film fails to connect with audiences). A more rational outcome is a debut of $65 million with a finish around $140 million. Finally, if we’re being extremely optimistic, Joker rides off the legacy of the Nolan Batman films and opens to $100 million or more, before finishing somewhere in the $220 million range (which would be very similar to the gross of Logan, which was also rated R and awards hype behind it as well). It’s hard to imagine Joker, with its unconventional approach and lack of a PG-13 rating, making it to $300 million, since this is a film that by its very nature is going to disturb some people, and definitely won’t be “for everyone” by any stretch.

My final prediction for Joker will be be published the weekend it opens. In the meantime, have at it in the comments!

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