The Best Man Holiday and the Wisdom of Box Office Counterprogramming

Thor: The Dark World may have ultimately emerged on top, but the real story at the box office this past weekend was the surprising strength of a sequel without superpowers. The Best Man Holiday grossed an estimated $30.6 million from 2,024 theaters for an impressive $15,115 per-screen average—and it actually beat Thor on Friday, taking $10.7 million to the Norse god’s $10.5 million.

Those are excellent numbers by any measure. The film cost only about $17 million, so it’s already made its money back. The original film, released in 1999, opened to $9 million and eventually grossed $34 million. Its second life came on video and television, where it accrued a real following over the years. Additionally, The Best Man was an early example of successful romantic comedies featuring largely black casts, helping start a trend that continues to this day.

It would be a mistake, however, to ascribe the success of The Best Man Holiday chiefly to the race of its characters. USA Today got into a bit of trouble this weekend when it ran a story with a headline suggesting the film was “race-themed,” sparking some angry feedback and an eventual headline change. “With that logic, then Girls is ‘race-themed’ too,” replied one blog.

“Whenever a movie targeted at African Americans does strong business, it serves as a reminder that this is an audience that has historically been underserved by Hollywood,” notes Ray Subers of Box Office Mojo. “It’s simplistic and inaccurate, though, to assume that any movie with a largely African-American cast is going to be successful. If that were the case, 2013’s Baggage Claim and Tyler Perry Presents Peeples would have opened to more than $9 million and $4.6 million, respectively.”

That said, The Best Man Holiday speaks to a number of trends we’ve seen at the box office recently: films that target nonwhite demographics (yes, it’s directed by and starring African Americans, and 87 percent of the audience was black), appeal to women (75 percent of the audience was female), skew older (63 percent of the audience was 35 and above), and are R-rated comedies (if it makes it to $100 million, it will be the seventh R-rated comedy to do so this year). If anything, what The Best Man Holiday’s success points to is just good old-fashioned counterprogramming: What better movie to open against the fanboy fodder of an amped-up Thor sequel than this soft, touching, Christmas-themed romantic comedy?

As Subers notes, “Simply making a movie that’s targeted to a specific audience isn’t enough—the movie actually has to seem appealing to that audience.” And indeed, The Best Man Holiday got a glowing (and rare) A+ CinemaScore grade, which suggests it will have good legs in the coming weeks. Will it need them? The new Hunger Games sequel opens this week, and while it will obviously appeal to female audiences, the movie will still play a lot younger. So Holiday may prove surprisingly resilient against Catching Fire’s sure-to-be-eye-popping box office. More importantly, good word-of-mouth will likely prove to be invaluable going into the crowded holiday season.

Expect further good news for The Best Man franchise—and, inevitably, another sequel.

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