Warner Bros.' "Joker" laughed its way to a new record at the domestic box office.
Despite mounting controversy and security concerns, the R-rated comic-book movie scored an even bigger debut than the studio initially reported, bowing to $96.2 million from 4,374 North American theatres over the weekend. Even with Sunday estimates of $93.5 million, "Joker" now stands as the biggest October launch of all time. Those ticket sales easily crushed the benchmark previously set last year by Sony's superhero tentpole "Venom" with $80 million.
Directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix, "Joker" has been the subject of scrutiny in weeks leading up to its release over fears that the disturbing origin story of Batman's infamous foe could inspire violence. However, those anxieties didn't deter moviegoers from turning out en masse to see what all the fuss was about. Audiences gave the film a B+ CinemaScore. Well over half of ticket buyers were under the age of 35, a sector that gave "Joker" an A- CinemaScore.
Overseas, "Joker" also arrived ahead of projections with a massive $152.2 million from 73 international markets for a global debut of $248.4 million. Imax screens accounted for $16.5 million of worldwide ticket sales.
"Joker" has inspired waves of headlines over apprehensions that its depiction of a mentally ill assassin could incite violence, prompting movie theatres across the country to take extra security precautions. New York and Los Angeles police increased their presence around multiplexes, and exhibition owners outlawed costumes and face masks in some venues. The industry started to make some of these moves following the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora, Colo. that took place during a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" and left 12 people dead and 70 injured. Members of families affected by the Aurora shooting had spoken against "Joker."
Jeff Goldstein, Warner's president of domestic distribution, told Variety the studio's marketing emphasized the fact that "Joker" is a dark R-rated drama.
"People knew what the movie was and the noise in the background did not slow it down," he said. "It's a thought-provoking film. We are enormously proud of Todd Phillips and the whole marketing team."
Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore, says "Joker" had a stronger start than expected because buzzy word-of-mouth since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival put it on audience's radars. In a surprise victory, "Joker" took home the top prize at this year's Venice Film Festival, with critics lauding Phoenix's borderline unsettling take on Batman's arch nemesis.
"Not only did 'Joker' over-perform in North America, but also internationally where the acclaim, buzz and controversy surrounding the film resonated strongly with moviegoers who put the film at the top of their cinematic priority list," he said. "Movies that become part of the general conversation due to their controversial nature are often those that transcend their status as a movie to become a cultural event and this is exactly what happened with 'Joker.'"
"Joker," co-starring Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz and Frances Conroy, takes an unconventional approach to the superhero genre. The film follows Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), an aspiring stand-up comedian who descends into madness as his life and career begin to spiral. Village Roadshow and Bron Studios co-produced and co-financed the film, which reportedly cost $55 million before taking global marketing and distribution fees into account.
As the lone nationwide release, "Joker" received the majority of the box office spoils, earning more than the rest of the films in the top 10 combined. Last weekend's box office champion, Universal's "Abominable," slid to second place, collecting $12 million from 4,248 sites for a domestic haul of $37.8 million.
In third, Focus Features' "Downton Abbey" raked in another $8 million at 3,548 locations, boosting North American ticket sales to a strong $73 million. STX's "Hustlers" followed with $6.3 million at 3,030 venues. After four weeks in theatres, the Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu-led film has generated $91.3 million domestically.
Rounding out the top five is Warner Bros.' "It: Chapter Two," which scared up $5.4 million during its fifth outing, taking the terrifying sequel past $200 million at the North American box office -- only the seventh movie this year to hit the milestone. The third weekend of Fox-Disney's "Ad Astra" followed in sixth place with $4.6 million at 2,910 venues, giving the Brad Pitt space saga $46.7 million after 17 days.
In the specialty arena, Roadside Attractions and LD Entertainment's "Judy" brought in $4.4 million when it expanded to 1,458 locations from 461. The Judy Garland biopic, starring Renee Zellweger as the legendary entertainer, finished in seventh and has made $8.9 million to date.
Lionsgate and Millennium's "Rambo: Last Blood" declined 59% in its third weekend, landing at No. 8 with $3.6 million. After three weeks in theatres, the fifth film in Sylvester Stallone's Rambo universe has made nearly $40 million.
Specialty openings saw Sony Classics' platform launch of "Pain and Glory" scoring impressively with $160,087 at four locations. The Pedro Almodovar drama opened at the Cannes Film Festival, where Antonio Banderas earned a best actor award for his portrayal of a film director in his decline. "Pain and Glory" is Spain's entry for best international feature at the Academy Awards.
Fox Searchlight's launch of Natalie Portman's astronaut drama "Lucy in the Sky" showed little traction in limited release, picking up just $55,000 from 37 theatres across Washington, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. "Lucy" opened at the Toronto International Film Festival and has unimpressed by critics, resulting in a 27% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Overall domestic business for 2019 has hit $8.64 billion as of Saturday, down 5% from the same date last year. The gap has narrowed considerably from early July, when the figure was 9.1%, according to Comscore.