Ben Affleck’s Air Survived The Super Mario Bros. – And That’s Great News For Hollywood

Ben Affleck hasn't directed a film since 2016's misfire "Live by Night," but the filmmaker is back with "Air" and, despite heavy competition from "The Super Mario Bros. Movie," it's clear that audiences were very much into having him back behind the camera. The film, which is all about how Michael Jordan's legendary partnership with Nike came to be, is an R-rated, adult-focused drama and the exact type of movie that has struggled at the box office since the pandemic began. But Amazon Studios and Affleck prevailed.

While "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" topped the charts handily with a stellar, record-breaking $377 million global opening, "Air" quietly did pretty well for itself. The sports industry biopic pulled in $14.46 million over the three-day stretch, very nearly slipping into the number three spot ahead of "Dungeons & Dragons." The film opened on Wednesday of last week and, over the full five-day stretch, it pulled in $20.2 million domestically. That was well ahead of what analysts projected for the film, which does carry a $90 million production budget. That having been said, marketing was estimated at $40 million and that budget was for a Prime Video release, meaning that the salaries for Affleck, along with his co-stars Matt Damon and Viola Davis, were probably up front and not reliant on box office.

This being the case, that budget was undoubtedly inflated a bit. Amazon pivoted to a full-blown theatrical release a little late in the game as part of a larger commitment to theatrical in the years to come. Again, given that Amazon had this pegged as a streaming play, they probably aren't hoping for the film to profit purely from ticket sales. But the extremely strong buzz and word of mouth is encouraging for several reasons.

Adult-Focused Movies Can Work

Last year, we saw adult-focused movies like "Tar," "The Fabelmans," and "Till" underperform against expectations in theaters. Even as the box office recovered greatly from the pandemic, this was an area of concern. Luckily, "Air" is proving that these movies absolutely can work with general audiences. The competition Ben Affleck's latest faced was massive, as "John Wick: Chapter 4," and "D&D" loomed large alongside "Mario." Be that as it may, the great response from critics (read our review here) and an A Cinemscore suggests word-of-mouth that is hard to ignore. Had the film opened against lesser competition? Who knows how well it could have done.

The film focuses on the partnership between then rookie Michael Jordan and Nike's fledgling basketball division en route to the founding of the Air Jordan brand. The all-star cast didn't hurt, but a movie ostensibly about shoes where guys talk on the phone a lot could have fallen flat as something that didn't demand a big screen. Remarkably, the quality of the film itself and Affleck's good name seemed to get the job done. This is the man who made "Argo" and "The Town," after all.

With buzz presumably pushing this film to solid holds in the weeks to come, it figures to possibly get to $50 million domestically. If a robust international rollout follows? That could bring an awful lot of attention to the film once it does hit Prime Video -- not to mention come time for awards season, as this is absolutely an early Oscar contender.

Streaming Services Going All-In On Theatrical

Perhaps most importantly, if this works (and the early numbers suggest it is working), having streaming services invest in theatrical releases could be a saving grace. What's nice about something like this is that Amazon is not relying on the box office for profit. It's more about streaming, but as we've seen time and time again, a hit in theaters leads to a bigger hit on streaming. That being the case, the match could very well check out for companies like Amazon. Not to mention that Warner Bros. Discovery is pretty much done with direct-to-streaming movies for that very reason.

This could also be a huge win for movie theaters, which are still in desperate need of movies other than superhero flicks and horror films. Specifically, it could pave the way to adult dramas, biopics, rom-coms, and other sorts of films that have been relegated to streaming in recent years becoming far more prominent in multiplexes than they have in a while. Assuming the math checks out for the bean counters at Amazon, this could -- without hyperbole -- very well be the best thing to happen to theaters so far in 2023. Now it's just a matter of getting Netflix to budge on releasing more of its movies in theaters for longer than a week or two. But that's a conversation for another time.

"Air" is now playing in theaters.

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