The Greatest Showman has stealthily become a sleeper hit and a box office Cinderella story. We consider why and what it means for musicals.

Feature David Crow

Jan 19, 2018

Right now many in Hollywood are still marveling at the runaway success of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. As a standalone semi-sequel / semi-reboot, this old-fashioned adventure yarn exceeded all expectations and has dominated the U.S. box office for a month, toppling even Star Wars: The Last Jedi for three straight weeks. But just staring at Dwayne Johnson’s million-dollar smile might cause some to miss another big boffo story: Hugh Jackman’s The Greatest Showman is a stealthy box office hit.

Currently sitting at a global intake of more than $200 million, The Greatest Showman’s even showier fortunes are all the more impressive when so many wrote the picture off as a box office failure upon its opening weekend. Like Jumanji, this slickly produced musical was released on Dec. 20 and in the shadow of Star Wars’ wide reach. But unlike Jumanji, the movie’s appeal to audiences was less than clear. Grossing a meager $8.8 million while debuting in fourth place, the $84 million-budgeted toe-tapper was dismissed as a dud for 20th Century Fox that failed to get anyone to sing-along, especially critics who were less than warmhearted about the movie—including in our own review.

Indeed, the movie’s saccharine and overly sentimental affectation might seem unearned to some—especially those who compared it to last year’s lauded La La Land. However, a funny thing happened. Moviegoers who are fond of musicals ignored the critics, a few at a time, and responded to The Greatest Showman with almost as much enthusiasm as La La Land. For like that picture, here is another all-original song-and-dance picture that week after week, and weekend after weekend, played exceedingly well with audiences who have a song in their heart.

So while Jumanji wowed with its staying power as a family entertainment, Showman embarked on its only leggy run across the boards that slowly transformed it over the holiday season and throughout January from box office disappointment to something that is oft-thought extinct: it became a sleeper hit. In its second weekend—rotating around New Year’s Eve—it rocked in 2018 by actually increasing its three-day tally by 76 percent, earning $15.5 million. Granted, it also added 310 screens as it opened wider, and also didn’t suffer through the plunge of its first Sunday falling on Dec. 24 (not a big moviegoing day for the Christmas Eve faithful). But throughout January, it has stayed consistently in the top 5 of each weekend, dropping less than 15 percent from week to week. And this past weekend, despite the film having lost over 800 screens from the height of its release, The Greatest Showman grew its audience by 17.5 percent, and finished in the top three of the holiday weekend.

It has gone on to earn over $100 million in the U.S. and shows little indication of slowing down before the February franchise contenders (Fifty Shades Freed and Black Panther) come a-knocking. In the process, the success of Showman suggests a series of lessons worth learning.

First is the notion that critics—or more specifically Rotten Tomatoes—can sink a movie remains overstated. While musicals are still a relatively fragile genre in which reviews matter, if audiences like a picture, word of mouth can overcome any Tomato Meter score, even in a crowded box office season with two major blockbusters earning all the attention. Secondly, audiences like what they like. As our own Kayti Burt suggested, for many a musical fan, The Greatest Showman is indeed about the greatest show on earth, and is purely a joy for those moviegoers to consume. For better or worse, this even includes the current White House, as President Donald Trump screened Showman for lawmakers at Camp David to widespread approval (presumably the president sees something of himself in P.T. “there’s a sucker born every minute” Barnum).

It also suggests that rather than building four-quadrant films that must appeal to everyone, constructing films for specific audiences that play well remains a vital way to have a hit that isn’t defined by its opening weekend… It ever need to be first for a single weekend! Lastly though, it once again reconfirms the musical is a vital genre in the 21st century.

After the musicals mostly went the way of the Western in the 1970s and ‘80s—as Baby Boomers rejected the most popular entertainment of their parents’ generation—a new generation of Millennials was raised on Broadway-quality animated musicals during the Disney Renaissance. This audience has now grown up into a larger demographic who have supported the artifice of belting showtunes over the years, especially the higher quality ones like Moulin Rouge! and Chicago. But now with the success of La La Land (which earned $151 million domestic and nearly $450 million worldwide) and The Greatest Showman, there is yet more clear evidence that an original movie musical with songs and dances written uniquely for it can be a hit. They don’t have to be based on a pre-existing musical intellectual property (Chicago, Rent, Les Misérables), nor do they need pre-existing popular music like Moulin Rouge! had.

And in the advent of The Greatest Showman, they don’t even need to be well received by critics or become awards darlings, as La La Land was a year ago. They merely need to be good, or perceived as such by the sizable audience who has no problem with those who’ve gotta dance. Because there is an audience out there hungry for more from this genre, and The Greatest Showman’s most impressive feat was revealing that fact in grand fashion.