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Wonka waltzes to US$39 million opening in US and Canadian theatres, propelled by Timothee Chalamet's starring role

Wonka debuted with US$39 million (S$52 million) in box office sales in US and Canadian theatres over the weekend, according to studio estimates on Sunday (Dec 17). That made it a strong start for the Timothee Chalamet-starring Willy Wonka musical that underscored the young star’s draw.

Musicals have been tough sells in theatres in recent years, so much so that Warner Bros downplayed the song and dance elements of Wonka in trailers. Instead, the studio emphasised Chalamet, the 27-year-old actor who, with Wonka, notched his second No 1 movie following 2021’s Dune. The earlier film recorded a US$41 million opening.

While Dune was a sprawling and star-studded sci-fi adventure, Wonka relies chiefly on Chalamet’s charisma.

Wonka, which cost about US$125 million to produce and played at 4,203 locations, was also the first big Hollywood release to launch following the end of the SAG-AFTRA actors’ strike. Chalamet hosted Saturday Night Live just days after the strike ended. In his opening monologue, he sang to the tune of Pure Imagination about “returning to this magical world where actors can promote their projects”.


Timothee Chalamet says he's open to a Wonka sequel

In Wonka, Timothee Chalamet finds a world of pure imagination

“It shows you the power of a star, and it also shows you the power of a star going out and working a movie,” said Jeffrey Goldstein, distribution chief for Warner Bros. “Having him out there after the strikes were over was a win for him and a win for the movie.”

Goldstein expects Wonka to be the go-to choice from families over the holidays. Its main competition for kids will be Universal Pictures’ animated Migration.

Wonka, directed by Paul King of Paddington and Paddington 2, is a prequel to 1971’s Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, with Chalamet starring as a young Wonka trying to open a candy store. Its ensemble cast includes Hugh Grant, Olivia Colman and Keegan-Michael Key.

Warner Bros last revived Roald Dahl’s classic with the 2005 Tim Burton-directed Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, starring Johnny Depp. It debuted with US$56.2 million and ultimately grossed US$475 million worldwide.

To reach those numbers, Wonka will need strong legs through the lucrative holiday moviegoing period. On its side are mostly good reviews (84 per cent “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes) and positive audience reaction (an “A-” CinemaScore).

Chalamet is also drawing younger ticket-buyers. Moviegoers under the age of 25 accounted for 36 per ceny of the audience, which was split evenly between 51 per cent females and 49 per cent males. Wonka added US$53.6 million in overseas ticket sales.

“Chalamet is a true movie star who’s been developing his craft and his reputation over many years,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore. “Everybody’s looking for who’s the next big movie star. Is it all about the old-school leading men? Chalamet is definitely that.”

For Warner Bros, it’s the first in a trio of high-profile holiday releases, to be followed by Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom on Dec 22 and another musical, The Color Purple on Dec 25.

The only other new wide release in theatres was Christmas With The Chosen: Holy Night, from Christian-theme distributor Angel Studios. It debuted with US$2.9 million in sales through 2,094 theatres.

The Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes again ranked second this week with US$5.8 million in its fifth week of release. The Lionsgate Hunger Games prequel, now up to US$145.2 million domestically and more than US$300 million globally, has held strong week after week.

Last week’s top film, Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy And The Heron, dipped to third with US$5.1 million in its second week of release. The latest film from the 82-year-old Japanese anime master has already set records for Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli and its North American distributor GKids.

With holdovers making up most of the top 10 movies in theatres, the weekend’s other most notable business was a group of award contenders trying to make their mark following Monday’s Golden Globes nominations.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things, a surreal Frankenstein-esque fairy tale starring Emma Stone, expanded into 82 theatres and grossed US$1.3 million for Searchlight Pictures. The film, which will expand further in the coming weeks, is nominated for seven Golden Globes, including best comedy or musical.

Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction, starring Jeffrey Wright as a sardonic novelist, debuted in seven theatres in three cities with a US$32,411 per-screen average. MGM’s American Fiction, nominated for two Globes, will expand to 40 theatres next week. It won the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone Of Interest, a chilling Holocaust drama about a Nazi commandant and his family living next to Auschwitz, opened in four theatres with a US$31,198 per-screen average. Nominated for three Globes, it will play in limited release before expanding in January.

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