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Bohemian Rhapsody tapped a familiar formula to rake in $50 million at the box office

The Freddie Mercury biopic won the weekend through the power of popular music and a built-in base.

Rami Malek, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, and Gwilym Lee as Queen in Bohemian Rhapsody.
Rami Malek, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, and Gwilym Lee as Queen in Bohemian Rhapsody.
Alex Bailey/20th Century Fox
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Bohemian Rhapsody, the film about Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, gave box office prognosticators one very obvious pun to deploy this weekend when it beat projections and “rocked” the box office, bringing in $50 million in its opening weekend in North America.

The movie earned largely middling to poor reviews from critics, but because of how Rotten Tomatoes calculates ratings, that was enough to earn it a 60 percent “fresh” rating on the review aggregation site. (Its Metacritic score is 49.)

And first-weekend audiences loved the film, giving it an “A” CinemaScore, which is generally an indicator that a movie will enjoy strong word-of-mouth recommendations in the coming weeks.

The result was that Bohemian Rhapsody’s final opening weekend numbers came in much higher than projections, which initially eyed the film earning $35 million. But that makes perfect sense if you’ve been watching some of this year’s movie trends.

Bohemian Rhapsody won the box office by harnessing a critic-proof formula for success

Three of last month’s biggest movies were A Star Is Born, Venom, and Halloween, all of which exceeded projections as well.

A Star Is Born, which reboots a Hollywood classic and stars a singer with a staunch fan base (Lady Gaga), pulled in strong critical reviews and earned an A from audiences polled by CinemaScore.

Meanwhile, though Venom earned poor reviews (and a B CinemaScore), the movie benefited from its origins as a beloved comic book property with a built-in fan base, and it raked in massive ticket sales.

Similarly, Halloween, which drew middling-to-positive reviews from critics, has also drawn fans of the 40-year-old franchise to bring in huge numbers at the box office.

The key to all three of these films was appealing to people who would go see them no matter what. Leaning on built-in fan bases for a hefty portion of opening-weekend revenues and continued success has proven to be a strong model for Hollywood films for years.

Additionally, musical films have seen a recent resurgence, whether they’re true movie-musicals or just films with lots of music in them. Examples from the past couple of years include La La Land and The Greatest Showman. And in the case of A Star Is Born, a hugely catchy soundtrack (which has been topping charts since its release) certainly both boosted the film’s popularity and benefitted from it.

You can also see the power of catchy music, especially when linked with a household name, in this summer’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the ABBA musical sequel starring a bevy of movie stars. It raked in massive ticket sales — right now it’s the 10th highest-earning musical movie of all time — and led to a spike in demand and sales for ABBA’s records as well.

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.
Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.
20th Century Fox

Seeing Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, or any jukebox musical — that is, a musical that draws on popular music the audience already knows — is a lot like going to a concert: You’re waiting to hear your favorite songs, with the added thrill of seeing how they’re integrated into the story and interpreted on screen. (Even those that don’t become huge commercial successes sometimes still become cult favorites, as with 2007’s Beatles-based romantic musical Across the Universe.)

Though Bohemian Rhapsody is more biopic than proper movie-musical, fans’ interest was huge going into its first weekend thanks to its premise essentially doubling as a tour through Queen’s greatest hits. The movie’s ticket presales outpaced both Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and A Star Is Born as it benefited both from its own built-in fan base for Freddie Mercury and Queen and the promise of beloved music played throughout. Plus, there was a strong interest in how Rami Malek, best known to many as the star of the USA TV series Mr. Robot, would portray the late singer.

A movie that taps into love like that has the formula for a so-called “critic-proof” movie — a movie that will perform well at the box office no matter its quality, because a large portion of its potential audience is so eager to experience what the movie delivers: a journey through something familiar and beloved. (The Christian movie I Can Only Imagine benefitted from the same pattern earlier this year.)

That’s pretty normal — critics don’t aim to predict audience reactions. Instead, it’s their job to look at the film’s merits as a movie. However, whenever the gulf between critical opinion and audience opinion is very wide, it usually indicates that factors like these are at play.

The “critic-proof” formula is especially applicable to Bohemian Rhapsody, given the decades during which Queen was performing and accumulating fans. As a band, Queen was at the height of its popularity in the 1980s, which means people who were in their teens at the time — and may be diehard fans today — are now in their 40s and 50s.

That tracks with the movie’s opening weekend demographic breakdown: According to Box Office Mojo, Bohemian Rhapsody’s audience was nearly evenly split by gender, and 78 percent were 25 years or older. And though some Queen fans have raised objections to the movie’s scrambled timeline or queasy handling of Mercury’s sexuality, plenty of opening weekend attendees got exactly what they were looking for: a film about a man and a band they loved, filled with music they love.

It seems likely that Bohemian Rhapsody will keep doing well for weeks, especially since there are no new musical films on the horizon. And if Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is any indication, its success might also lead to a spike in Queen’s album sales. But even with just its opening weekend earnings to go on, the movie already shows the continued power of a fan base so devoted that how a film tells the story is less important than the fact that it tells the story at all.

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