Zendaya Fans Launch Challengers To A $15 Million Box Office Debut


Director Luca Guadagnino has a new box office record to celebrate this weekend, as his tennis-based romance "Challengers" is on track for an opening weekend north of $15 million — the filmmaker's biggest debut ever. Admittedly that was quite a low bar to clear, since Guadagnino has built his career in smaller arthouse films with slow rollouts and/or limited releases. His previous biggest opening weekend was the 2022 cannibalism-based romance "Bones and All" ($2.2 million).

Still, "Challengers" has significantly outstripped box office projections, which had it pegged for an opening weekend between $7 million and $12 million. Deadline reports that star and producer Zendaya has been a major driving force behind the movie's performance, with 55% of PostTrak audiences polled saying that she was the main reason for seeing it. That's not too surprising; Zendaya shares the movie's central love triangle with Mike Faist and Josh O'Connor, but the marketing team was clearly aware that she was the main draw (just look at the posters and the trailer).

What is surprising is that 40% of the gross was driven by IMAX ticket sales and other premium large formats. For comparison's sake IMAX/PLFs drove 47% of the opening weekend box office for "Oppenheimer," which was shot on IMAX cameras and very much marketed on a "see it on the largest screen possible!" basis. It's rare to see that kind of percentage with a film marketed on a sexy romance basis, but perhaps it's down to Zendaya fans doing a double bill with "Dune: Part Two," which also returned to IMAX screens this weekend. Or perhaps it's just well-earned respect for "Challengers" cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom ("Call Me By Your Name," "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives").

Did delaying Challengers pay off at the box office?

"Challengers" and "Dune: Part Two" have something in common besides Zendaya: both movies were originally supposed to release in the latter half of 2023, but were delayed in response to the actors strike. Those two commonalities aren't disconnected, but speak to Zendaya's growing star power, since the strike would have meant her absence from the red carpet and all other promotion for both movies if they'd kept their original release dates. 

"Dune" director Denis Villeneuve has said that he believes his film's leads (including Timothée Chalamet, who starred in Guadagnino's "Call Me By Your Name" and "Bones and All") will be the "new power in Hollywood" — and so far, they're proving him right. This is part of a greater shift away from the franchise power that has dominated the box office for the past decade or so, with studios hiring lesser-known (i.e. cheaper) actors to lead their big IP movies, and back towards an old school Hollywood status quo where the names on the poster can make or break the box office.

For her part, Zendaya has been working hard to promote "Challengers." In the lead-up to the film's release she appeared on "Jimmy Kimmel Live," "The Jennifer Hudson Show," "Live with Kelly and Mark," "Good Morning America," and "The Kelly Clarkson Show." She was also on the cover of Vogue, with an accompanying interview where "Challengers" is discussed in depth. With a $55 million budget (per Variety), "Challengers" will need strong legs and a solid overseas performance to carry it to box office success, but this is probably the best start it could have hoped for.

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