The Dystopian ‘Civil War’ Reaches No. 1 at the Box Office

Hollywood executives — not all, but most — have insisted for years that uncomfortable, thought-provoking, original movies can no longer attract big audiences at the box office.

Moviegoers continue to bust that myth.

Alex Garland’s dystopian “Civil War,” set in a near-immediate future when the United States is at war with itself, sold an estimated $25.7 million in tickets at North American theaters, enough to make the film a strong No. 1, surpassing the monsters sequel “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire.” Ticket sales for “Civil War” exceeded the prerelease expectations of some box office analysts by roughly 30 percent. IMAX screenings provided nearly 50 percent of the “Civil War” gross.

More than 70 percent of the total audience was male, according to exit-polling services. PostTrak, one of those firms, said that people with “liberal” or “moderate” political views attended most heavily.

“Civil War,” starring Kirsten Dunst as a journalist on a military embed, became the latest example of ticket buyers breaking with Hollywood’s conventional wisdom about what types of films are likely to pop at the box office. Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” a three-hour period drama about a physicist, took in $968 million, wildly surpassing studio expectations. “Poor Things” collected $117 million, a solid total for a surreal art film.

Garland (“Ex Machina”) wrote and directed “Civil War,” which gave A24, the specialty film company, its first No. 1 opening. (A24 was founded in New York in 2012.) The movie also cost more to make than any A24 movie to date: at least $50 million, not including tens of millions of dollars in marketing.

The R-rated film benefited from a savvy release date — a time when Americans, sharply divided, are paying attention to the coming presidential election but are not yet completely worn out by it — and a marketing campaign that positioned the story as more of an action thriller than a gritty exploration of the frightening but not unthinkable.

“Dystopian thrillers are generally set in futuristic worlds that look very different from contemporary life,” David A. Gross, a film consultant who publishes a newsletter on box office numbers, said in an email. “They use a lot of special effects and science fiction to tell their stories. ‘Civil War’ is doing the opposite: It looks like right now.”

That storytelling choice, he added, “is bending the genre into something contemporary and relatable. The story is not directly partisan, but it’s provoking partisan feelings. It’s a fine balance to strike. Audiences are emotionally engaged, and that’s impressive.”

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