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‘Wonka’ waltzes to $39 million north American opening

‘Wonka’ was the first big Hollywood release to launch following the end of the SAG-AFTRA actors' strike

Timothee Chalamet in 'Wonka'. Picture via AP
Timothee Chalamet in 'Wonka'. Picture via AP

“Wonka” debuted with $39 million in box office sales in U.S. and Canadian theatres over the weekend, according to studio estimates Sunday. That made it a strong start for the Timothée Chalamet-starring Willy Wonka musical that underscored the young star's draw.

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

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

“Wonka,” which cost about $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.”

“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 $56.2 million and ultimately grossed $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% “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% of the audience, which was split evenly between 51% females and 49% males. “Wonka” added $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” and another musical, “The Color Purple”.

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

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

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