The Big Reason 'IT' Broke So Many Crazy Records

IT movie Pennywise
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

The killer clown got the last laugh this weekend. As many box office prognosticators predicted, the new big screen adaptation of Stephen King's IT floated to the top of the box office charts with ease, making $123 million against a budget of $35 million, which practically guarantees a Chapter 2 in the future. (The tougher question is this: Will New Line Cinema, the studio behind the movie, resist the urge to split the next sequel in two and turn this into a trilogy?)

What was most impressive of about the opening weekend wasn't the amount of money necessarily, but the amount of box office records the film broke.

This was a Michael Phelps-style performance: In addition to having the best September opening of all time and the best opening for a Stephen King adaptation, the scary movie also had the best opening for an R-rated horror movie ever. It had the second highest opening for an R-rated film regardless of genre, trailing only behind last year's superhero hit Deadpool. As an article on Forbes notes, it also has the lowest budget for any movie to ever cross the $100 million threshold in a single weekend. The film's investors will be able to buy a lot of clown cars with all that cash.

As with any movie that overperforms against industry expectations or flops in an embarrassing manner, there will be a series of leading questions that attempt to "explain" the IT phenomenon. Is the creepy clown trend here to stay? Did Stranger Things help prime the pump for this? Do Stephen King books guarantee big money? (The answer to that last one is no.) After a summer of disappointing box office returns, filled with lackluster entries in long-running series and tedious attempts to breathe life into dead-on-arrival intellectual property, it's unsurprising that Hollywood will use this as an opportunity to do some positive self-reflection for a change. The runaway success of IT could make you think, "Hey, the system works!"

There are clearly many factors at play, but one element can't be overstated: This was a skillfully marketed movie that delivered exactly what it promised.

IT movie
Warner Bros.

As audiences grow more and more frustrated by marketing that either oversells or misrepresents a given movie, the roll-out of IT was simple and direct. It was clear that the studio understood the appeal of the story, and communicated the movie's hook through a handful of striking images. The trailer had a creepy clown; the movie had a creepy clown. The poster had a red balloon; the movie had a red balloon. This was no bait-and-switch situation where a horror movie promises tantalizing scares and then only delivers a handful of half-hearted bumps in the dark. At the same time, there was a sense of mystery and -- more importantly -- possibility to the world being offered. IT felt big.

That's partially because of the source material that inspired IT is big: King's 1986 novel has more than 1,100 pages of terrors, meandering side plots, and, yes, even a child orgy that the movie unsurprisingly ditched. More than the stories about clowns and balloons that popped up in your newsfeed, the movie's greatest viral marketing feat was to get people to lug the giant paperback on their commutes. Even if you didn't read the book, the increased awareness around it functioned like the Game of Thrones books do: You got excited knowing that the movie would have a roadmap and "go somewhere." The book offered an assurance that this wasn't just a hungry sequel machine.

At the same time, director Andy Muschietti and the film's three credited writers, Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, updated the story in some smart ways. By moving the childhood section from the 1950s to the 1980s, they not only made the movie more palpable to viewers who grew up during that time and get a kick out of New Kids on the Block jokes and Airwolf t-shirts, they also opened it up to even younger audience raised on more recent retro hits that chase that elusive '80s Spielberg "kids on bikes" tone. Again, this shift was hinted at in the savvy marketing and paid off in the film itself, which isn't shy about chasing Reagan-era cred.

IT Movie
Warner Bros.

IT isn't a great movie. The scenes at the beginning of the film between the boys have a hurried quality to them that feels less like Stand By Me and more like a wisecrack-filled Disney Channel original. Even though the kids give fun performances, there's a frenzied quality to some of the comedic scenes, like Muschietti was afraid the audience might become bored so he stacked the movie with music cues, quick cuts, and one-liners. As many of the more negative reviews have pointed out, the film's final section, where the Losers Club does battle with Pennywise in his underground lair, becomes repetitive. IT doesn't know when to quit.

Still, the film gets enough right that you probably won't mind -- and there's little chance you'd leave the theater feeling like you were tricked. The simultaneous sense of dread and wonder evoked by the film's trailer, which quickly broke records of its own back in March when it debuted, is reflected in the movie itself. If that doesn't seem like a particularly noteworthy accomplishment, it's clearly important to the legions of fans who turned this movie into an enormous hit.

They saw the clown and they climbed into the sewer -- and they'll probably do it again soon

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.