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‘A Quiet Place’: Seven lessons from the horror movie’s surprise success

A scene from John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place.” (Paramount Pictures/AP)

Maybe it was only fitting that, on a weekend when “Black Panther” passed “Titanic” to become the third-highest-grossing movie ever in the United States, we’d get another box-office shot of something unexpected. “A Quiet Place,” the alien-invasion horror movie during which pretty much nobody speaks, garnered $50 million at the box office, according to studio estimates.

That’s the second-biggest opening of a young 2018 (after “Panther”) and a cut well above most analysts’ projections, which pegged “Quiet” at about $30 million in the days ahead of its release. And all on a budget of less than $20 million. Directed by John Krasinski and starring him and his real-life wife, Emily Blunt, “A Quiet Place” is the biggest box-office sleeper in a long while. Here are seven takeaways from its surprise success:

Sequels don’t save

If movie hits were repeatable, Hollywood would have them all the time. Of course, that doesn’t stop studios from trying to repeat them, which is why last summer brought us the deja vu of another “Pirates of the Caribbean,” another “Transformers,” another “Smurfs” installment — all of which had the lowest domestic totals in their respective series by far. Enter “A Quiet Place,” which sequelizes no prior hit and derives from no prior work. Instead, it revolves around an original set of characters, an original name, an original premise — in short, what Hollywood once did on the regular. What’s old is new.

In recent years, studio executive felt they had a marketing advantage by basing their movie on a property audiences already knew. Now the opposite seems true — you seem to have an advantage by not having that.

But lest one think studio releases will suddenly become a hotbed of fresh ideas, don’t get too carried away. It works, but it’s a lot more likely on a modest budget and a hushed weekend in early April, not against the buzz saw of summer, when superheroes and sequels still rule. Which brings us to …

Calendar science

It used to be (relatively) easy to find a weekend of little competition. Not anymore, what with the overall number of releases ever expanding and studios increasingly willing to place their big bets everywhere on the calendar. (“Black Panther,” “A Wrinkle In Time” and “Ready Player One,” three big-budget movies, all came out in  the historically low- to mid-budget first quarter.)

But early April was still relatively soft. The big franchise guns don’t hit for a few weeks — “Avengers: Infinity War” later this month, and the “Deadpool” sequel and “Solo” in May. Studio Paramount thought it could slip in ahead of those releases and also gambled that “Ready Player One” wouldn’t be a strong-enough holdover to challenge “A Quiet Place” in its second weekend. The gamble worked. It’s a lesson, incidentally, learned by a 2017 horror phenomenon, “Get Out,” which located a soft calendar spot and had built up enough momentum by the time the competition got tough.

Finding calendar spots is a delicate balance — go on too busy a weekend and you’re crushed; go on too slow a weekend when moviegoing levels are lower and you could be leaving money on the table. “A Quiet Place” shows what happens when you can strike that balance just right.

Studio sundriness

Speaking of Paramount — to say the studio had a rough year is to say the characters of “ A Quiet Place” faced a little bit of danger. Under CEO Jim Gianopulos, who arrived just about a year ago, Paramount has had a brutal go of it. The summer saw the cratering of attempted franchises such as “Baywatch,” while the second half of the year watched movies from American auteurs such as Darren Aronofsky and Alexander Payne underperform badly. The studio probably garnered the most attention in recent months for a movie it didn’t even release.

“A Quiet Place” is being touted as the first movie of the Gianopulos era, as it’s the first release that began shooting after he arrived. Certainly it has the early markings of a comeback. That’s essential for a studio that dropped to a dismal seventh on the box-office share chart last year, not to mention a studio that’s caught in the middle of a lot of merger drama. “A Quiet Place” could be the beginning of a turnaround.

Still, you can’t make a living as a studio — or a studio executive — without durable franchises, and even with the inevitable “Quiet Place 2,” Paramount still has a dearth of those. (See under the aforementioned “Transformers” woes.)

Running an experiment

Much has been made of “A Quiet Place’s” formal daring. Because it centers on characters hunted by sound-seeking invaders, characters’ interactions takes place mainly via hand gestures and sign language; there are fewer than five minutes of spoken dialogue in the whole caboodle.

That makes the movie feel like an experiment, and thus helped it feel like something fresh to many, and maybe a little off-putting to others. (The movie notched a B+ CinemaScore — a sure sign a hit has both qualities.)  Still, “experimentation” can be a qualified word. After all, “Quiet” was produced by the company of “Transformers” maestro Michael Bay. For all the daring, there were a share of jump scares, particularly in the second half. And that ending …

Endorsement game

Fun Hollywood thought experiment: The same movie is pitched to a studio by someone who isn’t famous like Krasinski and doesn’t bring with him some great high-end casting a la Blunt. Does it get made? Equally fun Hollywood thought experiment: The same movie gets made, but with unknowns. Does it still make this much money?

It’s impossible to know the answer to either, of course. But the famous-filmmaker name certainly seemed to help catch tastemakers’ attention — see Jimmy Kimmel volleying with Krasinski about the movie on Twitter. And tastemakers certainly seemed to raise awareness — endorsement tweets came from Stephen King and LeBron James and were favorited by more than 113,000 people.

Enjoy the silence

One would be remiss not to point out a larger trend this film belongs to: a lack of spoken dialogue in major Hollywood releases. For much of the modern era movies have been defined by talking — some of the biggest phenomena, from writers such as Martin Scorsese, Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino, were known for their razzle-dazzle speech patterns. Not so much lately.

A few of the biggest hits of last summer (“Dunkirk” and “War for the Planet of Apes”) were characterized by long stretches of silence, while at the Oscars earlier this month, the best picture award went to “The Shape of Water,” a movie about a mute woman. This on top of “Wonderstruck,” “Pete’s Dragon” and others movies of minimal mouthiness. With so much noise of all kinds in the current media landscape, directors seem to be embracing the quiet — and consumers seem to be responding to them.

High-concept horror

Horror has a history of being a (relatively) smart investment. The movies don’t cost as much and don’t require pricey stars, and there’s a built-in fan base that will see anything decent, and really see anything good. It’s why some of the biggest grass-roots hits of the past two decades — “The Blair Witch Project,” “Paranormal Activity,” “Get Out” — come from the genre. (It’s also why “It” was one of the biggest surprises of last year — $327 million in domestic box office on a budget only about one-tenth of that, though it had an assist from a best-selling book.)

But it’s not just enough to have a good lower-budget horror movie — you generally need a high concept to go along with it; that’s the real star of movies in this genre. “Blair Witch,” “Paranormal,” even “Get Out” in its conceptual way— nearly all the horror sleepers had that. This one did too.

Of course, there’s something else all these sleeper horror movies had: sequels that tried to replicate the magic, often to diminishing effect. The way “A Quiet Place” unfolded, don’t be surprised if it becomes part of that trend too.