LOS ANGELES — The horror movie “It” arrived as a cultural juggernaut over the weekend, smashing September box office records with an eye-popping $117.2 million in estimated North American ticket sales and ending an alarmingly slow period at multiplexes.
The R-rated movie, adapted from Stephen King’s 1986 novel about a demonic clown, Pennywise, who emerges from a sewer to prey on children, had been expected by box office analysts to take in roughly $70 million over its first three days — a total that seemed almost unbelievable in itself, given that the previous record-holder for a September release was the PG-rated “Hotel Transylvania 2,” which arrived to about $50 million in 2015.
“Paranormal Activity 3,” which had about $58 million in initial ticket sales in October 2011, after adjusting for inflation, was the previous record-holder for a horror movie released at any time of year, according to comScore.
Instead, “It” arrived like a superhero movie. Actually, bigger: With no stars and a modest production budget of about $35 million, “It” delivered a larger opening-weekend audience than “Wonder Woman.” The “It” turnout was particularly impressive given that cities in Florida and Texas were busy preparing for a major hurricane or recovering from one.
What clicked with “It” in such spectacular fashion?
Start with a well-made and expertly marketed movie. “It,” directed by Andy Muschietti (“Mama”), received mostly positive reviews. Mr. King, of course, has a huge fan base. Helping was the presence of a marquee villain in Pennywise, played by Bill Skarsgard. “It” also has parallels to “Stranger Things,” the hit Netflix series. Both involve a scary, supernatural mystery and have a “Stand by Me”-style group of misfit children at their center.
“Whenever a movie overperforms to this degree — becomes a tent pole — there is some kind of cultural accelerant at play,” said Toby Emmerich, president of Warner Bros. Pictures Group. “It,” which did particularly well in Imax theaters, collected an additional $62 million overseas. Mr. Emmerich already has a sequel in the works.