Four lessons for Hollywood from the record-breaking box office haul of “Us”

Originality sells, for one thing.
Originality sells, for one thing.
Image: Universal Pictures
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Lupita Nyong’o is not the only one seeing double—Jordan Peele’s new horror film, Us, made twice as much money in its opening weekend as Hollywood projected it would.

Last month analysts predicted that Us, which came out in theaters on Friday (March 22), would gross around $35 million at the box office in its first weekend. That would have been a solid but unremarkable total, roughly in line with the opening weekend gross of Peele’s first film, Get Out (which went on to make a whopping $255 million worldwide off a $4.5 million budget).

But the projections were vastly, embarrassingly low: Us raked in a historic $70 million at the box office over the weekend, the most ever for an original horror film.

Across all horror films, Us trails only It (an adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel of the same name) and Halloween (the 11th film in the eponymous slasher franchise). No original horror film has come close to the total Peele’s Us hauled in during its first weekend in North American theaters.

Written and directed by Peele, Us follows a family of four on a beach getaway as they’re attacked by what appear to be their own doppelgängers. I saw the film at its world premiere at SXSW in Austin, Texas this month and was thoroughly impressed. Apparently millions of Americans were too.

So what lessons should Hollywood take from the success of Us? Well, here are a few:

Originality pays off

Quartz reporter Ashley Rodriguez made the case yesterday (March 24) that Us‘s huge opening weekend is proof that originality can be as sound an investment as a well-known franchise. Hollywood is notoriously risk averse, unwilling to take chances on ideas (and people) that aren’t already popular. Despite mounting evidence that audiences are growing fatigued of the same franchises, most major Hollywood studios continue to heavily invest in them, often at the expense of fresh narratives.

It’s true that the majority of the most financially successful movies each year are parts of a franchise. But for every big hit in the Star Wars or Jurassic Park cinematic universes, there are massive franchise flops. Us joins recent films like Inside Out and A Quiet Place that show movies don’t need to be based on famous intellectual property to succeed.

An original story isn’t necessarily a box office death sentence—it’s frequently just the opposite.

Diversity sells

This is one Hollywood still seems reluctant to accept: Diverse casts and filmmakers put butts in seats. Last year Crazy Rich Asians became one of the most successful romantic comedies of all time. Black Panther grossed over $1 billion worldwide on its way to shattering several records and netting Marvel its first-ever Oscar wins. And, as if there were any doubt, Halloween proved unequivocally that women-led films can make a killing at the box office. (One report last year found that films with a woman in the lead role actually make more money on average than those with a male lead.)

Us isn’t intentionally a film about race, as Peele pointed out at a BuzzFeed panel discussion at SXSW this month—it’s just a great film that features black characters. “What was important to me with this movie was I got to see a horror movie with a black family, that I could make a dope horror movie not be about race,” Peele said. “Hopefully, we can make some money, once again show the world what they’ve been seeing over the past few years. That it’s a worthy investment artistically and monetarily to see fresh talent, to see stories and perspectives that we’ve been deprived of for so many years.”

Horror is more than a niche genre

There remains a perception in Hollywood that horror is a genre for a sizable but still finite audience—that horror films can succeed but don’t bring out new audiences. Perhaps that’s why so many horror films are given such small budgets. Studio executives are thrilled with the return-on-investment potential the genre offers, but don’t expect it to go mainstream in the way that Us just did.

But it hasn’t been just Us. It, A Quiet Place, Get Out, Split, and others demonstrated that horror movies can and do become blockbusters, reaching global audiences far beyond only the most passionate fans of the genre. Horror is increasingly a space in which diverse storytellers can make insightful observations about the human condition and the state of the world. Us confirms that not only is horror interesting, but also that people will come out in droves to experience it.

Jordan Peele is the next great auteur

Peele avoided the dreaded sophomore slump. In the span of two years, he has now written and directed two films that have each been a hit with audiences and critics alike. Universal Pictures smartly showcased Peele’s reputation as an auteur, putting his name at the top of the poster for Us and dubbing the film “a new nightmare from from the mind of Academy Award winner Jordan Peele.” For Us, the filmmaker was the biggest draw.

And the filmmaker delivered—his unique DNA is all over the film, from its perfect blend of humor and terror to its choice music cues to its odd fusion of genres and moods. Us could not have been made by anyone else but Jordan Peele. Get Out was Peele’s coming-out party; Us is the film that cements him as one of, if not the, most important filmmakers working today.

Hollywood would be wise to let Jordan Peele do whatever he wants, on canvases as big as he wants, for the foreseeable future. An even wiser move would be to take more chances on a diverse range of filmmakers with new stories to tell.