When Straight Outta Compton debuted this past weekend, there was concern nationwide about whether the film’s subject matter, coupled with a recent string of violence at U.S. movie theaters might affect its box office performance. It’s a disturbing trend to acknowledge, but ever since a gunman opened fire in an Aurora, Colo. theater during a 2012 screening of The Dark Knight Rises, Americans have had to face the reality that such events are not all that rare. In fact, The Wrap wrote up a history of violence at movie theaters and pointed to 17 major issues over the past few decades.
Particularly concerning in this history, however, is the correlation with films whose subject matter concerns African American culture, or even hip-hop specifically. Colors, Boys n the Hood, and Get Rich or Die Tryin are just a few examples among the films listed to have been playing during violent events in theaters. Given all of this, it’s only natural that there were some fears and concerns about Straight Outta Compton landing in the cinema.
To address those concerns, Fortune reported that Universal, the studio behind the film, was offering to help pay for additional security for screenings in select areas. This was partly due to the aforementioned history, but it’s also tied to the fact that police violence is at the heart of much of the drama in Straight Outta Compton. It’s also been an issue in much of the South in the past year or two. One would hope that violence doesn’t need to be a concern in a forum meant for entertainment, but if ever there was a recipe for disaster at a movie theater, it was probably this past weekend’s release of the NWA flick: a hip-hop- and police violence-related drama on the heels of recent examples of theater shootings coupled with immense racial tensions and citizen unease in much of the country.
All of this coupled with the fact that studios are already increasingly nervous about losing audiences to home entertainment. This is a concern that exists not only with regard to film, but in numerous corners of the entertainment industry. Consider some of the most popular activities people are used to enjoying outside of the home, and a number of them can now be enjoyed more conveniently, cheaply, and safely without the need to leave the house.
Professional sports organizations have been dealing with this problem for years now thanks to the introduction of enhanced cable packages and streaming options. In particular, there’s NFL Redzone, which allows fans to experience pro football games in a way that, for many, tops a live viewing experience. The casino industry has also been a major aspect of entertainment that’s faced worries regarding the loss of customers to home gaming options—and not just because people can play online poker. In the U.K., Betfair provides what basically amounts to a whole casino experience, going well beyond poker and a few digital slot machines to offer a range of card games, roulette options, and even live competitions.
For the movie business, as with the casino and sports viewing industries, the same concerns have become increasingly relevant. Netflix is the obvious name that comes to mind, but there are other streaming services and special TV channels that allow people to see pretty much any film they want in the comfort of their own homes—even if they have to wait an extra month or two to access new releases. This development is keeping some people away from the theaters in general, and when there’s also a specific reason to avoid a public screening—as with Straight Outta Compton and the surrounding safety concerns—one can only imagine the studio’s apprehension at the potential loss of audience.
As it turned out, such apprehension wasn’t necessary. The improving quality of home entertainment is a real issue, but just as sports organizations and casinos have managed to retain a high level of popularity, we still see plenty of blockbuster box office performances from major films. And despite the added worries about security, Straight Outta Compton proved to be another example. It performed well at the box office and has become, according to Variety, the biggest-ever R-rated release in August (surpassing American Pie 2). The film earned just over $56 million in its opening weekend, in 2,757 theaters. Given that the initial budget was just over $29 million, that makes the film an incredible success.
And in the weeks and months to come, that’s just how we’ll look at this movie: a major triumph, and a compelling narrative about early hip-hop culture. But as Straight Outta Compton joins the ranks of 2015’s better films, don’t forget just how strongly the odds were stacked against its box office success.