LOS ANGELES - "Straight Outta Compton" may take place more than two decades ago, but its themes of racial tension, poverty, and police brutality still speak to moviegoers living in a post-Ferguson world.
The biopic about rap group N.W.A. debuted to a blistering $56.1 million this weekend in 2,757 theaters, surpassing "American Pie 2" to become the biggest-ever August debut for an R-rated movie. It's the kind of opening usually reserved for so-called "tentpole movies" that trade in costumed heroes and special effects, not urban violence.
"The movie tapped into something in our culture, which made it more of a must-see," said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com.
Its debut nearly doubles "Straight Outta Compton's" budget of $29 million in a single weekend, meaning the film could be among the most profitable releases of the summer. N.W.Members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre helped produce the movie about the early days of gangsta rap and were integral to its marketing campaign.
Universal, the studio behind the musical biopic, has been having a year for the ages, as a steady stream of hits such as "Jurassic World," "Fifty Shades of Grey," "Pitch Perfect 2," "Furious 7," and "Minions," have pushed its grosses to record heights. Legendary Pictures co-financed "Straight Outta Compton."
"Straight Outta Compton's" success overshadowed the weekend's other new release, Warner Bros.' "The Man From U. N.C.L.E." The stylish action-adventure wilted at the megaplexes, bringing in $13.5 million from 3,638 theaters. That's a particularly rough start considering that "The Man From U. N.C.L.E." cost $75 million.
The revival of the 1960s television show had been stuck in development hell for nearly as long as N.W.A.'s members have been making records, attracting the interest of stars like Tom Cruise and George Clooney and directors like Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino at various points. Guy Ritchie directed the modish version that ultimately made it to screens and stars Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer.
Time may have hurt "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'s" appeal. The picture struggled to attract younger crowds unfamiliar with the original show, as 86% of the opening weekend audience was over 25.
"Guy Ritchie made a terrific picture, but unfortunately, it didn't catch the audience this weekend," said Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros. distribution executive vice president. "We know the older audience doesn't come out on the first day, so hopefully they will find the movie over the next couple of weeks."
Universal domestic distribution chief Nick Carpou labeled "Straight Outta Compton" as a "labor of love" that benefited from being dramatically different from the kind of films flooding cinemas in recent months.
"The public was ready for something with a bit more substance that they could identify with," he said.
The film's opening weekend crowd was 52% female, 51% under 30, 46% African American, 23% Caucasian, 21% Hispanic, and 4% Asian. It did not play in Imax or 3D but scored in premium prominent format locations, grossing $5.1 million, representing 9% of the film's weekend receipts.
In second place, Paramount's "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation" continued to get a lift from strong word-of-mouth, picking up $17 million in its third weekend. That brings its North American haul to $138.1 million.
Fox's "Fantastic Four" dropped steeply in its second weekend, falling nearly 70% from its debut and mustering a paltry $8 million. The film ranks as one of the biggest comic book movie flops in history, earning a meager $42 million stateside.
S.T.X. Entertainment's "The Gift" rounded out the top five, earning $6.5 million this weekend and pushing its domestic total to $23.6 million.
In limited release, Sundance favorite "Mistress America" debuted at $94,000 in four theaters, representing a per-screen average of $23,500. The comedy about a college freshman (Lola Kirke) who falls under the influence of a wacky Gothamite (Greta Gerwig) was directed by Noah Baumbach. Fox Searchlight snapped it up before it screened at the indie festival last winter.
Final numbers are still being tallied, but it looks as though "Straight Outta Compton" will bolster ticket sales over the year-ago period when "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Guardians of the Galaxy" were drawing the biggest crowds.