In industry parlance, the easiest way to judge a film’s word-of-mouth is by its “multiplier,” an essential measurement of how well a release holds after its opening weekend. To get a movie’s multiplier, you simply divide its box-office totals by the amount it made in its first weekend.
A solid multiplier for a film that opens wide is around 3: Beauty and the Beast, one of 2017’s biggest hits, opened to $174 million and made $504 million over its entire run, or 2.9 times as much. A very good multiplier for a blockbuster is 4 (in 2017, Wonder Woman and Coco are good examples), which indicates an extremely positive audience reaction and a lot of return viewings.
As of now, The Greatest Showman’s multiplier is an astonishing 12.8. And it’s only going to rise; the film is still playing on 2,800 screens and its studio, Fox, is now promoting “singalong” screenings with subtitles for the musical numbers. Only one movie has ever opened wide and made a higher multiplier—Titanic, which opened to a paltry $28.6 million in 1997 and finished at $600 million. That’s a multiplier of 21, the one number even The Greatest Showman probably won’t be able to beat. But the musical has already bested every other famous blockbuster with “legs” that stuck around in theaters to everyone’s surprise after a smaller opening—movies like Avatar, There’s Something About Mary, The Sixth Sense, and The Blind Side.
It all prompts the question: Why? After all, The Greatest Showman is an easy film to criticize (and plenty of reviewers were happy to oblige). It takes its tricky subject, a man who made his fortune in the mid-19th century off his menagerie of “freaks,” and frames him as a consummate entertainer who sought only to make people happy. It posits that the various “oddities” in his museum, such as the bearded lady or the entertainer Tom Thumb, were in fact liberated by Barnum and allowed to be themselves onstage, a clunky moral at best. It’s a movie that borders on hagiography despite being centered on a man who in real life has a legacy of exploiting his workers and racial stereotyping.
But there is something undeniably lovable about The Greatest Showman, even though (or perhaps because) its historical perspective has been so radically simplified. The musical numbers, written by the Tony Award winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land, Dear Evan Hansen) are earworms, easy-listening pop songs with instant karaoke appeal (the film’s soundtrack has hit No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200). The ensemble offers some great performances, particularly from the Broadway veteran Keala Settle (as the bearded lady) and the up-and-coming star Zendaya (as a trapeze artist). The numbers themselves are well-choreographed and staged, not as overedited as Hollywood musicals tend to be.
And then there’s Jackman, one of the few actors who fits the old-fashioned, Golden Age of Hollywood movie-star mold. He can sing, he can dance, but he can also play a musclebound brute if necessary, or emote in a serious drama. The Greatest Showman was an $84 million original musical that Jackman worked to shepherd to screen. He even hand-picked the visual-effects supervisor Michael Gracey, who had directed him in a Lipton commercial, to make his feature debut with the film. After that, it still took years to reach theaters while Jackman found a studio that would take a chance on it (the production was first announced in 2009).