Why 'Hidden Figures' nearly caught 'Star Wars' hit film 'Rogue One' at the box office

Historical dramas tend to do well at awards shows but meet lukewarm receptions at the box office. 'Hidden Figures' appears to have broken that mold.

Hopper Stone/Twentieth Century Fox/AP
'Hidden Figures' stars Janelle Monáe (l.), Taraji P. Henson (c.), and Octavia Spencer (r.).

The “Star Wars” box office hit “Rogue One” narrowly beat the historical film “Hidden Figures” at the box office this past weekend, showing that historical drama can contend financially with even longstanding action franchises.

“Hidden” stars Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monáe as three women who worked at NASA during the 1960s, doing the calculations needed to launch John Glenn into space despite the racism they faced. 

The film has been mostly praised by critics and has been nominated for awards including the Screen Actors Guild Award for best cast and the SAG Award for best supporting actress for Ms. Spencer. Spencer was also nominated for a Golden Globe for best supporting actress but lost to Viola Davis of “Fences.” That level of critical acclaim is common for historical dramas, which frequently score big at awards shows but received lukewarm receptions at the box office.

"Hidden Figures" appears to have broken that mold, with critics and moviegoers turning out for the film.

Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore, told Variety that great marketing and a narrative with wide appeal are part of the reason for the success of “Hidden” so far. The marketing for the film is “a picture-perfect example of how to build awareness of a story that everyone can get behind,” he said.

New York Times writer Brooks Barnes also credits the marketing, especially how it appealed to certain moviegoers, and the publicity from prize nominations. “[The film’s box office performance] was lifted by strong reviews, an aggressive four-month marketing campaign that included a grass-roots appeal to faith audiences, and attention on Hollywood’s annual awards circuit,” Mr. Barnes writes.

"Hidden" finished the weekend with $21.8 million in domestic box office sales, just a hair behind "Rogue One" which brought in $21.97 million domestically, according to the Associated Press. “Hidden” had opened in limited release on Dec. 25 and expanded to more theaters on Jan. 6.

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