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Fox's 'The Martian' Expected To Soar To The Top Of The Box Office

Fox's "The Martian" looks to be the rare awards contender that appeals to audiences and critics, which should give it a financial boost.

The studio's 2015 divisions started off strong before cratering in the summer, but its Fall slate is going to help it regain a lot of ground lost to rivals.

Fox's TV division will also impact the overarching company's returns, and while the broadcast network's Fall slate is just so-so for now, it's a massive step up from last year.

(Image Credit: Fox)

It seems like around this time every year that we get at least one film that successfully navigates that perilous gap between Oscar contender and box office success story. Last year it was Gone Girl, this year it could be The Martian, and the Fox (NASDAQ:FOXA)-produced drama could easily land in the same rare air as Gravity, Argo and The Social Network come awards season.

While Gone Girl started hot last year, it cooled off by the time we got to the Oscars, and only the "gone girl" herself, Rosamund Pike, earned a nomination. However, I think Martian will fare better or at least stay in the conversation longer, but regardless, it's going to have a solid opening (pending no interference from Hurricane Joaquin).

Last year, Gone Girl opened to $37 million, and early projections have Martian going into the $40 million range, but the elephant in the room is the budget. Gone Girl was a $61 million produced film, so it quickly made back its budget. Martian's production costs are more akin to Gravity, which cost over $100 million to make. Yet, with this being a Matt Damon/Ridley Scott team-up with Oscar overtones, the cost is less of a factor.

Fox has three strong Oscar contenders this year, with Martian getting the first crack at audiences. The studio will follow this adaptation of the best-selling Andy Weir book in December with the one-two punch of Joy and The Revenant. Joy is from David O. Russell, with Jennifer Lawrence in the lead, while Revenant is shepherded by reigning Best Director winner Alejandro González Iñárritu, and has Leonardo DiCaprio in the main role.

However, of the three, Martian probably has the best chance for crossover appeal with audiences and critics, which will translate to more financial gain for the studio. Still, as I mentioned earlier, an Oscar nomination/win is worth its weight in gold. The majority of Best Picture nominees and contenders don't make a lot of money, and the studios go into them with that understanding.

Investor Analysis

Fox's 2015 has put it into a weird spot, though, as it enters the Fall. It started the year strong with Taken 3 and surprise successes Kingsman: The Secret Service and Home, but the wheels came off in the summer. The studio had one hit in Spy and one massive flop in Fantastic Four. The result was really more jarring to audiences because last year, Fox owned the summer.

The studio's luck picked up when its first Fall release, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, topped the charts. The problem, though, is that it did it with $2 million less than the original, which got shareholders a little spooked. To-date, the sequel is still trailing the original, but the gap isn't overly frightening; it is just that the budget for the sequel was higher, which led to some of the concern.

Martian will take a little of the concern away if it meets expectations. The studio will then follow that up with the buzzy Peanuts Movie, which will hit in the first week of November. The CGI film from Blue Sky, which is also behind the Ice Age and Rio franchises, is likely going to be a big holiday hit.

Investors need to remember that Fox's numbers will also be impacted by the studio's TV side, which just launched its new Fall slate. While you can't make any real observations until the +3/+7 time-shifted numbers come in, the network is off to a decent, but not stellar, start - which makes the film side even more important.

Fox's Scream Queens targeted a demo that doesn't watch traditional TV anymore, and its comedy block of John Stamos' Grandfathered and Rob Lowe's The Grinder saw tepid numbers. Its bigger bright spots are Empire, which continues to defy ratings logic (for better and worse), and Rosewood, which was largely ignored by the network during its overarching summer marketing/PR push and has proven itself to be a real solid sleeper.

Though, again, I stress that these are all preliminary numbers, and all of the series will see DVR/SVOD/etc.-infused boosts soon. The best news, though, is that unlike last year, when the network's Fall schedule imploded from the onset, this one is more stable, and that's already a big improvement.