Circus freak: why The Greatest Showman is still going on and on at the box office

From themed club nights in Newcastle to singalong viewings across the country, three months after its release, the critically derided Hugh Jackman musical is showing Titanic levels of staying power

George Goldspink wasn’t sure whether Tiger Tiger in Newcastle upon Tyne was ready for the “bearded lady” he had hired to lip-sync to This Is Me, the biggest number from the biggest film surprise of the year. The events planner had arranged a student club night with The Greatest Showman theme, and wanted to honour its feelgood anthem for outcasts.

“But it’s a bit of a ballad and it’s absolutely rogue for a nightclub to put on a song like that because it could just kill the atmosphere,” says the 25-year-old former whale trainer from Norwich. His Goldflake Events company puts on weekly “Tiger Wednesday” nights for Newcastle University students. The Greatest Showman night, on 14 March, also included fire-breathers, snakes and Brazilian dancers.

Goldspink is a big fan of the musical film, which stars Hugh Jackman as the 19th-century American circus pioneer PT Barnum, and has songs by the Oscar winners behind La La Land. He has seen it eight times, and was confident people would come to the themed club night, but the demand stunned him. “We had just over 1,500 students in, our biggest night since freshers’ week,” he says. “There was a group of 10 who came 100 miles from Leeds. And when we played that song, it absolutely went off. It was a huge, huge hit.”

The film, modestly promoted before its UK release last Boxing Day – and showered with lukewarm reviews – has generated a big-tent appeal that would have astonished Barnum himself. Three months on, and last weekend it was still among the top five grossing films in the UK. The soundtrack, released in early January, has spent 11 weeks at the top of the album charts. (This Is Me, sung on screen – with a beard – by Broadway actor Keala Settle, who plays one of Barnum’s troupe of “freaks and oddities”, is still in the UK Top 10 singles chart.)

The Greatest Showman
The Greatest Showman. Photograph: Allstar/20th Century Fox

Meanwhile, an unprecedented run of sing-along screenings at more than 550 cinemas across Britain has fuelled the juggernaut, drawing fans back to screens to be whipped into excitement with a pre-credits warmup, and assisted with on-screen lyrics. Twentieth Century Fox, which co-produced the film, says the screenings have added more than £1.2m to its total UK box office gross of £40m. “What’s so unusual about it is the way it’s performed so consistently,” says Tom Grater, who follows the film charts at Screen International. “It didn’t have a particularly spectacular opening weekend but it has just rolled and rolled.”

After opening with £2.58m, The Greatest Showman took more than £1m on 12 consecutive weekends, an almost unheard-of feat. Twelve weeks after its opening weekend, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, by far the biggest release of December, took just £763, largely because it had pretty much left cinemas. We have to wind back two decades to find films with such staying power; in 1997, Titanic took at least £1m for 12 weeks, while The Full Monty achieved that for an unmatched 13 weeks. Only last weekend did The Greatest Showman dip below the £1m mark. Fox is now promoting its digital release next month; the DVD follows in May.

The film plays to the broadest audience, from students at Newcastle’s Tiger Tiger to pensioners at Eastbourne’s Cineworld. Word-of-mouth marketing, catchy, contemporary songs – and a lot of repeat viewings – have outflanked critical derision. The New York Times dismissed The Greatest Showman as “a montage sequence that occasionally turns into a movie musical”. At the reviews site Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 55% score among critics (and 38% among top critics) – but an 88% audience rating.

“And it’s all genuine,” says Clare Binns, deputy managing director of the Picturehouse cinema chain, and an unapologetic Greatest Showman superfan. She scotches notions of an ironic, so-bad-it’s-good appeal among time-rich millennials. “It’s audiences being fully aware of what they’re going to see and knowing they’re going to have a good time. It’s Mamma Mia!, not Birdman.”

Binns, who is 63, recalls dumping her bags after travelling home from the Sundance film festival last January and racing to the Prince Charles cinema in London to catch the first Greatest Showman sing-along screening with her 26-year-old daughter. “I’d just seen 40 films and travelled through the night, but the opportunity was too good to miss, and it was absolutely fantastic,” she says. “And it was everyone – there were single blokes, families, older people, groups of students.”

Picturehouses are still showing the film, and put on a countrywide sing-along screening for Mother’s Day. “Maybe it’s the current climate, where everybody’s a bit gloomy. It’s just … fun,” Binns adds. She also wonders if the word-of-mouth mill is slowly grinding down sceptics. “I think it has picked up that momentum because people are starting to think it’s OK – they’re just going for it.”

Paul Vickery, head of programming at the Prince Charles cinema in London, says sing-along screenings are on track to outperform even Frozen, which it sold out for two years after the Disney hit’s release in 2013. The cinema, which has become a centre for sing-alongs, has just extended its twice-weekly screenings through the summer. One fan has already been 18 times, while a birthday party of 19 young people attended the first screening. “It was still a new film then, but we had 300 people, many in fancy dress, and they all knew every word to every song,” Vickery recalls.

Goldspink began with an interest in the circus; the marine biology graduate used to train animals for shows at Pleasurewood Hills, a theme park in Suffolk. But he says the film’s crowd-pleasing themes of forbidden love and circus “freaks” fighting for acceptance are what set it apart. “It’s just so feel-good,” he says. “The songs have a lot of punch and you can really relate to them.”

Goldflake Events says it has been flooded with inquiries from non-student fans, and is now in talks with Tiger Tiger to put on a weekend version of the club night next month. “This craze is not going anywhere,” says Goldspink. He says friends of his watch the film once a week. “There has to be a West End show. There is just something about it. Even though you know exactly what’s going to happen in the next scene, it’s become a family classic overnight.”


Simon Usborne

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Greatest Showman review – Hugh Jackman puts on a show in cheesy, charming musical
Jackman plays 19th century PT Barnum in a crowd-pleasing if middle-of-the-road film that paints the circus impresario as a body-positive evangelist for diversity

Peter Bradshaw

20, Dec, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Big top: The Greatest Showman springs a surprise at UK box office
Hugh Jackman’s cheesy fantasy musical charts new territory taking the No 1 spot in its sixth week, as Phantom Thread sweeps in

Charles Gant

06, Feb, 2018 @2:24 PM

Article image
The greatest showman? Hugh Jackman announces world tour
Actor to perform hits from musicals including The Greatest Showman and Les Misérables across Europe and North America

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

29, Nov, 2018 @2:00 PM

Article image
How The Sound of Music led the way for the critic-proof hit musical
It was dismissed as a ‘sugar-coated lie’ by Pauline Kael – but The Sound of Music’s enduring success suggests audiences enjoy being manipulated. Just look at Mamma Mia!

Pamela Hutchinson

16, May, 2018 @12:25 PM

Article image
The Greatest Showman review – roll up, roll up, zone out
Hugh Jackman is having a great time as circus impresario PT Barnum, but the audience are left shortchanged

Wendy Ide

24, Dec, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Black Panther still purring at UK box office as it passes $1bn worldwide
Marvel’s groundbreaking film profits from the dearth of new releases, while renewed controversy for Woody Allen may have affected his latest Wonder Wheel

Charles Gant

13, Mar, 2018 @12:32 PM

Article image
Hugh Jackman announces Australian arena tour, as The Greatest Showman looks set for sequel
‘My knees are bending in ways they haven’t in a while,’ says the 50-year-old actor, of his all-singing, all-dancing live show

Steph Harmon

26, Feb, 2019 @3:03 AM

Article image
‘I put my trauma on display’ – Keala Settle on hating her signature song This Is Me
Her rendition of the bearded lady’s number from The Greatest Showman caused a sensation. But, as the Hawaiian-born star joins Sister Act, she reveals how the reaction may have contributed to her mini-stroke

Lyndsey Winship

19, Jul, 2022 @12:49 PM

Article image
Disney's gloriously ghoulish Coco charms UK box office
The distributor gets its biggest UK opening for an animation since Finding Dory, while war drama Darkest Hour marches on and The Post aims to make news

Charles Gant

23, Jan, 2018 @12:35 PM

Article image
Fifty Shades Freed ties up top spot at UK box office
The third instalment takes the franchise over $1bn worldwide, while The Greatest Showman appears set to overtake La La Land as biggest-grossing original musical

Charles Gant

13, Feb, 2018 @3:05 PM