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It’s the Sequel, Stupid: What The Opening Weekend for Pirates 3 Says About Pirates 2

So when does $114 million lose an argument? When its predecessor made $135 million in 229 fewer theaters.

Yes, I’m talking about Pirates of the Caribbean 3.

We got our share of threes last month, didn’t we? First Spider-Man 3, then Shrek the Third, then this thing. Each set a box office record. Spider-Man 3 set the weekend box office record ($151 million), Shrek the Third set the weekend box office record for animated features ($121 million) and Pirates 3 set the weekend box office record for Memorial Day ($153 million). Remove Thursday night’s previews and Monday’s numbers, however, and you get Pirates’ dinkier $114 million total. I know: “dinkier.”

Even so, when one of your franchise movies underperforms you have questions to answer.

Box Office Mojo attempted to answer some of them for Pirates 3. They wrote, “Among major franchises, the norm is for the third movie to gross less than the second.” (Except Spider-Man 3, X-Men 3, etc. etc.) The second movie, they wrote, “satiated” demand, and marketing made the third film look like “the same thing audiences experienced just ten months ago.”

I.e., “2” performed too well and “3” wasn’t marketed well enough. It had nothing to do with the quality of the product.

Here’s my thought. Maybe it did have something to do with the quality of the product. Maybe quality matters, just a little. Just enough to not set box office records.

By the way: I’m not referring to the quality of Pirates 3. I’m referring to the quality of Pirates 2.

As someone who writes about movies, yes yes yes, I believe most blockbusters are critic-proof. Especially sequels. Nothing I say about Spider-Man 3 (and I’ve said a lot) will deter people from going. But I believe they’re going — particularly on opening weekend — on the strength of Spider-Man 2.

Spidey 2 kicked ass. It’s the best of the superhero movies. On rottentomatoes.com, that quantification of critical quality, it got a 93 percent rating. In a recent list of comic book movies it came out on top.

People remember. They may not remember details but they remember feelings. And their feelings about Spider-Man 2 were positive. “Oh yeah, that was a good movie. Let’s check out Spider-Man 3.”

Box office record.

Their feelings about the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie (RT rating: 79) were similarly positive. “Oh yeah, Johnny Depp was funny. Let’s go see Pirates 2.”

Box office record.

When you think about it, Pirates 3 should have blown everything away. Not only did Pirates 2 sell over a billion dollars worth of tickets last year, it was “to be continued.” Theoretically, if all of the people who went to see it loved it, they’d be chomping at the bit to find out what happens next. That’s the most basic reason to care about any story. What happens next, Daddy? We should’ve been flooding into theaters.

Instead? Not so much.

Remember last summer’s movie discussion? That’s the argument $114 million lost. Critics didn’t think much of Pirates 2 (54 percent), movie audiences went anyway ($1 billion worth), and so studios said critics didn’t matter. They didn’t “get it.” A billion dollars! That was the studios’ answer. A billion dollars!

That continues to be the studios’ answer. Critics didn’t like Norbit? Number one at the box office! Critics didn’t like Ghost Rider and Wild Hogs? Both number one! A Disney exec said critics were “out of touch with their readership.” A Fox exec was proud his movie wasn’t embraced by “highfalutin snooty snoot critics.” Norbit’s director, Brian Robbins, seemed unable to comprehend the discrepancy between numbers and reviews and so decided not to read reviews anymore. Which is one solution.

As if a sellout at Wrigley Field means fans saw a good game. If the Cubs lose 13-1 and sportswriters slam the front office for putting together such a lousy team, does the general manager reply, “Well, we sold out that game, so apparently the fans enjoyed it more than those highfalutin snooty-snoot sportswriters in their fancy-schmancy press box”?

Attendance doesn’t equal customer satisfaction. Not at the ballpark, and not at movie theaters. Not anymore. The days of slow roll-outs and word-of-mouth are long gone. Everyone knows this. Yet everyone still treats box office numbers as if they’re indicative of customer satisfaction.

Here’s a better indicator: The number of people who return for the sequel. The numbers for Spider-Man 3 indicate how much moviegoers liked Spider-Man 2. The numbers for Pirates 3 indicate that, among the $1 billion worth of tickets sold for Pirates 2, maybe some moviegoers weren’t as satisfied as previously reported.

People remember. Not much, just a little. Just enough to not set box office records.

—Originally published 6/6/07.