Movies - Box Office postsSaturday January 17, 2009
An Ad For Something No One Needs
A friend once wrote a song called “Mr. Time,” which, in its overall sense of losing everything (inch by inch) while waiting for something, anything, to happen, I’ve always, unfortunately, identified. One stanza in particular hits home:
Tooth by tooth
You put on a smile
And stuff in a word for yourself
But every word on your own behalf
Is just an ad for something that no one needs
There’s doing and there’s selling. The great myth of America is that it’s all about doing (Horatio Alger, bootstraps, etc.), while the great reality of America is that it’s all about selling. I’m not a bad doer but I think I’m one of the worst sellers in the world. I can sell nothing, particularly myself, because of what’s articulated in “Mr. Time.” Every word on my own behalf does feel like an ad for something that no one needs.
This means, yes, I’m still thinking about Tad Friend’s New Yorker piece on Tim Palen and Hollywood marketers. Particularly these lines: “Publicity is selling what you have... Marketing, very often, is selling what you don’t have...” These are people so good at their craft they can sell what doesn’t exist. Remarkable. God, I hate them.
I do want to mention one area where I agree with marketers. It comes two-thirds of the way through the article and involves test audiences. Friend writes:
Yet testing is fraught: it rewards comedy, narrative, and familiar stars or plot elements, and often undervalues the new. Executives’ testing stories take divergent paths to the same punch line. Either they decided not to tamper with a “Pulp Fiction,” despite testing results invariably described as “the lowest scores in the studio’s history,” or they were confounded when an “Akeelah and the Bee” faltered commercially despite “the highest scores in the studio’s history.” In both scenarios, the numbers lied. “Testing is a sham,” one marketing consultant says. “All you’ve learned is what people thought of a movie they didn’t have to pay for. It does not mean they’re going to go pay for it.”
Ex-motherf---ing-actly. Particularly the line about undervaluing the new. It was the same for “Seinfeld” and the British “Office” and the American “Office”: low, low audience test scores. People didn’t get these shows. They didn’t get “Pulp Fiction.” I’ve never seen anything like this before so it can’t be any good. In this way, test audiences are actually like marketers, who, according to Friend’s article, have trouble selling the new because there’s no playbook for it. It takes a lot of luck for a “Seinfeld” to get through. One wonders how many “Seinfeld”s — and thus cash cows — get killed in the process.
So that’s the area where I agree with marketers. Here’s the area where I don’t get marketers. These are people who supposedly can sell anything — including something that doesn’t exist. They can sell crap and make us think it’s pudding. But they can’t sell quality.
The best films are sold on a limited basis, in select cities, and might, if carefully nurtured, make it into most big cities and most states. But that’s if it’s lucky and the zeitgeist is right. Otherwise, not.
I know marketers take their orders from someone else, as we all do, but some marketers, as Friend tells us, are now running the studios. Universal, run by a former marketer, is one of the worst culprits. Unless they know something I don’t, unless there’s a strategy here that I don’t see, they’re in the process of killing both “Frost/Nixon” and “Milk.”
There’s an assumption out there that people don’t want quality. There’s an assumption out there that people want (the same old) crap. I’m hardly a pollyanna but, more and more, I’m assuming the opposite.
That’s the unanswered question from Friend’s article. It’s the unasked question of marketers and admen everywhere: How good can you be if you can’t even sell quality?
A Universal Lack of Focus
After potential Oscar-nominee “Gran Torino” did so well at the box office, I checked out how the other Oscar contenders are faring:
|Film ||Studio||Thtr High ||Dom. B.O. |
|The Dark Knight ||WB ||4366||$531M|
|The Curious Case of Benjamin Button||Par.||2988||$94M |
|Slumdog Millionaire ||FoxS ||614||$34M |
|Milk||Focus ||356 ||$19M|
The box office for “Dark Knight” is obviously no surprise. It’s a good film but it’s in the running because of its box office. If it had made, say, $19 million, like “Milk,” you’d be hearing crickets.
Kudos to Paramount. They put “Benjamin Button” out there and people are responding. Kudos to people.
The box office for “Slumdog Millionaire,” meanwhile, is a nice surprise but shouldn’t be. Fox Searchlight is the same studio that smartly promoted “Sideways” in 2004, “Little Miss Sunshine” in 2006, and “Juno” in 2007. Apparently they know what they’re doing. Apparently they can sell a good film with universal themes even though it’s set in a foreign country. How about that?
But WTF with Universal and its specialty division Focus Features? Two of the most talked-about films of the fall, “Milk” and “Frost/Nixon,” and moviegoers have barely had the chance to see them. Is the studio waiting for the Oscar noms before they push? What if the noms are disappointing? What if the attention goes elsewhere? What then?
Perhaps I should cut Focus Features some slack — they slipped “Brokeback Mountain” into a homophobic America in 2005 and made $83 million — and one assumes the strategy for “Milk” is similar. But then there’s this worrisome report from Patrick Goldstein.
More, Focus’ strategy with “Milk” isn’t looking at all like their strategy for “Brokeback.” Check out the theater totals for the first seven weekends of both “Brokeback” and “Milk”:
Meanwhile, I have no idea what Universal is doing with “Frost/Nixon.” Ron Howard has had a long-time relationship with the studio. He’s made 10 films for them, including five that made more than $100 million, including, from those five, two Oscar contenders (“Apollo 13”; “A Beautiful Mind”), and every one of those 10 films played on more than a thousand screens. One assumes they know what they’re doing with “F/N,” too. On the other hand, the studio’s last movie with Howard was “Cinderella Man,” which the studio opened wide and disastrously in June 2005. Maybe they’re gun shy. Or maybe, to stay with the Nixonian theme, it’s as Deep Throat says in “All the President’s Men”: “The truth is, these aren’t very smart guys, and things got out of hand."
You might’ve seen this: a schadenfreude-y article about the horrendous opening weekend for the animated film “Delgo,” which, since it’s “celebrity-voiced,” is apparently deserving of scorn.
But the numbers are indeed horrible. “Delgo” opened in 2,160 theaters and barely made $500,000. How bad is that? The worst opener last year, for any film in 2,000+ theaters, was “P2,” which opened in 2,131 theaters and still made $2 million. So “Delgo” is four times worse than the worst movie that opened last year.
In fact, as the article indicates, “Delgo” has the lowest per-theater average ($237) for any “very wide” release (2,000+ theaters), and the third-lowest average for any “wide” release (600+ theaters) ever.
The only “wide” films that have opened worse are, at No. 2, “The Passion Recut,” which averaged $233 in 937 theaters, and “Proud American,” a series of vignettes highlighting the pride and determination of Americans, which opened in 750 theaters this September and made $128 per. Remember those numbers the next time someone at FOX-News reads too much into the dismal box office of Iraq War movies.
The big problem with “Delgo" is hardly those celebrity voices. Its distributor is Freestyle Releasing, and, of the 15 worst “wide” openings, Freestyle is responsible for three: “Delgo” at no. 3, “Nobel Son,” also released this month, at no. 6 ($374), and “Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour,” at no. 13 ($523). No other distributor has more than one film in the bottom 15. Not sure what they’re doing over there. Overbooking? Underadvertising? P.T. Barnum must be rolling over in his grave. Or guffawing. Anyone who can't sell schlock to the American public should probably get out of the business.
The top 100 opening weekends
Much talk lately about Sex and the City’s $55 million opening weekend. Most ever for a movie starring a woman! So where does it rank on the opening-weekend list? Fifty-first. Meaning the top 50 opening weekends all starred men. Or ogres or mutants or robots or lost fish. So the very thing women are bragging about shows how tangential they’ve become in Hollywood. But Sex and the City gives hope that maybe someday they’ll be as important as ogres.
What else does the top 100 opening-weekend chart show us? Nearly half of the movies (46) are sequels. In fact, nine of the top 10 openers are sequels. (Only Spider-Man, at no. 4, still holds its spot.) And all but 11 of the top 100 were released this decade.
That’s right: As if we needed further evidence, this decade is all about opening. The oldest movie on the list is Batman Returns, at no. 92, which was released way back in June 1992 and made $45 million opening weekend. By the end of our current decade (if not by the end of our current year) it should be pushed off the top 100 to make room for its descendant, The Dark Knight, as well as Hancock and who knows what else. By the end of the decade 93-95 will be from the decade.
What’s intriguing about the older films is how much they didn’t rely on their opening weekends. The big movie from 1993, Jurassic Park, took in $47 million, or only 13 percent of its final domestic gross, opening weekend. Compare that with last year’s big film, Spider-Man 3, which took in $151 million, or 45% of its final domestic gross, opening weekend. So even 16 years ago, word-of-mouth still mattered. Now the idea is to make a killing opening weekend, when the studio's take is higher, and don’t fret what follows. Including moviegoers going, “Well, that was a waste of two hours.”
Equally intriguing is what films aren't on the list: Titanic, Star Wars... The biggees.
The following is a list of the top 10 opening weekends: Two Spider-Mans, two Pirates, two Shreks. Plus a Star Wars, an Indy, a Harry and an X-Men. It's a list that could use some women. Or something that doesn't remind me of the cinematic equivalent of a Big Mac.
|Rank||Movie||Studio||Opening||% of Total|
|1|| Spider-Man 3 (2007)||Sony||151,116,516||44.90%|
|2|| Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006)||BV||135,634,554||32.00%|
|3|| Shrek the Third (2007)||Par/DW||121,629,270||37.70%|
|4|| Spider-Man (2002)||Sony||114,844,116||28.40%|
|5|| Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)||BV||114,732,820||37,10%|
|6|| Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)||Fox||108,435,841||28.50%|
|7|| Shrek 2 (2004)||DW||108,037,878||24.50%|
|8|| X-Men: The Last Stand (2005)||Fox||102,750,665||43.80%|
|9|| Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)||WB||102,685,961||35.40%|
|10|| Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)||Par||100,137,835||n/a|
Why movies that open in 2,000 theaters should be avoided
I like crunching box-office numbers because it unwarps my perspective. It gives me a swift reality check.
Example. Last year I must have seen the trailer to Eagle vs. Shark a dozen times. I frequent Landmark Theater chains and they kept showing it, along with those increasingly bothersome Stella Artois ads; and while I was never interested in seeing the film (too many indie clichés), I assumed it would play in the 200-300 theater range, such as The Science of Sleep did in 2006. Nope. Topped out at 20. Twenty. Arrived June 15th, left August 5th. To me it seemed the film would never go away and yet it hardly showed up at all.
Meanwhile, movies that played in 100 times as many theaters, such as The Messengers, The Condemned, The Invisible and The Last Legion, didn’t even make a soft impression on my brain. Niche dynasties are being created without an ounce of awareness on my part. Or yours. And it’s only getting worse.
Overall, by my admittedly suspect calculations, and not including re-releases, 596 films played in U.S. theaters in 2007. They range in availability from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which overwhelmed 4,362 domestic theaters last May, to the 77 films, such as Oswald’s Ghost, Primo Levi’s Journey and Looking for Cheyenne, whose widest domestic release was exactly one theater.
In quality, 2007’s films range from IMAX: Sea Monsters, which got a 100% rating from the compiled critics on rottentomatoes.com, to the three films (Constellation, Redline and Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour) that couldn’t even manage a marginal thumbs-up from an online critic.
I’ve been crunching box office numbers for a few years now (here are links to articles about 2004, 2005 and 2006 box office) and, despite the occasional swift reality check, generally the numbers bear out what most of us know intuitively: critically acclaimed films rarely get wide or even marginal releases, while universally despised films are spread like manure across the country. You begin to wonder, in fact, why anyone in their right mind would want to be a movie critic. The job is essentially quality control in an industry that not only doesn’t care about quality but seems to punish it. No wonder print publications, which are abandoning their own forms of quality control, are letting movie critics go.
How bad was it last year? Of those 596 films, 406 didn’t manage a marginal release (500+ theaters), and of these, 65 were so marginal they didn’t accrue the five reviews necessary to get a Rotten Tomatoes rating. But of the remaining 341 films, 215 were deemed “fresh” by Rotten Tomatoes (i.e., 60% of movie critics gave the film a positive review). In other words, if you went to a film that didn’t get a marginal release in 2007 — including La Vie En Rose, Once and The Namesake — you had a 63% chance of seeing a film most critics thought watchable.
From there, the numbers drop. A movie whose widest release was in the 500-1999-theater range? A 39% chance it was watchable. In the 2,000-2,999-theater range? 22%. Basically one in five. You have a better chance of meeting someone who thinks Pres. Bush is doing a good job than seeing a good movie that plays in 2,000 theaters.
Here’s a chart:
|Widest Release||Movies||"Fresh" Movies||%|
| 1-499 theaters||341||215||63%|
| 500-1999 theaters||68||27||39%|
| 2000-2999 theaters||76||17||22%|
| 3000+ theaters||46||20||43%|
That spike in the 3000-theater range is a nice surprise, but it shouldn’t be. One assumes studios and distributors know what they’re doing and save their better popcorn films (a Norbit notwithstanding) for super-wide release. The critics’ numbers simply reflect that.
(And I don’t mean to imply that a Rotten Tomatoes rating is sacrosanct. One of 2007’s big disappointments for me, Spider-Man 3, buoyed, one expects, by fanboy critics and weary newspaper critics, managed a “fresh” RT rating of 62%. RT is simply a general overview — a way of quantifying quality — but there are still a few bugs in the system.)
The overall numbers are starker when you chart for initial release rather than widest release:
|Initial Release||Movies||"Fresh" Movies||%|
| 1-499 theaters||361||232||64%|
| 500-1999 theaters||53||14||26%|
| 2000-2999 theaters||74||16||21%|
| 3000+ theaters||43||17||39%|
Now I know that trying to stop a Spider-Man or a Shrek is like trying to stop an avalanche. But at the least — at the least — these numbers should give moviegoers pause before attending a film that opens in the 2,000-theater range. Think about it logically. For films to open in this many theaters, their concept has to have some kind of widespread appeal. So why don’t they open wider? Most likely, they’re not good enough to be popcorn pictures. Consider them stale popcorn pictures.
Imagine that you only saw films that opened on 2000-2999 screens. Here’s what you would’ve seen in the first 12 weeks of 2008: One Missed Call (0% RT rating), Meet the Spartans (3%), College Road Trip (12%), First Sunday (15%), Untraceable (16%), The Eye (19%), Mad Money (20%), Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins (25%), Never Back Down (26%), Step Up 2 the Streets (27%), Rambo (31%) and Definitely, Maybe (72%).
One out of 12. And I don’t even know about the one.
Americans have already spent over $420 million on these 12 films. Surely there’s better uses for our money, our time, our lives. This ain’t practice, people.