Movies - Box Office postsFriday June 26, 2009
Why We're Getting 10 Best Picture Nominees
The Annual Box Office Rankings for Best Picture Nominees, 1991-2008*
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* Best picture winner represented in red.
Want one more?
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The problem isn't the number of nominees. The problem is the disconnect between studios, distributors, audience and the Academy. We don't make best pictures anymore. And if we do make them we don't distribute them. And if we do distribute them we don't go see them. And if all three happen, but the movie happens to be a cartoon or a superhero film, the Academy can't be bothered.
I'll say it again. The Academy is fixing something that ain't broken (the tradition of five nominees) because of something that is hugely broken. All of the above.
BTW: I charted the above for the drastic change that took place in 2004, but I never noticed —until I created this graph — how the best picture winner is almost always (eventually) the no. 1 or 2 box office hit among the five nominees. That's good to know. Or at least it was in the era of five nominees. Now it's useless knowledge.
The $67 Million Advantage
By the way, and related to yesterday’s post: If you take all 243 films that were released superwide (into 3,000 or more theaters) from 2004 to 2008, and divide them by Rotten Tomatoes' ranking (“fresh” meaning 60 percent or better from top critics, “rotten” 59 percent or worse), and total and then average the box office for each category, this is what you get:
All Superwide Releases, 2004-2008
|Type ||No. of films ||Total B.O. ||B.O. Per Film |
|"Fresh" films ||76 ||$12,064,252,567 ||$158,740,165|
|"Rotten" films ||167 ||$15,321,793,613 || $91,747,267|
That's a $67 million advantage.
Are there extenuating circumstances? No doubt. "Fresh" superwide releases are more likely to open during the prime real-estate months of May, June, July, November and December—by a 66% to 47% ratio. Their marketing budgets may be bigger, too, but of course I have no data on that. (Does anyone?)
Most importantly, "fresh" films open, on average, in 231 more theaters than “rotten” films.
But even if you take away this advantage—by dividing the average box-office take by the average opening theater count—the “fresh” films are still much, much more lucrative:
All Superwide Releases, 2004-2008, by Theater Count
|Type ||No. of films ||Avg. B.O. ||Avg. Thtrs. ||Avg. |
|"Fresh" films ||76 ||$158,740,165 ||3,581||$44,331|
|"Rotten films ||167 ||$91,747,267 ||3,350||$27,385|
|RT Critic Rating ||No. of films ||Total B.O. ||B.O. Per Film |
| 90-100%||13|| $2,996,670,616 ||$230,513,124|
|0-9%||25|| $1,493,738,755 ||$59,749,55|
If you build it well, we will come.
Dumb like a Fox
Last week, John Lesher, the president of the Paramount Film Group, was fired and replaced by Adam Goodman, former head of production at Dreamworks SKG. Nikki Finke’s blog listed a number of offenses against Lesher, including drunkenness, while the L.A. Times said his biggest offense in his 18 months on the job wasn’t greenlighting enough pictures.
Maybe the two are related. I have no idea—I’m way the hell up in Seattle, and I don’t read much on internal studio dynamics—but the following, at least, demonstrates a problem Paramount has had for the last five years. It’s a table on how the big six studios (plus DreamWorks) fared with their superwide (3,000+ theater) releases from 2004 to 2008, ranked by average box office:
Superwide Releases, 2004-2008, by Studio/Distributor
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If you’re a regular reader you know I’m someone who believes that, with similar movies, good generally beats bad. People are more likely to go see a good popcorn movie over a bad one, and an exciting arthouse movie over a dull one. To paraphrase a famous movie line: “If you build it well, they will come.”
Paramount, according to this chart, builds them better than most, but, on average, fewer people show up.
The bigger question the table raises, though, is this: What’s up with Fox? They have the lowest percentage of fresh films and the lowest average box office per film as well. If you’re wondering what Fox's 39 superwide releases over the last five years look like, here you go. As sorted by top-critics-ranking on Rotten Tomatoes:
Fox's Superwide Releases: 2004-2008
||Top Critics' Ranking (RT)
||Dom. Box Office
|Horton Hears a Who
|The Simpsons Movie
|Live Free or Die Hard
|Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith
|Ice Age: The Meltdown
|Because of Winn-Dixie
|Marley & Me
|X-Men: The Last Stand
|Kingdom of Heaven
|Mr. & Mrs. Smith
|The Day After Tomorrow
|Night at the Museum
|Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium
|Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
|What Happens in Vegas
|The X-Files: I Want to Believe
|Alvin and the Chipmunks
|Hide and Seek
|Big Momma's House 2
|Cheaper by the Dozen 2
|The Day the Earth Stood Still
|The Seeker: The Dark is Rising
|Garfield: The Movie
|Deck the Halls
|Alien vs. Predator
It’s not pretty. I liked, well enough, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” “The Simpsons Movie” and “Marley and Me,” but there’s no standout film here, and most of their menu smells like the glop of McDonald’s. In fact, they’re the only major studio over the last five years not to release a film superwide that garnered a 90% or better rating from the top critics in the country. DreamWorks (“Wallace and Gromit”) Paramount (“Iron Man”) and Universal (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) each did it once; Sony did it twice (“Casino Royale”; “Spider-Man 2”); Warner Bros. three times (“The Dark Knight”; “The Departed”; “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”); and Buena Vista, with a big helping hand from Pixar, did it four times (“Ratatouille”; “WALL-E”; “The Incredibles” and “Enchanted”). Fox? Nothing. Not even close. As you can see.
Equally astonishing is the kinds of movies Fox decides to dump into 3,000+ theaters. “The Seeker”? “Meet Dave”? “Elektra”? The preeminent popular genre of the decade is the superhero film and what has Fox done with it? They’ve taken one franchise that started brilliantly (Bryan Singer’s “X-Men”) and run it into the ground, while taking one of the more famous superhero teams ever created (“The Fantastic Four”) and never got it off the ground. You could argue that Fox’s most successful superhero over the past five years isn’t Wolverine or Mr. Fantastic; it’s Spider-Pig.
In the 1930s studios had personalities. Warner Bros. was gritty gangster stuff, MGM went after glamour and sophistication, etc. Studios are corporate-run now—smaller entities within larger multinational conglomerates—so we no longer ascribe a personality to their output. Lucky for Fox.
Hollywood Elsewhere, via Variety, reports that Sony chief Amy Pascal has pulled the plug on “Moneyball,” the Steven Soderbergh adaptation of Michael Lewis' book, which was to star Brad Pitt as Oakland A's GM Billy Beane, and which was to begin shooting Monday. Earlier this month, Patrick Goldstein, expressing enthusiasm for the project, wrote about how it would adhere closely to the book. Maybe that was the problem. Too cerebral? Too much about baseball? Neither of which (baseball, cerebral) plays well in international markets?
Jeffrey Wells, for one, is doubtful:
What this seems to mean is either that (a) Pascal doesn't believe that stars like Pitt mean all that much when it comes to opening a costly film — that the movie itself has to have the commercial goods or it's not worth doing, or that (b) she's half-persuaded that the 46 year-old Pitt — 50 in four and a half years! — isn't much of a star any more. Or a combination of both.
Who knows? Maybe Pascal knew she was taking a chance with Soderbergh, and, after the relative failures of two recent Sony offerings, “Pelham” and “Year One,” she wasn't in the chance-taking mood.
As I said: Bummer. With that talent, and that source material, I had high hopes the movie would be good. Certainly better than “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigilo,” “Stealth,” “Bewitched,” “Guess Who” or “RV,” all of which Sony/Columbia, and presumably Pascal, not only greenlit but opened in more than 3,000 theaters in recent years.
The One Lesson of Summer Box Office
Thursday night I took Patricia to see “Up” because I thought she’d love it—she did, particularly Dug—and because I wanted to see it without the 3D. I’m glad we went. Movies should be big and 3D seems to make them smaller. It’s as if, in creating the appearance of density, characters become heavy tiny objects rather than light big objects. The unfurling of the balloons and the house taking off—a great cinematic moment—is much more beautiful on the flat screen. Roger Ebert agrees.
“Up,” dismissed early and long for its elderly lead character, is already past the $200 million mark, the second-highest-grossing film of the year, and looks poised to pass “The Incredibles” ($261 million) to become the second-highest-grossing Pixar pic ever. Another example that quality—certainly brand-name quality—wins in the end.
Except Variety is now attributing the success of “Up” to...what? 3D, of course:
“Up’s” boffo run is the latest example of how 3-D runs can boost a film’s bottom line through higher ticket prices. The film’s 3-D runs make up only 40% of the total screen count, yet they contribute 60% of the gross.
So how much of that 20-percent difference is in higher ticket prices and how much is in higher attendance figures? And if the latter, how many moviegoers would’ve seen the film anyway? I mean, is anyone seriously going to see “Up” because of 3D? At least Variety tempers its enthusiasm with some later-graf common sense from Disney:
Chuck Viane, Disney’s prexy of domestic distribution, said 3-D has been a boon to “Up,” but he added that the foundation of any successful pic is a good story. “3-D enhances the storytelling, and thereby, the run,” Viane said.
For really misreading stats, though, there’s Variety’s Anne Thompson. I found the article—her six lessons of summer box office—in the usual roundabout Internet way: a link on Nathaniel R.’s site to a David Poland piece critiquing Anne Thompson’s original article. Now I add to the chain.
I like Nathaniel’s caveat: “I can’t say I ‘enjoy’ David Poland’s habitual attacks on other film journos but he definitely makes good points in this article.”
As someone who’s been attacked by Poland, I couldn’t agree more. Particularly since Poland, in his attack on me, got so much wrong.
I’d argue he goes overboard here, too. He attacks all of Thompson’s six lessons and... well, most of them are pretty bad. She draws big lessons from a small sample—always a mistake—when she could’ve crunched all six of her lessons into one. Quality sells. She implies as much with her adjective choices in nos. 3 & 6: “Smart R-rated dumb male comedies sell” and “Lackluster sequels sell--but don't break out big” (italics mine). She might’ve done the same with nos. 5, 4 & 2: bad Eddie Murphy movies don’t sell; unfocused family films don’t sell; and good origin myths (“Star Trek”) trump bad origin myths (“Wolverine”).
As for her no. 1 lesson? “Originals sell”? She writes:
The very thing that the majors are most afraid of is what makes Pixar King of the Mountain, every single time: originality. While everyone else looks for easy-sell labels, Pixar relies on a very old-fashioned idea: make it good and they will come. Up scored not via marketing prowess, but through great word-of-mouth. Gross to date: $191 million and going strong. Heck yeah!
Again, I’m happy about the performance of “Up,” not to mention “The Hangover,” which—amazingly!—looks poised to go over the $200 million mark as well. And I certainly wish this lesson were true. But is it? The highest grossing film thus far this year is “Star Trek,” which is a reboot of an old movie and TV franchise. Not original. And earlier in the article Thompson herself taps the films she thinks will be the summer’s big blockbusters: “Transformers: Revenge of the...” and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood...” Both sequels.
Here, in fact, are the 10 highest-grossing movies from the last five years:
| ||Title ||Dom. B.O. ||Type |
|1. ||The Dark Knight (2008) ||$533m ||sequel |
|2. ||Shrek 2 (2004) ||$441m ||sequel |
|3 ||Pirates of the Caribbean 2 (2006) ||$423m ||sequel |
|4. ||Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005)||$380m ||sequel |
|5. ||Spider-Man 2 (2004) ||$373m ||sequel |
|6. ||The Passion of the Christ (2004) ||$370m |
|7. ||Spider-Man 3 (2007) ||$336m ||sequel |
|8. ||Shrek the Third (2007) ||$322m ||sequel |
|9. ||Transformers (2007) ||$319m ||reboot |
|10. ||Iron Man (2008) ||$318m |
Eight of them are sequels or reboots. The only two that are not—”Passion” and “Iron Man”—are based on previously published material. Which is to say: none are originals. You won’t see an original story on this list until no. 17—Pixar’s “The Incredibles”—and original stories remain few and far between thereafter: “Night at the Museum” (no. 19), “Hancock” (no. 24), more Pixar (“Cars,” “Wall-E,” etc.).
I’m not saying this won’t change. People flocked to musicals until they didn’t. But for the moment we live in a sequel era. We want daddy to tell us that story again.
However, if Ms. Thompson had written “Originals can sell,” well, I wouldn’t have argued with that. That’s a good lesson to get out in Hollywood.