Movies - Box Office postsMonday June 22, 2009
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
||% of "fresh" films
||Avg. box office
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.
This past weekend, Paramount distributed Murphy’s next film, “Imagine That,” into 3,000+ theaters again, with similar results. It finished sixth for the week, making $5.5 million, or $1,830 per theater. That’s pretty awful. Box office mojo uses the term “super-saturated” rather than “superwide,” and “Imagine That” has the fourth-worst opening weekend ever among super-saturated films—behind only “Hoot” (New Line), “The Seeker: The Dark is Rising” (Fox) and “Meet Dave” (Fox).
Murphy’s pattern feels familiar. The comedian who confronts the absurdities of society in blisteringly stand-up in his early days becomes, in his latter days, the actor who comforts and condones those same absurdities in limp, family-friendly comedies. That’s why I’m not interested in his films. But why is Hollywood still interested? Particularly if he keeps opening movies this way?
I guess they’re hoping for a “Norbit.” Let me repeat that. I guess they’re hoping for a “Norbit.” A film that didn’t cost much and made nearly $100 million.
Maybe they’re hoping for a “Doctor Dolittle,” which grossed nearly $300 million worldwide in 1998. They’re surely not holding out for a “Beverly Hills Cop,” which grossed $234 million domestically way back in 1984—the highest-grossing film of that year. Although maybe they are. “Beverly Hills Cop IV” is supposedly in development. As is “Fantasy Island.” As is “The Incredible Shrinking Man.” Both with Murphy attached.
Here’s a thought for the studios. Murphy might not be for summer anymore. Or he might not be for a superwide opening anymore. Or he might not be for movies anymore.
To funnier times.
A Monday Hangover
But he had a very good recent post on “The Hangover” killing and “Land of the Lost” dying:
We'll have more to say about this later, but one thing once again seems obvious: If you have a really good movie with a strong concept and no movie stars going up against a really bad movie with a weak concept and a big movie star -- the good movie wins every time. The public can no longer be hypnotized into seeing a bad movie just by the presence of a A-list star.Hell, I’d take out the star stuff, it only confuses. If you have a good movie with a good concept vs. a bad movie with a weak concept, the good movie wins.
As for the specifics last weekend? You have Will Ferrell starring in a non-Will Ferrell movie that’s supposed to be bad vs. a bunch of dudes starring in a Will Ferrell-like movie that’s supposed to be really good. Which do you go see?
Goldstein also has this interesting graf about the marketing chief for Warner Bros. (and thus "Hangover"), Sue Kroll:
Kroll knew she hit pay dirt when she went to the hair salon on Saturday. She listened with delight as a pair of women relived the uproarious time they'd had seeing the film with friends the night before. "One of them said, 'I loved that guy who was missing a tooth -- he reminded me of my ex-boyfriend.' " Kroll recalled. "And then she said, 'Everyone loves that movie. My mother's going to see it now too.' "
That is what is called major league buzz -- when even grandmothers are going to see a movie whose target audience is 19-year-old boys.
It seems to be panning out. On Monday, “Hangover”’s box office fell off by only 41.9%. Most films, from Sunday to Monday, drop off in the 60s. In fact, so far this year, for a non-holiday weekend, "Hangover"'s is the second-smallest Monday dropoff for any weekend box office champion—after “Taken”’s 39% at the end of January.
Some may attribute this to school getting out and kids running amuck (and to the theater) but that 41.9% trumps the Monday fall-off for any weekend box office champ in June 2008, too.