Movies - Box Office postsSunday June 21, 2009
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.
What's Brooks Barnes Got Against Pixar?
I imagine this isn’t a great morning to be Richard Greenfield. He’s the market analyst at Pali Research who earlier this year downgraded Disney stock because he felt Pixar’s latest movie, “Up,” had a poor outlook. Brooks Barnes quoted him in the New York Times last April:
“We doubt younger boys will be that excited by the main character,” he wrote, adding a complaint about the lack of a female lead.
I wrote about this back then—slamming not only Greenfield but Barnes and the Times for getting their facts wrong by ignoring international markets—but after two months Greenfield’s quote looks even daffier.
It contains two complaints.
The first is about Carl, the lead character in “Up,” an old man in a medium designed for kids. He’s a legitimate market concern. That’s Greenfield’s territory.
The second complaint is about the lack of a female lead, which is a PC rather than a market concern. In fact, it’s the opposite of a market concern. Most movies don’t have female leads because most market analysts feel there’s no audience to support them.
Worse, “Up” has a prominent female character: Ellie, who’s the engine for the entire story. It’s such an odd comment from a market analyst. Maybe that’s why Barnes presented it without quotes.
Greenfield, I’m sure, is waiting to see how “Up” does in its second weekend, as well as internationally, before he issues his mea culpa—if in fact market analysts issue mea culpas. I doubt they do. Otherwise we’d be drowning in them. But for the record, in its opening weekend, “Up” made over $68 million, which is the second-best opening for a Pixar film, after “The Incredibles.”
Barnes’ mea culpa, such as it is, comes in his usual post-weekend box-office article in today’s Times, in which he uses the word “marketing” six times, including in the first graf:
Rapturous reviews and a colossal marketing campaign sent “Up” into the box office stratosphere over the weekend.
And then this in the fifth graf:
Strong opening weekends can be bought with big marketing campaigns, of course, so the coming weeks for “Up” and its performance overseas — where recent Pixar titles have made the bulk of their revenue — will be important in the evaluation of the film’s financial success.
Both of his statements are true—particularly the fact that strong opening weekends can be bought—but why mention all of this, and so stridently (six times), in connection with “Up”?
Was “Up”’s campaign particularly intensive? We don’t know. Barnes has no figures, just the say-so of other studios, along with some anecdotal information.
So is this the usual m.o. for Barnes? Does he often talk up the marketing campaigns of successful weekend films? Yes and no. Mostly no. In his post-“Star Trek” article, he attributed its success, in part, to a “megawatt marketing campaign”— but only once, and in the second graf. Meanwhile, he makes no mention of marketing for the opening-weekend success of such films as “Hannah Montana”, “Fast and Furious” and “Monsters vs. Aliens” earlier this year.
Does this mean those films didn’t rely on marketing to succeed? Or the relied less on marketing than “Up”? No one knows. Because no one has the figures.
Barnes’ “Up” piece, in other words, feels a little like ass-covering. He focuses on marketing to explain why a film he thought wouldn’t do well did.
Me, I would love it if every Monday Barnes gave us the marketing budgets for, say, the top five films. To compare and contrast. That would be fascinating reading. But they're not available and so all he has is adjectives (“megawatt”; “colossal”) and a seemingly scattershot approach to writing about marketing.
Here’s something, for example, Barnes doesn’t mention as a reason for the success of “Up,” but which, if I were writing that piece, might be my lead: It’s a Pixar movie. And Pixar means something to millions of moviegoers around the world. It means quality.
Another indication that quality matters a little—even in Hollywood.
“Wolverine” opened in over 4,000 theaters (and who knows how many screens) and made $85 million its opening weekend. But the movie was bad. I know: “bad.” Subjective. How about “a mess”? How about only 37% of the fanboys at Rotten Tomatoes gave it a thumbs up, while only 15% of the top critics did the same? In a way, even 15% seems too much. Shame on you Kenneth Turan, who wrote the following nothing graf as part of his review:
As directed by Gavin Hood from a script by David Benioff and Skip Woods, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" answers all those questions and brings everyone up to speed with a brisk thoroughness. It's a solid, efficient comic book movie that is content to provide comic book satisfactions of the action and violence variety. If it doesn't rise to the heights of Christopher Nolan's "Batman" films, it doesn't stray into "Daredevil" territory either.
Yet despite being “solid” and “efficient” (and it’s neither), the following weekend “Wolverine”’s business fell off by 69%, which, as I’ve written, in unprecedented for a film that opened in more than 4,000 theaters. As of Monday, its b.o. total (domestic) was $152.4 million.
“Star Trek” opened a weekend later in fewer theaters, 3.849, and made less opening weekend, $75 million. But the movie was good. I know: “good.” Actually it deserves those quotes, since I don’t think the movie is all that. The best thing about it is the casting. Otherwise, the story and pacing are derivative of “Star Wars” and none of it really sticks. It’s too busy going to leave anything memorable. But the fanboys at Rotten Tomatoes drooled (95%), and critics did, too (91%), and word-of-mouth is mostly good, and so, its second weekend, it fell off by only 42.8%. As of Monday, its b.o. total (domestic) stood at $151.1 million. Once Tuesday’s numbers are in, it’ll pass the mutant for sure. “Star Trek” is still drawing over $4 million on weekdays, while “Wolverine” is down to around $1 million per day.
In other words, despite the advantage that “Wolverine” had over “Star Trek” in terms of time and theater total, “Star Trek” is already warping past it and will surely be the year’s first $200 million movie. On the strength, I would argue, of its quality.
A question for Trekkies/ers is whether this film, which is already the highest-grossing “Star Trek” film ever, can surpass the original, 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” in adjusted gross. To do so, it’ll have to make over $235 million. I’m not Spock, but I’d calculate the odds of that happening as pretty good.