Movies - Box Office postsFriday January 08, 2010
No. 2 With a Bullet (or an Arrow)
Less than a month after it opened, James Cameron's "Avatar" is already second on the unadjusted worldwide box-office list...to James Cameron's "Titanic." Of course it's got a long way to go to be no. 1: another $700 million or so—or what only 35 films have managed to make worldwide in their entire run.
What's remarkable isn't just the fact that Cameron now has the top two films all-time; it's that almost every other top film is a sequel, or part of a trilogy, or based on an extremely popular series of books. In the top 20, you can count the originals on one hand: Cameron's "Titanic" at no. 1, Cameron's "Avatar" at no. 2, and Pixar's "Finding Nemo" at no. 19. That's it. (I was going to add "Jurassic Park" but then remembered the Crichton novel on which it's based.)
Here, from boxofficemojo, is the current top 20 worldwide list. Unadjusted:
|Rank||Title||Studio||Worldwide||Dom. / %||Overseas / %||Year^|
|3||The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King||NL||$1,119.1||$377.0||33.7%||$742.1||66.3%||2003|
|4||Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest||BV||$1,066.2||$423.3||39.7%||$642.9||60.3%||2006|
|5||The Dark Knight||WB||$1,001.9||$533.3||53.2%||$468.6||46.8%||2008|
|6||Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone||WB||$974.7||$317.6||32.6%||$657.2||67.4%||2001|
|7||Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End||BV||$961.0||$309.4||32.2%||$651.6||67.8%||2007|
|8||Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix||WB||$938.2||$292.0||31.1%||$646.2||68.9%||2007|
|9||Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince||WB||$929.4||$302.0||32.5%||$627.4||67.5%||2009|
|10||The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers||NL||$925.3||$341.8||36.9%||$583.5||63.1%||2002^|
|11||Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace||Fox||$924.3||$431.1||46.6%||$493.2||53.4%||1999|
|14||Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire||WB||$895.9||$290.0||32.4%||$605.9||67.6%||2005|
|16||Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs||Fox||$884.4||$196.6||22.2%||$687.9||77.8%||2009|
|17||Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets||WB||$878.6||$262.0||29.8%||$616.7||70.2%||2002|
|18||The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring||NL||$870.8||$314.8||36.1%||$556.0||63.9%||2001^|
|20||Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith||Fox||$848.8||$380.3||44.8%||$468.5||55.2%||2005|
Will "Avatar" make it to $1.5 billion? More? Variety's Clifford Coonan reports that the Chinese hen hsi hwan the film. In the U.S., meanwhile, with everyone back to school or work after the holidays, the film's weekday totals are dropping off at a 50% rate—but that's still a slower rate than other films in the top 10. We'll see how it does this weekend. There's still buzz about the film. There's backlash, too, but mostly I hear (or read on Facebook) that even if you don't like the chatter, and even if you think the storyline is too "Dances with Wolves," you need to check it out in the theater, because it's AMAZING in the theater. That's nice to hear. Cameron's getting us all back together again. Except for these folks, of course.
My take. Again.
King of the World!
Last Monday I wondered if James Cameron's “Avatar,” already at $615 million worldwide, would eventually surpass “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” at $1.1 billion worldwide, to become the second-highest-grossing film (unadjusted) of all time—after Cameron's “Titanic,” which is no. 1 by a mile with $1.8 billion.
That question hasn't been answered but it has. Because after today “Avatar”'s worldwide b.o. is estimated at $1.01 billion: fourth all-time and spitting distance to “Lord of the Rings.” So by Wednesday or Thursday, James Cameron will officially have the two highest-grossing movies of all time.
Meanwhile in the U.S. “Avatar” is already at $350 million and will shortly blow past “Transformers 2” ($402 million) to become the no. 1 movie of the year. The only question is if it can surpass “The Dark Knight” ($532 million) to become the no. 1 movie of the decade. If it does, Cameron will have had the no. 1 movie of the decade two decades in a row. No director has ever done that. Not even Spielberg, though he came close (“Jaws,” “E.T.,” “Jurassic”).
Hollywood tends to place its bets on opening weekends but Cameron's showing everyone how short-sighted this is. “Avatar” made $77 million opening weekend. That's 28th all-time and fifth best for the year—behind “New Moon,” “Transformers,” “Wolverine” and “Harry Potter.” But such films tend to drop like rocks (40-60 percent) that second weekend. “Avatar”? It dropped two percent, to $75 million, giving it the best second weekend of all time. Unadjusted.
The best third weekend? “Spider-Man” at $45 million. Whoops. Scratch that. Now it's “Avatar” at $68 million.
And from here on in Cameron's just competing with himself. The record-holder for best fourth weekend is “Titanic” at $28 million. Fifth weekend? “Titanic.” Sixth? Same. All the way through the 12th weekend. It's all “Titanic.”
Which means weekends 2 through 12 are now all Cameron.
Cameron, by himself, is rewriting the lessons of Hollywood, and the biggest one is this: Opening weekend is for pikers.
Go to the movies this weekend? Lots of people did. Before the weekend was even half over the numbers crunchers were celebrating an all-time record (unadjusted) of $278 million, beating the weekend "The Dark Knight" opened in July 2008.
But that's not the big news to me. The big news is that "Avatar" won the weekend with a $75 million haul. If that number holds, 1) it's the second-biggest second weekend ever, after "Dark Knight"'s $75.16 million*, and, 2) that -2.6% drop from the first weekend is the 10th lowest drop between first and second weekends for a film opening in 3,000 or more theaters. And the top nine on that list? None came close to "Avatar"'s $77 million first weekend. None even came close to a $50 million opening weekend. They're mostly cartoons/family films ("Cheaper By the Dozen 2," "Bolt") that opened poorly or so-so before the holidays, then caught on during the holidays. You might say the same for "Avatar" except that it didn't open poorly or so-so. It opened phenomenally.
And continues phenomenally. After 10 days, Cameron's movie has made $212 million in the U.S. (7th-best for the year) and $402 million abroad, for a worldwide total of $615 million, or 47th best all-time (unadjusted). No. 2 on the worldwide list is "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" at 1.1 billion. Can "Avatar" surpass that mark? If it can, Cameron will be the writer-director of the two highest-grossing films of all time. Talk about your kings of the world. Here's hoping it keeps going and wipes the stink of "Transformers 2" off the year.
More on "Avatar":
- The Minneapolis Star-Tribune's critic Colin Covert has a fun, Freudian take on "Avatar." Jake's movement from re-birth to manhood is definitely a big part of the movie—it's a hero myth, after all—but Covert's vision of Col, Quaritch as an Oedipal father in need of a major adjustment adds a fun new element for me. "Quaritch is an iconic Bad Dad," Covert writes. "He threatens to shoot Grace in the mining camp’s control room, and later physically attacks her, Trudy and Neytiri in separate incidents. Mom and dad fight a lot."
- BTW: "Avatar"'s success, following on the heels of "The Blind Side," means that two of the three biggest movies this fall feature strong women who nurture young men away from the influence of bad men and turn them into good men. A theme?
- Michael B. Laskoff has a pro-capitalistic take on both "Up" and "Avatar," but to me it's a misreading. A rather gross misreading. Carl's house in "Up" is more about the burden of dreams, or the past, than a Wordworthian getting-and-spending. And arguing that "Avatar" is pro-capitalist because Cameron invented something wonderful and new, and thus, in Laskoff's words, "has done exactly what the high priests of capitalism—from Adam Smith and Alexander Hamilton to Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan—have always preached: allow daring, vision and capital to find one other and the extraordinary can emerge," is not only ignoring what "Avatar" is (a not-so-subtle critique of the military-industrial complex), but what capitalism is. Yes, you want daring and vision. But capital rarely finds the two. Capital is too busy chasing after what has worked before. It wants to endlessly copy the successful. There's little daring in it.
Balance sheets over blood: one of the many pro-capitalist
messages Michael Laskoff sees in "Avatar"
- Finally, a cool look, from Devin Faraci of chud.com, on how Cameron's final film differs from Cameron's original script treatment. Among the changes (SPOILERS): Jake is named Josh; Josh cries when he first walks as an avatar; the planet is always fighting the humans as if they're a virus—it doesn't just happen at the end; and there is no unobtanium. We're just messing with the Na'vi to keep them in line. It's interesting stuff, but, unlike Faraci, I agree with most of the changes Cameron eventually made. He brought a big ship in lean and tight.
* UPDATE: "Avatar" wound up grossing $75.6 million over the weekend—meaning it had the best second-weekend ever (unadjusted). It also did better abroad than the numbers originally indicated: its worldwide total now stands at $623.6 million.
The 2000s: Decade of the Sequel
A few weeks back in the New York Times Magazine, A.O. Scott asked the following question:
The rebel Hollywood of the ’70s gives way to the blockbuster-mad ’80s, which is followed by the rise of the indies in the ’90s. And then?
And then Frodo and Spider-Man, Mumblecore and midbudget Oscar bait, Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen, “The Dark Knight” and the Transformers movies, along with everything else.
Which is more smorgasbord than answer. So let’s answer the question Scott wouldn’t. What were the 2000s to film? How did this decade differ from previous decades? How will it be remembered?
Here’s my quick-and-dirty answer: the 2000s were the decade of the sequel.
Yeah, I know. The sequel? What year are you stuck in, idjit—1978? Sequels have been the driving economic force for Hollywood for years, for decades, and you’re saying that now, suddenly, this decade, we’re in “The Era of the Sequel”? Get a clue!
Except I’m talking less about how many sequels were made than how well they performed. Sure, they’ve almost always performed well; that’s why they keep getting made. But this decade? They’ve performed really well.
Here’s a chart of no. 1 box-office hits of the year that were sequels, per decade, for the last 40 years:
The two no. 1 sequels in the 1980s both came from the “Star Wars” franchise: “The Empire Strikes Back” in 1980 and “The Return of the Jedi” in 1983. Ditto his prequel, “The Phantom Menace,” in 1999. The only non-“Star Wars” sequel to go no. 1 during this period was James Cameron’s “Terminator 2” in 1991.
So basically the only time a sequel reigned atop the annual box office chart from 1970 to 2000 was when it happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
In 2002, Lucas’ second prequel, “Attack of the Clones,” actually became the first of the “Star Wars” movies not to be the year’s most popular movie. It finished third to both “Spider-Man” and “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” So it seemed we were entering a new age.
We were. The following year, the sequel to “Two Towers,” “Return of the King,” was the biggest hit of the year, and it’s been sequels ever since:
2003: “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”
2004: “Shrek 2”
2005: “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith”
2006: “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”
2007: “Spider-Man 3”
2008: “The Dark Knight”
2009: “Transformers 2”
An argument can be made that this isn’t that big of a change. Sequels have gone from finishing second or fourth for the year to first. Big deal.
But it is different. Here’s how things used to work. Some new movie would come along and everyone would say, “Oh, dude, you gotta see this!” and everyone would go. These movies would become the no. 1 movies of the year: “The Exorcist,” “Jaws,” “Rocky,” “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Batman.” And, yes, all generated sequels. But with the exception of “Star Wars”—actually even including “Star Wars”—these sequels didn’t do as well at the box office. There was usually something original people wanted to see more.
No longer. Now the original film is merely a stepping stone to the vast wealth of the sequel. Sure, the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” made $363 million inflation-adjusted dollars in 2003, but the second made $464 million in 2006. Sure, the first “Shrek” made $339 million in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2001, but “Shrek 2” brought in $510 million in 2004. And, yes, “Batman Begins” made $230 million in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2005. Three years later, “The Dark Knight” brought home $533 million.
Instead of something original, we now want the same characters, doing the same thing, in a story that either improves upon the original (“The Dark Knight,” “Spider-Man 2”) or doesn’t (“Spider-Man 3”: any of the “Pirates” sequels).
The question is why.
Part of it has to do with the way movies are rolled out now. Word-of-mouth means less, critics mean less, opening weekend means more. It’s a spectacle and people pay for the spectacle. Search the New York Times archive for the term “opening weekend” and for most of the 20th century you’ll get references to the “Wood, Field and Stream” columns of Raymond R. Camp. “Opening weekend” isn’t used to refer to the movies until 1980, in an article anticipating the release of the first “Star Wars” sequel. And opening weekends didn’t truly become currency until “Spider-Man” broke the $100 million opening-weekend mark in May 2002. That’s when even the average moviegoer took notice. Since then, Spidey’s record has been broken five times—all by sequels.
Movies are made differently now, too. Sequels are anticipated. They’re planned along with the originals. Sometimes they’re filmed along with the originals. The word “sequel” isn’t even effective anymore since we’re really dealing with four types, maybe more:
- The traditional sequel: These usually come out once every three years. Each film contains its own dramatic arc and more-or-less ends. Examples include the “Spider-Man” movies, the “Shrek” movies, “X-Men,” “Lethal Weapon,” etc.
- The double-whammy sequel: Several years after the success of the original, these sequels are filmed together and released within a year of each other. Usually the second sequel is of the “to be continued” variety and everything’s tied up (more or less) with the third sequel. Examples include “Back to the Future,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “The Matrix.”
- The episodic sequel: These are often released every year. They’re based on popular books and follow the path of the books. Examples: “Harry Potter,” “Twilight,” possibly “Lord of the Rings.”
- The “Wait! Let me squeeze out one more” sequel: Shows up 15 to 20 years after the last one, when the stars and/or director don’t have the options they once had, and are relying on past glories to resurrect careers. Examples: “Indiana Jones,” “Rocky” and “Rambo,” “The Godfather.”
Even if the studios are better at making and marketing sequels, however, it doesn't answer the question why are we going as often as we’re going? Because the studios are better at making and marketing sequels? Because theaters, and thus box office, are for blockbuster sequels, while the dramatic movies that don’t generate sequels are now for home viewing via PPV or Netflix? Because in the age of the Internet, we no longer see star-driven movies (“Forrest Gump,” “Jerry Maguire,” “As Good As It Gets”), or director-driven movies (Spielberg) but character-driven movies (Shrek, Batman, Harry Potter), which are easier to sequel-ize? Because after 9/11 we all became a bunch of wimps and just wanted daddy to tell us the same story over and over and over again?
All of the above?
No. 1 sequels used to be George Lucas’ province but now we’re all living in George’s world: special effects are everything, actors are nothing, things whiz by, the fun never stops. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, we used to go to the movies to see how people behaved on the roller coaster ride. Now we go for the roller coaster ride. If it has people on it, even better.
The Lessons of a New Moon
So what lessons can we cull from the $140 million opening-weekend of “New Moon”—the third-highest opening ever, and the highest (by far) for a non-summer film? Hint: It's not about the vampires and werewolves.
The biggest lesson is this: Quit ignoring girls. If you make a movie aimed at the sensibilities of teenage girls as much as “Star Wars” is aimed at the sensibilities of teenage boys, they will flock.
Here's a second, similar lesson: Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. The Twilight series is trading on what made the most successful movies of all time (Gone with the Wind, The Sound of Music, Titanic) successful. Those movies gave us a girl, choosing between two guys, against a backdrop of historic tragedy. The Twilight series just leaves out the backdrop of historic tragedy, and, rather than, say, Ashley and Rhett, or Leo and the other guy, this girl is choosing between a vampire and a werewolf. OK, so some things do change.
Final lesson? Girls are just as dopey as boys. Maybe dopier.
(Psst: Transformers 2)
OK, not dopier.