Movies - Box Office postsMonday August 04, 2008
Why Titanic is unsinkable
I’ve got a piece on MSNBC today about The Dark Knight’s box office and why it probably won’t pass Titanic’s domestic record of $600 million and why it definitely won’t pass Titanic’s worldwide gross of $1.8 billion. The latter prediction is a no-brainer and the former prediction is the result of finding a similar film (blockbuster, summer, PG-13), with similar percentage drop-offs (daily, weekly) and plugging in The Dark Knight’s original weekly total. That film is Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (the second one) and here’s how its percentages calculate with The Dark Knight’s original numbers:
|Week||Box Office||% change|
|1|| $238 million|
|2||$110 million ||-53.7%|
|3|| $62 million||-43.5%|
|4|| $37 million||-39.8%|
|5|| $20 million||-46.5%|
|7|| $9 million||-30.6%|
|8|| $6.7 million||-26.5%|
|9|| $6.7 million||-0.6%|
|10|| $3 million||-53.7%|
|11|| $2 million||-35.3%|
|12|| $1 million||-34.3%|
|13|| $737, 903||-44.1%|
| 22|| $273,329 || -39.8%|
The total? $515 million.
How accurate is this formula? It predicts $110 million for Dark Knight’s second week; the film wound up making $112 million. So not bad so far.
The Dark Knight might do better than this, of course. For one, its percentage drop-offs, thus far, aren’t quite as high as Pirates'. Plus it’s a better film, and so should have longer legs, etc., and there’s Oscar buzz. But Titanic looks safe.
Of course that's what they said in 1912.
The Dark Knight, somewhat ironically given Batman’s origin, is no orphan as to who or what is responsible for its massive success. A lot of fathers out there. To me, yes, it’s the Batman brand, plus it’s the fact that the film is a sequel to a well-made movie, plus it’s the buzz that the new one was even better. Plus it opened in more theaters than any movie in history. That never hurts.
Now the question: How far will it go? In pure dollar terms — that is, unadjusted for inflation — it may have already passed Batman Begins (at $205 million domestic). It will surely pass Tim Burton’s original Batman ($250 million) this weekend, maybe even before, making it the most successful Batman movie ever. Then, in terms of superhero movies, it has these guys lying ahead of it:
|2.|| Spider-Man 2
|| $373 million
|3.|| Spider-Man 3
|| $336 million
|4.|| Iron Man
|| $314 million
|5.|| The Incredibles
The fact that The Dark Knight took in $24 million on a Monday is a good sign. $24 million is a good weekend for most movies. For the curious, Spider-Man’s $403 million is no. 7 on the unadjusted domestic gross list. The No. 1 movie is Titanic at $600 million. When TDK passes Spidey, we’ll talk.
In the meantime, one of the better descriptions of Heath Ledger’s performance comes to us from someone, David Denby at The New Yorker, who didn’t even like the film. Proof, if we needed it (and some of us obviously do), that it’s worth reading past your opinions:
Christian Bale has been effective in some films, but he’s a placid Bruce Wayne, a swank gent in Armani suits, with every hair in place. He’s more urgent as Batman, but he delivers all his lines in a hoarse voice, with an unvarying inflection. It’s a dogged but uninteresting performance, upstaged by the great Ledger, who shambles and slides into a room, bending his knees and twisting his neck and suddenly surging into someone’s face like a deep-sea creature coming up for air. Ledger has a fright wig of ragged hair; thick, running gobs of white makeup; scarlet lips; and dark-shadowed eyes. He’s part freaky clown, part Alice Cooper the morning after, and all actor. He’s mesmerizing in every scene. His voice is not sludgy and slow, as it was in “Brokeback Mountain.” It’s a little higher and faster, but with odd, devastating pauses and saturnine shades of mockery. At times, I was reminded of Marlon Brando at his most feline and insinuating. When Ledger wields a knife, he is thoroughly terrifying (do not, despite the PG-13 rating, bring the children), and, as you’re watching him, you can’t help wondering—in a response that admittedly lies outside film criticism—how badly he messed himself up in order to play the role this way. His performance is a heroic, unsettling final act: this young actor looked into the abyss.
Never Google Yourself - Part I
Last week I got called stupid 5,001 times.
The extra came from my seven-year-old nephew, who I was picking up from golf lessons and driving to a friend’s house so I could take the two of them to, of all things, a Pokemon class for the afternoon. At the friend’s house, my nephew, all enthusiasm, wanted to get out the SUV’s side doors, but I was unfamiliar with my sister’s car — the newest car I’ve ever owned is a ’96 Honda Accord — and didn’t know there was an “Open” button located on the ceiling. “Open it!” he insisted. I held up my hands. “How do you open it?” I asked. Frustrated with an uncle whose newest car was five years older than he is, my nephew delivered the coup de grace: “Stupid!” he said. I laughed.
The other 5,000 times I got called stupid came as a result of that Slate article. My nephew gets a pass: he’s seven. The others, I assume, are a bit older.
David Poland's critique on “The Hot Blog” is indicative. His criticisms of my article — in which I wrote that, in general, a 2007 film that was well-reviewed (via Rotten Tomatoes’ rankings) made $2,000 more per screen than a 2007 film that reviewers slammed — are basically four-fold:
1. I love RT [Rotten Tomatoes]. It is a great site and a great idea [but] as a basis for statistical analysis, you should probably poll Patrick Goldstein's neighbors as soon as use those numbers for a factual analysis...
Some sympathy here. I didn’t critique RT in the Slate article. In earlier drafts, yes, but you’ve only got so much space, even online (where attention spans are shorter), and besides who wants to repeat themselves? Three and a half years ago I’d written about RT’s shortcomings in the same manner Poland did, and those shortcomings are still true, but I still say that as an attempt to quantify quality — which is what you need in a statistical analysis that uses quality as a frame of reference — it’s helpful.
2. The second HUGE mistake is, somehow, in spite of indicating a lot of knowledge in general, thinking that bulk numbers - as in, every film released on as many as 100 screens - can be used to analyze anything in a reasonable way. The math of the studio Dependents is quite different than the true indies, much less the small releases of under 300 screens and the behemoths of summer and the holiday season.
Obviously math from one place to another can’t be “different” (2 + 2... etc.), but if the box office numbers we’re getting are being calculated differently, well, that would be good to know. But Poland doesn’t continue. Maybe this “different math” is common knowledge in L.A. but it isn’t with me. Part of the reason I wrote the piece is that those Monday morning box office numbers always seem half (or less) of the story. If there’s more to the story that I’m missing, and that boxofficemojo — the site from whom I got most of my numbers — is missing, I’d like to know.
3. The biggest, perhaps, problem of all, is that after trying to take a run at this idea, and examining his data, Lundegaard didn’t just throw this junk science out. To wit… what is the leggiest wide-release movie (domestically, since it is the only stat we can use for all US releases as of now) of The Summer of 2008? Anyone? What Happens In Vegas... Rotten Tomatoes percentage? 27%.
Two things. He’s equating popularity with legs, which isn’t a bad method but has its own problems: Namely the problems he ascribes to my methodology in #2. But here’s the second and more important point: There will always be exceptions. I don’t understand why people don’t get this. All I’m saying, all the numbers are saying, is that a 2007 film that was well-reviewed (via Rotten Tomatoes’ system) generally did better, to the tune of $2,000 per screen, than a 2007 film that reviewers slammed. Are there exceptions? Of course. The tenth highest per-screen average belonged to National Treasure 2 and its 31 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating. Twelfth highest belonged to Alvin and the Chipmunks and its 24 percent rating. But when you crunch all the numbers, and despite such exceptions, the rotten films still sink below the quality films in box office.
4. And riddle me this… how can Lundegaard or anyone else assume that critics are increasing box office when “good” and “bad” are not the exclusive provenance of critics. There is no sane and knowledgeable person I know who does not accept that word of mouth is the most powerful element on the ongoing box office of a movie after the first week...
Three paragraphs later, Poland writes my answer: “There is nothing in Lundegaard’s story that suggests in any sustainable way that critics reviews have a direct cause and effect on box office in a real way.” Exactly! Because that’s not what I’m arguing. I’m arguing correlation, not causation. I’m arguing that critics, perceived as elitist, are simply fairly good barometers of popular taste. I’m arguing something fairly basic: that both critics and moviegoers like quality and don’t like crap.
Is this revelatory? In a society that dismisses quality, and that holds up crap for imitation, it certainly feels revelatory.
The studios will always try to make their numbers look good, and it’s part of our job to find out how they’re lying with them. Is my method — ranking films by the per-screen average for their entire run — the best method? I don’t know. It’s a method, a method we don’t usually see, and, maybe, a method to build on.
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.
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard