Movies - Box Office postsMonday January 12, 2009
A Universal Lack of Focus
After potential Oscar-nominee “Gran Torino” did so well at the box office, I checked out how the other Oscar contenders are faring:
|Film ||Studio||Thtr High ||Dom. B.O. |
|The Dark Knight ||WB ||4366||$531M|
|The Curious Case of Benjamin Button||Par.||2988||$94M |
|Slumdog Millionaire ||FoxS ||614||$34M |
|Milk||Focus ||356 ||$19M|
The box office for “Dark Knight” is obviously no surprise. It’s a good film but it’s in the running because of its box office. If it had made, say, $19 million, like “Milk,” you’d be hearing crickets.
Kudos to Paramount. They put “Benjamin Button” out there and people are responding. Kudos to people.
The box office for “Slumdog Millionaire,” meanwhile, is a nice surprise but shouldn’t be. Fox Searchlight is the same studio that smartly promoted “Sideways” in 2004, “Little Miss Sunshine” in 2006, and “Juno” in 2007. Apparently they know what they’re doing. Apparently they can sell a good film with universal themes even though it’s set in a foreign country. How about that?
But WTF with Universal and its specialty division Focus Features? Two of the most talked-about films of the fall, “Milk” and “Frost/Nixon,” and moviegoers have barely had the chance to see them. Is the studio waiting for the Oscar noms before they push? What if the noms are disappointing? What if the attention goes elsewhere? What then?
Perhaps I should cut Focus Features some slack — they slipped “Brokeback Mountain” into a homophobic America in 2005 and made $83 million — and one assumes the strategy for “Milk” is similar. But then there’s this worrisome report from Patrick Goldstein.
More, Focus’ strategy with “Milk” isn’t looking at all like their strategy for “Brokeback.” Check out the theater totals for the first seven weekends of both “Brokeback” and “Milk”:
Meanwhile, I have no idea what Universal is doing with “Frost/Nixon.” Ron Howard has had a long-time relationship with the studio. He’s made 10 films for them, including five that made more than $100 million, including, from those five, two Oscar contenders (“Apollo 13”; “A Beautiful Mind”), and every one of those 10 films played on more than a thousand screens. One assumes they know what they’re doing with “F/N,” too. On the other hand, the studio’s last movie with Howard was “Cinderella Man,” which the studio opened wide and disastrously in June 2005. Maybe they’re gun shy. Or maybe, to stay with the Nixonian theme, it’s as Deep Throat says in “All the President’s Men”: “The truth is, these aren’t very smart guys, and things got out of hand."
The numbers are indeed horrible. “Delgo” opened in 2,160 theaters and barely made $500,000. How bad is that? The worst opener last year, for any film in 2,000+ theaters, was “P2,” which opened in 2,131 theaters and still made $2 million. So “Delgo” is four times worse than the worst movie that opened last year. Yikes.
In fact, as the article indicates, “Delgo” has the lowest per-theater average ($237) for any "very wide" release (2,000+ theaters), and the third-lowest average for any “wide” release (600+ theaters) ever. Or at least since 1982, which is as far back as Box Office Mojo goes with their numbers.
The only films that have opened worse are, at no. 2, “The Passion Recut,” which averaged $233 in 937 theaters, and “Proud American,” a series of vignettes highlighting the pride and determination of Americans, which opened in 750 theaters this September and made $128 per. Remember those numbers the next time someone at FOX-News reads too much into the dismal box office of Iraq War movies.
The big problem with “Delgo,” though, is hardly those celebrity voices. Its distributor is Freestyle Releasing, and, of the 15 worst “wide” openings, Freestyle is responsible for three: “Delgo” at no. 3, “Nobel Son,” also released this month, at no. 6 ($374), and “Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour,” at no. 13 ($523). No other distributor has more than one film in the bottom 15.
Not sure what they’re doing over there. Overbooking? Underadvertising? P.T. Barnum must be rolling over in his grave. Or guffawing. Anyone who can't sell schlock to the American public should probably get out of the business.
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.
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard