erik lundegaard

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.


Posted at 10:40 AM on Sun. Jun 21, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office  
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