The Theory of Chaos

Sunday, May 07, 2006

May 5-7: America disavows "M:I3"'s existence

So, sports fans, I don’t know if you have any particular interest in the box office horse race, but I’m trying this once and I’m curious to know whether you’d enjoy seeing it every week. I want to provide a little bit of extremely opinionated and mostly uninformed analysis of the numbers, what they mean for the players involved and why audiences came out in these particular sizes.

The best source I know for the lay public to get at these figures quickly is Box Office Mojo. The snarky commentary is my own.

1. Mission: Impossible III
Weekend Take: $48M
Current Domestic Total: $48M

Paramount will try, but I don’t think they can spin this as anything but a huge disaster. Now, $48 million is a lot of scratch. Hell, it would keep me in Pop-Tarts until the Rapture at least. But while by that old fuddy-duddy calendar we’re still only halfway through “Spring”, the first weekend of May has sort of coalesced for this era of Hollywood as the opening of the “Summer Movie Season”.

Every year there’s one movie that busts the box office wide open, almost like audiences across America are done with the January turds and Oscar-winning prestige pieces, they’re ready to buy their popcorn and go to the god-damned MOVIES again. That movie comes out in May, usually on the first weekend. This weekend is when you see numbers like $68.1M for The Mummy Returns, $85.6M for X2: X-Men United, or the gob-smacking $114.8M for Spider-Man 2.

That $48M doesn’t seem so mighty now, does it?

On top of this, the rule of thumb is that sequels open bigger and fade faster than their predecessors. Mission: Impossible II opened at $57.8M, and that was six years ago, so by today’s ticket prices the figure would crunch to more like $68.6M.

Are we starting to see the problem?

Dirty details below the jump

Part of the disappointment I think you can chalk up to timing. There’s a window during which audiences are still excited about the idea of a sequel. After that, as they go on with their lives, they realize they didn’t miss it that much after all. Enthusiasm dims. If your movie is genuinely beloved enough, you can work a kind of jujitsu and stoke the latent affection into much bigger numbers. But after four years that’s a hard trick to pull, and this sequel took six years. This franchise has never thrived on forging an emotional bond with its viewers, it’s all about the sweat and stimulation. It’s hard to keep an audience loyal to that with so many other parties out there fighting to stimulate them.

And then there’s the star, and the dramatic shift in the public’s perception of him since he starting bounding on couches. His membership in the Church of Scientology was never a secret, but it was sort of politely ignored as a mostly harmless quirk, one of those things celebrities do like writing children’s books and giving their babies stupid names. But, thanks to South Park and Cruise’s nosy comments about Brooke Shields and the psychiatric profession, there’s a lot more knowledge out there about the batty dark side of L. Ron Hubbard’s cult, and the courtship of Katie Holmes has not played with the public the way Tom’s “people” must have hoped. His image has suffered, and I think a lot of executives around Hollywood will only today realize just how dramatically.

The reported production budget for this movie is around $150M. Another good rule of thumb is that if a movie meets its budget figure in domestic take, then once you add in international ducats and home video you’ve usually got a profitable movie. It’s harder still for Mission: Impossible III, given its enormous advertising budget and the profit participation of Tom Cruise as producer/star. I think Paramount’s real magic number is more like $180-200M. But we’ll be easy on them. Granting that this number is somewhere near the true cost of the film – and given its production history that’s a gift – can it catapult off this weekend to reach $150M?

I don’t like the odds. All the equations change in the summer season. Any other time in the year, a 50% second weekend drop-off is a near calamity. But between May and August, when every weekend a new 9-figure behemoth is trundling into the multiplexes, 50% is almost a relief. At 50%, you can end up with between double and triple your opening weekend as a final figure. 60% and even 70% drops are now, frighteningly, no longer total anomalies – you’ll see a couple each year. So every bean-counter at Paramount is now doing strong voodoo in the hopes of a less than 50% drop, because it’s the only hope of this movie becoming a genuine hit.

What keeps the drop small?

Audience approval: The hype has ended and now critical response and word-of-mouth takes over. These are the “legs” the gurus refer to. Critical response has been mixed-to-positive and the movie does deliver on action and humor. This breaks in favor of the movie, though not strongly.

Lack of competition: Here’s where the trouble lies. Poseidon opens next weekend, which is going to peel off both the older demographics and all those young women who still like Tom’s biceps, leaving only the young male adrenaline crowd, which is loyal with their money but not big enough for the kind of breakout numbers you need. I think Cruise’s star power at this point is more tenuous than the studios would like to admit, if enough women have been weirded out by his antics of the last year to abandon ship next weekend, expect the stench of panic in the air to ripen.

Repeat viewing potential: As I said above, this isn’t the sort of movie that turns on making an emotional connection, it’s about pure sensation. The segment of the audience that would pay for a second viewing, especially with DVD releases coming so quickly these days, is small, and not likely to keep this movie afloat. It will consist only of adolescents who were rocked hard enough.

This was Paramount’s big ticket for 2006, and it’s had the kind of weekend people get fired over. I think it will have a long ancillary life and Paramount won’t actually lose money on the thing when the final accounting is done, but in a town that thrives on ego no one from the Mountain is going to be strutting around with their dick hanging out this week. Now they’ll have to hope for a huge breakout from the likes of Nacho Libre and Jackass Two. Recently-acquired Dreamworks Animation’s Over the Hedge is a likely hit, though not one Paramount will reap as much benefit from as they’d like.

2. RV
Weekend Take: $11.1M
Current Domestic Total: $31M

A family comedy with our leading family comedian continues its steady progress towards solid lead-off single status. A promising audience holder, it lost only 32.4% of its opening weekend audience, and the schedule for next weekend is clear of direct competition. It’s these market-targeted mid-budget performers that keep the cash flowing, it’s not a breakout but Sony, which spent more money than it should have on it but will make enough to cover it, will happily ride it home.

3. An American Haunting
Weekend Take: $6.4M
Current Domestic Total: $6.4M

By normal standards this would be something of a wash; horror movies fade quickly as a rule, which would definitely imperil this movie’s profitability. Add to it the movie’s period setting and lack of marquee names. But this is sort of a coming-out party for the relatively-new distributor Freestyle Releasing, it’s their widest release ever and within the first 24 hours they surpassed the box office take of all their previous films. With the risk spread among European co-financing partners, producers should be well-satisfied by their market penetration even if the profit margin will be slim.

4. Stick It
Weekend Take: $5.5M
Current Domestic Total: $18M

I think Disney was hoping for more of a breakout than this – a vague marketing campaign didn’t help. Its fall from the charts will only accelerate, but this was a low-risk project to begin with, which mitigates the pain somewhat.

5. United 93
Weekend Take: $5.2M
Current Domestic Total: $20.1M

This is one of those movies that defied conventional prognostication, which had to make Universal sweat. But a strong critical response; plus a well-orchestrated “controversy” about whether “America” was ready to see this movie – many stories of which just so happened to come out of Universal’s sister company NBC – has assuaged their worries. Enough of an audience has come. Add a smartly-contained budget and you not only have a winner financially, but a potential awards contender and the kind of movie people remember and revisit – on ever-so-profitable DVD.

6. Ice Age: The Meltdown
Weekend Take: $4M
Current Domestic Total: $183.3M

From here on out it’s all gravy for the Ice Age brand – the sequel has outgrossed its progenitor and solidified it as a franchise. An unqualified hit. Many toys and DVDs to follow, and Fox-based Blue Sky Animation holds on to its corner of the animation market after last year’s respectable results for Robots.

7. Silent Hill
Weekend Take: $3.9M
Current Domestic Total: $40.8M

There’s more strong drop-offs ahead for this video game adaptation, whose genre and fan base should give it a long after-box-office life, but the producers must have hoped they’d break further out of the game-audience ghetto than this. Sometimes it costs more to make the movie properly than its target audience can recover, the lavishly-produced Silent Hill looks to have fallen victim to that calculus.

8. Scary Movie 4
Weekend Take: $3.8M
Current Domestic Total: $83.7M

This brand will never run out of parody material as long as Hollywood keeps churning out the horror/sci-fi movies, so if they don’t milk the name too quickly, or see their audience too diluted by Date Movie and other imitators, they should see profits through at least Scary Movie 5. Not the sort of thing you do for artistic satisfaction, but a hell of a smart investment.

9t. Hoot
Weekend Take: $3.4M
Current Domestic Total: $3.4M

New Line must have been hoping for Holes-sized numbers, but they certainly didn’t get them. They kept their risk low by letting the deep pockets of Walden Media fund much of the $15M budget, but this is a disappointment to say the least.

9t. Akeelah and the Bee
Weekend Take: $3.4M
Current Domestic Total: $10.7

I wonder if it was a miscalculation by Lionsgate to give this the saturation-release treatment. This is the sort of uplifting movie you want to hang around in theatres for people to discover and spread the word about, but by blocking out 2,000 screens for it from the word go you all but guarantee it’s going to quickly be silenced and swallowed as bigger movies shove them off those screens. It should still be profitable, but I think they missed out on making a better impression both financially and in the hearts/minds of moviegoers.


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