Box Office Round Up – January 8-10, 2016

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Get behind the numbers of the last weekend’s box office! This week, spurred by The Revenant’s record-breaking second place finish, Chris Neumer investigates how wise it is to release a movie in the weeks after the biggest box office hits. The extreme nature of the results will surprise you!

by Chris Neumer

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (The Force Awakens) continues to amaze at the box office. The movie has hit a point where the numbers are so out of whack with anything else in history that they have basically lost all meaning. This week’s installment of Star Wars crazy is this: The Force Awakens took in $42.4 million in its fourth weekend in theaters. That would be good for one of the 250 best openings of all time if it were eligible. $42.4 million is more than the original Shrek opened to. And The Force Awakens is in its fourth weekend!

I started thinking about this when I realized that The Revenant had the fourth best January opening of all time with a $39.8 million take… and it finished second in the weekend charts behind The Force Awakens. I squinted at the box office estimates and thought, “How odd is it that a movie could have the fourth best opening of January ever and not even take the top spot the weekend it opened?” I’m pretty sure it’s exactly what 20th Century Fox and director Alejandro González Iñárritu* are wondering right now.

* Alejandro González Iñárritu is probably my #1 one most copied-and-pasted Hollywood name. There isn’t a chance that I’ll get it right left to my own devices. Interestingly, Matthew McConaughey is #2 on that list. And, worse yet, in order to find his name online, I have learned to just google ‘Sahara’—it’s very short—and his name will inevitably appear in one of the first results.

In my estimation, this is like a baseball player somehow being named MVP without having made the All-Star team. It’s a weird and ultimately depressing accomplishment. It’s always somewhat of a shame when a well-made and well-received film doesn’t get the love and financial recognition that it seemingly deserves. I shook my head and thought, “They just released The Revenant at the wrong time.”

Yup, I victim blamed the movie.

When Furious 7 and The Avengers: Age of Ultron were released last year, I investigated the concept of a box office ‘rain shadow’.  A lot of box office pundits at the time were explaining how amazing it was that The Avengers: Age of Ultron pulled in almost $200 million its opening weekend. And it was great… for Disney, the company releasing the film. What I was curious to learn was whether one big movie, ala Furious 7 or Jurassic World, was good for Hollywood and theaters owners as well. The answer was that it was not. What I found was that about a billion dollars of movie tickets are sold in the month of May regardless of whether half that total goes to one individual film or is split somewhat equally amongst a number of films.

On the heels of The Revenant’s ground breaking second place finish, I began to wonder whether Fox really should have known better than to release The Revenant when it did. In short, how were other new movies impacted in the weeks immediately following record breaking films?

Intent on figuring this out, I decided to take a look at the results of the movies that came out in the two weeks immediately following the twenty five biggest box office hits of all time.*

* … minus any movies that were released before 1995. This meant excluding The Lion King, Star Wars, E.T., and Jurassic Park. It was such a different time before 1995, that the numbers wouldn’t have made sense. Star Wars’ box office total is missing weeks two and three, E.T. opened to $11.8 million and only dropped about 7% of that total in its eighth week in theaters—it made $10.4 million in its eighth weekend—and both The Lion King and Jurassic Park opened to totals in the $40 million range. So, yeah, different.

I’m not exactly sure what I was hoping to learn from these numbers—I’m well aware that when dealing with movie release schedules it’s near impossible to figure out what is causation and what is correlation—but I still went through the motions to see what I could see. What I found fit exactly what I was expecting: movies that are released in the immediate weeks after a huge hit open to much smaller than average takes.

There were 23 movies that opened one week after these huge hits. Those 23 new releases averaged a $36.2 million opening weekend. There were 19 movies that opened two weeks after these huge hits. These 19 movies averaged a $46 million opening weekend. And this pretty much stands to reason: the way the 25 biggest box office hits got on that list is because they made more money than any other films out there. Certainly they got a bigger piece of the pie. Thus, they took money from other films that probably would have earned more had they not been released immediately after a record breaking film. As the top 25 films began to wane in their third weekend in theaters, things began to settle down again and other new releases began to earn their keep again. In short, on average, releasing a film two weeks after a major hit earned studios 30% more money than releasing a film a week after a major hit.

The Revenant seemed safe insomuch as it came out three weeks after The Force Awakens… unfortunately for The Revenant, The Force Awakens is the biggest box office draw history has ever seen and the normal rules don’t apply to it.

Looking at the numbers in my research a little bit more closely, I quickly began to realize that, while the box office totals themselves can’t be argued with, there was one major footnote that tilted the numbers in such a manner that the true and shocking portrait of how bad of an idea it is to release new movies after huge hits was muted. That footnote is the concept of counter-programming.

Do you know why The Hunger Games and Twilight series would never release a movie in the same month, let alone the same weekend? Because they’d be splitting the same core audience. If a big movie like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest opens one weekend, no one would worry about opening a ridiculous comedy like Little Man around it because the two films’ audiences don’t especially overlap. The biggest gap between audiences for Hollywood releases is unquestionably the one between animated kids movies and action films. The two sets of target demographics are almost entirely independent of one another.

And the one element propping up the totals of the movies released a week after the biggest hits is this element of counter programming. The biggest opening weekend box office for a film released one week after one of the 25 biggest hits of all time was Inside Out’s $90.4 million. It’s a huge number… and it came on the heels of Jurassic World. The Day After Tomorrow’s $68.7 million was the second highest opening weekend for a film released one week after one of the 25 biggest hits of all time… and it came after Shrek 2. 2Fast 2Furious did $50.5 million in the week after Finding Nemo, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs did $41.7 million the week after Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and Grown Ups did $40.5 million the week after Toy Story 3. And these counter programming choices really brought up the figures. If you look at just the live-action releases that come after other live-action releases, that $36.2 million average opening weekend drops all the way down to $30.4 million.

To give you an idea of how poor that $30.4 million is, the average wide release in September, by far the worst month of the release calendar, earns $25.9 million.

The lesson? Unless it’s counter-programming, it’s not a good idea to release any films in the week after a huge blockbuster opens. Or, in the case of The Revenant, three weeks after The Force Awakens opened.

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