Box Office Round Up – May 1-3, 2015

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Get behind the numbers of the last weekend’s box office. This week, The Avengers: Age of Ultron was unleashed on theaters and took home the second biggest opening weekend ever. This being current society, some people have found fault with that. Chris Neumer delves into what the studios think of this and what will send shivers up Disney’s spine in the coming months.

by Chris Neumer

And summer is upon us. The word ‘summer’ conjures up many different thoughts to many different people. For the Hollywood studios, ‘summer’ means money! Starting the first weekend of May and ending the first weekend of August, the studio’s summer also, uniquely, doesn’t correlate with any definition of summer that anyone else is actually familiar with, but I digress.

Despite the fact that summer movies ultimately make up significantly less than half of the studios’ revenue—summer movies made up 39% of the total box office in 2014—the studios put a lot of effort into their releases. There are a lot of half-assed theories I could quote by notable box office pundits who attempt to explain why this is, but the truth is that no one really knows; it doesn’t seem especially reasonable to think that kids would buy more Avengers action figures in May than in September, nor does it seem like The Avengers would take a box office hit if it opened over a four day weekend like Thanksgiving than it would a regular weekend in May, does it?

But this is the way things are. The biggest movies of the year tend to open in May. Or, more accurately, the movies that the studios want to be the biggest hits of the year tend to open in May. This past weekend, The Avengers: Age of Ultron opened to spectacular, crazy, insane numbers: its opening weekend brought in an estimated $187.6 million. That is the second highest opening weekend ever, some $13.5 million more than the film with the previous second highest opening weekend, Iron Man 3.

Unfortunately for The Avengers: Age of Ultron, the highest opening weekend in history went to its immediate predecessor, Marvel’s The Avengers, which opened to $207.5 million. I say ‘unfortunately’ because this tidbit of information gives a lot of critics, armchair pundits and online journalists something to which the most recent installment can be compared. This, in turn, gives people the opportunity to trumpet that The Avengers: Age of Ultron is a disappointment.

Expectations are an unusual beast. If The Avengers: Age of Ultron was released in a vacuum, it would be a phenomenal success story. Disney would be floating with glee and trying to figure out whether they could physically go swimming in their box office receipts ala Scrooge McDuck. However, since the original Avengers film grossed more than The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi combined (or Pirates of the Caribbean and Iron Man combined) and expectations for the new Avengers sequel were incredibly high—Deadline.com reported that insiders thought the new film could potentially do $230 million its opening weekend—its ultimate take of roughly $190 million was seen as a tad disappointing insomuch as it was well under the informed predictions.

While I understand this logic, I don’t especially agree with it. If The Avengers: Age of Ultron continues on this path and makes 90.4% of Marvel’s The Avengers $623 million cumulative take, that would place its total at $563 million and change.  And Disney would be very happy. Maybe it’s just me, but if Disney made a movie that needed to both have the highest opening weekend in history and be one of the top three grossing films of all time in order to turn a profit or be viewed as a success, I think it’d be time for them to do some heavy reinvestigation of their business model.

From a studio perspective though, I can completely understand while The Avengers: Age of Ultron’s declining box office numbers could give them pause. Sure they’re incredibly happy at the immensely lucrative results, but there is now a nagging question planted in the back of their minds: what does this mean for the next Avengers movie: The Avengers: Infinity War Part 1?

I don’t think it should come as much of a surprise to anyone that future installments of movie franchises are green lit because they are expect to earn gobs and gobs of money for the studios. Sequels are handed larger budgets, bigger stars and better release dates precisely because the studios expect them to earn more money. Thus, studios always want to see their latest franchise installments doing better than their previous ones. When a sequel opens to lower numbers (or ends up with a lower cumulative number) than its predecessor, the studios stop and take notice. This is how the plug ended up getting pulled on The Amazing Spider-Man series. Even with a $202 million domestic box office, The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s still grossed $60 million less than the original. As an aside, what I find far more interesting is the fact that The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s opening weekend was roughly $30 million higher than the original’s was, $91.7 million to $62 million.

Nonetheless, Sony looked at The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s performance and decided that it was not sustainable to continue on that trajectory with the franchise and gave it the (re)boot.

In no way do I expect Disney to do anything similar with The Avengers. As a matter of fact, I’m guessing that they will film the series’ final two parts simultaneously. However, I was curious to see a statistical history of how major blockbuster franchises did going from the first film to the second. I took a look at the top 75 biggest opening weekends of all time and compared all the original franchise titles on that list from this century to see whether it was fair to expect a higher return on the second film than the first. The answer is unequivocally yes.

There are 16 franchises that fit the aforementioned criteria: they had a top 75 opening weekend, were released in the year 2000 or later and had sequels. I should point out that I did not include the Avengers series in this chart because of its (current) lack of a final cumulative number. Only four of the 16 franchises had a second film that opened to less money than the original: Harry Potter, Spider-Man, The Hobbit and Star Trek. Not exactly a murderer’s row there.  The second films in those series’ as well as in Iron Man, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Hangover series’ finished with less money cumulatively than the originals.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron has the second highest opening weekend drop off the original film’s total of all the franchises, earning an estimated $19.8 million less than the original. Spider-Man 2 is #1 on that list, opening to $26.7 less than the first film.

It’s an incredibly small sample size without many ‘obvious’ take aways. Frankly, the only thing I saw that happened in 75% of the cases or more was that the second film opened to more money than the first. Earning less opening weekend money on the second film than the first is certainly not the death knell for a franchise either; I’d argue that would be having the second film open to substantially higher numbers and close with a much lower cumulative total, ala The Hangover or The Amazing Spider-Man. Given that the second installments of Iron Man and Harry Potter grossed less than the first, it’s proof that franchises can most definitely bounce back in their next installments.

However, if you’re gauging the health of franchises, the one general commonality amongst the best and brightest ones are that their second installment does better than the first. Such was the case with Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek, The Hunger Games and even Twilight. Of course, the first two films in The Avengers series have already out grossed the first two installments of every franchise ever, so worrying about things like this does seem a little trivial.

If there’s one take away from all this, it’s that when releasing sequels, you do not want them to open to numbers that dwarf the original and finish with a cumulative total that pales in comparison to the original. Or, what I am now calling the ‘Amazing Spider-Man’.

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