Figuring Out the 2009 Box Office

March 17, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

It's all about the green - could there be a better subject for today?

I recently read an article in which the author referred to the early 2009 box office as "inexplicable." I must challenge that description. Confusing? Perhaps. Surprising? Undoubtedly. But inexplicable? Let's take a closer look…

Before beginning, however, perhaps there's another question that needs to be addressed. Why should we, as ordinary movie-goers, care about box office receipts? After all, "tickets sold" isn't a spectator sport and it really isn't "news," as much as newspapers and columnists might want us to believe. Is it relevant whether Movie X makes $25 million or $50 million during its debut weekend? Actually, it is, and that's why box office grosses are important. The studios follow the dollar trail. "Show me the money!" cried Cuba Gooding Jr. , and Hollywood listens to this mantra as if it was issued by E.F. Hutton. Studios are first and foremost businesses and their operations are driven by financial (not artistic) concerns. If a film is economically successful, it will become a template. There will be sequels and copycat productions. If a film fails, it is unlikely that something similar will be greenlighted in the future. So box office totals today will be influential in determining what we see tomorrow. And that's why they are important, at least to those who care about such things. Following weekly box office receipts is not merely an academic exercise.

Thus far, 2009 has not gone according to plan. At the end of 2008, pundits looked at the release schedule for the January through March period and pronounced it anemic. Factoring in the economic situation, it was reasonable to assume that the box office would be down compared to the same three months in 2008. Someone forgot to tell ticket buyers that. Multiplex revenue is up across-the-board. Customers are lining up to see unexpectedly popular pictures. But is this inexplicable? No.

For those who care to look, there are clues to what's going on. The biggest of these can be found in the answer to the question of who is making up the "delta" increase. It's not the multiplexes' bread-and-butter crop of 12-to-35 year olds, an age block that has become the engine that drives the industry. Instead, we're seeing larger numbers in the 35+ year old range going to movies. Or perhaps "returning to movies" might be a better phrase, since DVD sales are significantly down. Are older viewers forgoing DVD purchases in favor of gritting their teeth and returning to teen-oriented multiplexes? The numbers indicate this could be the case.

The two highest grossing films (thus far) in 2009 are Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Taken, neither of which is targeted at teens. Both films have exceeded expectations based primarily on middle-aged adult attendance. The former has become a popular family film, with 30-something and 40-something parents accompanying kids in the 8-to-11 year old range. That latter, in part because of Liam Neeson and in part because of good marketing, has attracted viewers who normally stay at home and wait for the DVD.

Undoubtedly, the economy is in part responsible for the success of these two movies. Multiplex tickets are still among the most inexpensive forms of entertainment and it's a lot easier to lose oneself in a motion picture while watching it on a big screen than at home on a 40" television. Regardless of the underlying causes, the effect is that the teen influence on the box office this year has been counterbalanced, and that is resulting in a fundamental shift in what is being deemed "hot."

Then there's the case of Watchmen, which has underperformed by all reasonable standards. The reasons are simple and well-understood. The movie appealed to no one outside its core audience and only the most ardent die-hards came back to see it a second or third time. Event movies need huge audience bases and enough love by fans that multiple viewings are taken for granted. Watchmen's anemic sub-$100 million accumulation (it may eventually get to that level, but it won't go above by much) is an indication of a major miscalculation - the same kind of thing that New Line Cinema made with The Golden Compass - a mistake that brought down the studio responsible for The Lord of the Rings.

What lesson will the studios take away from Watchmen? Not that superhero/comic book movies are unprofitable - there have been a multitude of counter-examples to that. Not even that non-franchise superhero movies are unprofitable. Instead, it's that expensive non-traditional superhero movies must be approached with care. Had Watchmen cost only $50 million to make, it would have been deemed successful. But, with an estimated $130 million budget, it has become an expensive disaster. Sin City, on the other hand, is viewed in a positive light even though, throughout its entire run, it made less than Watchmen accrued in 10 days. But Sin City cost only $40 million. Combining its domestic gross with its overseas totals, it made about $160 million, with another $20 million or so on DVD. Applying the "2.5" rule (divide the total by 2.5 to get an estimate of what comes back to the studio), there's a healthy profit. For Watchmen, domestic box office + foreign box office + DVD/Blu-Ray must equal $325 million for Warner Brothers to break even. That isn't likely to happen. We may never be treated to another Watchmen, but more Sin Citys are not out of the question.

It will be interesting to see whether audiences' "new" viewing habits will persist into the summer or whether trends of the past will re-assert themselves. On the surface, this looks to be a weak summer, with Transformers 2 likely to take the crown (followed closely by Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince). The two biggest wildcards are probably Star Trek and Angels and Demons, both of which should benefit greatly from increased adult attendance. (Although Star Trek is trying hard for the teen dollar as well - a strategy that could lead to either a huge success or a titanic failure, depending on whether teens take the bait.) Whatever happens, we won't have to wait long to find out. But if the winter is anything to go by, a lack of summer "juice" isn't going to stop the multiplex cash registers from ringing.