Hollywood Economics 101

May 07, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

A couple of months ago, I wrote a column providing a superficial analysis of the rhythm of the 2009 box office. More than one reader questioned why the revenue accrued by any motion picture should be of interest to movie-goers. After all, there is no direct relationship between gross profit and quality. In fact, some cynics might argue that there is an inverse relationship. Nevertheless, Hollywood producers follow the money with the tenacity of bloodhounds tracking a scent, so analyzing box office totals today allow us to understand what's going to be playing in multiplexes tomorrow. At no time during the year is this more true that when the industry's "summer" begins.

Before looking ahead, let's briefly look back to 2008…

Last May offered several important lessons. When Iron Man exploded out of the gate with tremendous reviews and a higher first weekend gross than anyone expected, lingering questions about an Iron Man 2 were wiped away. In fact, not only was a sequel announced, but its release date (April 30, 2010) was made public. (Release dates, it should be noted, are not as static as one might suppose. Just ask the producers of Titanic. Or Star Trek. Or Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Just because Iron Man 2 is being advertised for April 30 of next year doesn't mean that's when it's going to open.) The news wasn't as good for two other big May releases. Prince Caspian, while not performing dreadfully, undershot Disney's expectations by such a wide margin that the studio announced it was pulling the plug on the third Narnia movie, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. 20th Century Fox stepped into the breach, but it's no longer clear whether the original idea of filming the entire Narnia saga is feasible. Worse than the disappointment of Prince Caspian was the catastrophe of Speed Racer. Not only did this make the would-be franchise Kryptonite in Hollywood, but it torpedoed the already collapsing fortunes of the Wachowski Brothers.

Now, back to the future…

What, if anything, does the first weekend performance of Wolverine tell us? When it comes to the most intriguing question - whether widespread downloading of a work print compromised the movie's drawing power - the numbers don't make a strong case one way or the other. Although it's true that Wolverine underperformed based on early projections (garnering $85 million versus an expected $90-95 million), it did not do so to an extent that piracy is the obvious culprit. In fact, since the box office declined dramatically on Saturday and Sunday, it seems more likely that weak word of mouth was the primary contributing factor.

Will we be looking at another Wolverine movie? Probably not. Despite its strong initial surge, it would be surprising for this production to show legs. The competition - Star Trek this weekend and Terminator: Salvation in two weeks - will gut the target audience pool. And there is so little enthusiasm about the movie in hard-core fanboy circles that there isn't going to be widespread repeat viewing. People will move on to the other summer movies. So, despite the impressive $85 million first weekend gross, Wolverine could end up struggling to total more than $150 million. Since expectations were that it would exceed $200 million, that makes it a financial failure by Hollywood standards. And failure equates to "no sequel." However, that doesn't mean the X-Men spin-offs are done. Bring on Magneto!

What about Star Trek? This one is hard to project because there are two wild cards: (1) whether the non-Trekkie push will open this movie up to a wide embrace, and (2) whether skeptics will be convinced by the nearly unanimous rapture voiced by film critics far and wide. This is a rare case when a major studio has factored reviews into the marketing scheme of a major summer release. Once it realized the critics were in its corner, Paramount dropped all embargoes, scheduled numerous press screenings, and encouraged reviewers to post their reviews as soon as humanly possible. The result: a Rotten Tomatoes rating north of 90%, and even the "negative" reviews are more mixed than nasty.

Paramount has all-but-conceded that there will be a sequel. Expectations are for an opening weekend draw of about $75 million. However, since fan reaction is expected to be rapturous and word-of-mouth will liken the movie to a religious experience, Paramount believes the second weekend dropoff won't be precipitous, especially considering that the main competition, Angels & Demons, doesn't play to an identical target group. Ultimately, $170 million is probably the magic number. If Star Trek breaks through that ceiling, there will be another installment. If it exceeds $200 million, the executives at Paramount will be swilling Romulan ale in celebration while doing unspeakable things with tribbles.

When comparing 2009's Star Trek to its bold predecessors, adjustments for inflation must be taken into account. Of the previous 10 Treks, the only one to achieve true mainstream acceptance and vault over the $100 million bar was Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. For those who don't remember it, that's the one with the whales. In 1986 dollars, it made $109 million, with an opening weekend gross of $17 million. The biggest opening weekend for a Star Trek movie belonged to installment 8, First Contact. That made $31 million. (Trivia note: All of the Star Trek movies finished #1 for their respective opening weekends except Nemesis, which was #2 behind Maid in Manhattan.)

So when 2009's Star Trek surpasses $31 million (which will probably happen late Friday or early Saturday), it will officially become the biggest opening weekend earner of the series. When it exceeds $109 million (which will probably happen some time next week), it will become the all-time Star Trek box office champ. For inflation-adjusted numbers, it needs to break $50 million for the weekend and $211 million overall. The former is a given; the latter remains uncertain. Stay tuned to see whether Trek in 2009 can trump Trek in 1986.

Hollywood economics tells us that, if you're a fan of Star Trek and want another movie, you have a box office rooting interest. Hope for big numbers. For while pure-blood cineastes may turn up their noses at the concept of analyzing box office tallies, Trekkies around the world will have a much different opinion this weekend.

STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME - The Current TREK box office king. Is it about to be dethroned?