January 12, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

If you listen to the mainstream media, Peter Jackson's King Kong is a failure - a box office dud that has underperformed since it opened a week before Christmas. The reality, as is sometimes the case, is less dire. Kong is performing respectably. No one is going to take a bath on this one - in fact, Universal stands to make a tidy profit. And Peter Jackson's name will not go down in the annals of cinema alongside that of Michael Cimino.

Perspective in this case is a matter of expectations. A week before King Kong opened, someone asked how much I thought it would make. I responded, "Between 200 and 250 million dollars." (I was refering to the domenstic gross, not the worlwide take.) This was based more on a hunch than anything else, although there were numbers to back me up. The 1976 version of King Kong grossed $52 million. That's when ticket prices were in the $2.00 range. If you convert 1976 movie dollars to 2006 movie dollars, you get a number between $200 million and $250 million. I see no reason to believe that Kong's popularity has skyrocketed in the last 30 years, better special effects notwithstanding. (After all, the 1976 production had top-notch effects for its day - it even won an Academy Award for them.)

A lot of analysts, possibly carried away by drinking too much eggnog, projected Return of the King-like numbers (between $350 million and $400 million) for King Kong, which was nonsensical. Not only does Kong lack the rabid built-in LOTR fan base, but it isn't the conclusion of a trilogy. Expecting it to perform at that level (or higher) was asking for it to fall short.

King Kong reached its core audience: males between the ages of 11 and 40. Older men were less inclined to see the film, with the nostalgia factor not wielding enough influence to get them into theaters. Women of all ages were disinclined to see the movie. My wife enjoyed it, but she married me, so she must have an affinity for monsters. But she's an exception. As Titanic showed, the way to make really big money at multiplexes is to find a movie that appeals to males and females, and gets members of both groups to come back again and again. King Kong is not such a production.

The final numbers for King Kong are not yet in. The movie has about another month of theater time left to it, although by then it will be relegated to the 120-seat auditorium in the back of the 'plex. To date, it has made $192 million domestically and $270 million overseas. Those numbers will inflate over the next few weeks, probably ending up around $220 million and $320 million, respectively. How can anyone consider $550 million a failure for a production that cost around $200 million?

The "old" rule of thumb was that a movie had to domestically gross 2.5 times its production cost to break into the black. But that precept went out the window about 15 years ago. The "new" rule of thumb is that a movie has to domestically gross its production cost to break into the black. (The thinking is that the overseas money will take care of the difference.) So, before King Kong sees the DVD shelf, it will be making money. (Of course, Universal's well-paid accountants will find a way to put it into the red.)

But the bottom line is that it's pointless for the average Kong fan or movie-goer to wonder or worry overmuch about how much the film has made. Yes, if you like Jackson, you want it to do well. But the box office numbers aren't going to impact his reputation or delay his next feature. Jackson made King Kong for himself and other fans of the big ape. And by that determination as well as any other reasonable one I can think of, it's hard to consider King Kong to be anything other than a rousing success.