One-and-Done (Part 1)

December 16, 2014
A thought by James Berardinelli

Link to "One and Done (Part 2)"
Link to "One and Done (Part 3)"

Is it an aberration? That's the question that haunts many of Hollywood's studio executives as they craft plans for the next few years. Is the box office downturn of 2014 a "blip on the radar" or a symptom of something that could herald a seed change in how films are made and marketed? For as long as there have been movies, there have been good years and bad years. The market ebbs and flows. But there are reasons to suspect this may be different. At issue isn't just 2014's admittedly tepid roster of titles but something else I have called the "one-and-done" phenomenon: huge opening weekends followed by unprecedented, dizzying drops. Some big films have made as much as 50%+ of their total domestic gross during their first week out. A movie was considered to have staying power if it was still making double-digit millions by weekend #3. It's not hard to understand why that would alarm Hollywood.

Back in the "old days," before home video changed the market, movies would often play in theaters for months before being retired. Memorial Day releases were still playing on Labor Day. Christmas movies could still be found when baseball season rolled around. Opening weekend grosses were sometimes inflated for high profile films (like the early James Bond titles) but there usually weren't significant differences between week #1 and week #8 for a strongly performing motion picture. By the early 1980s, when the number of households possessing VCRs was on the rise, things were changing. "Winning" the opening weekend had become a goal, not an accountant's footnote. This started when weekend box office totals slipped from trade publications into mainstream newspapers and became a marketing tool. After all, didn't "winning" at the box office say something about a movie's popularity (yes) and quality (no)?

By the mid-1990s, bigger films could generate as much as 25% of their total domestic gross during their first 3 days out. And, with the gap closing between theatrical opening and home video release (something that accelerated with the advent of the DVD), it wasn't unusual for many titles to have a total multiplex run of 4-6 weeks. Films like Titanic, which topped the box office for about four months, were rare. (The interesting thing about Titanic is that, although it was #1 for many, many weeks, on none of those occasions did it do mammoth numbers. It opened at $29M and its biggest single weekly gross was $60M - over Christmas week 1997. Titanic's hallmark was its consistency.)

Another factor that contributed to the genesis of this trend was the way in which Hollywood began to focus its marketing on teenage boys. This started in the '80s and was initially relegated to summer flicks (action and sci-fi primarily). In that era, the "teenage boy" demographic (actually males 11-22) was recognized as the most desirable because its members would flock to theaters on an opening weekend when there was something they wanted to see (and they would buy the associated merchandise). The introduction of the PG-13 rating opened the floodgates. Now younger kids could get into something "harder" without needing to be accompanied by a parent or guardian. By the end of the '80s, a lot of R movies were being softened to get a PG-13 and the PG rating had lost all relevance - an orphan trapped between Disney's animated G's and the teen-friendly PG-13.

The 2000s were an odd decade for Hollywood as the coveted "teenage boy" demographic withered away. Tastes changed and young males found playing increasingly "cinematic" video games to be more rewarding that going to multiplexes for a passive experience. "Event" movies still lured large numbers of teenage boys from their gaming consoles but they emerged in increasingly small numbers for non-"tent poles". Hollywood was perplexed while ignoring the rise of the teenage girl as a movie-going group. The floodgates haven't opened but the studios (at least some of them) are aware that well-made, female-oriented movies can result in a huge windfall. And girls are just as keen to see a movie rightnow as boys were 20 years ago - if not more so.

On an almost year-by-year basis, the importance of the first weekend expanded. By 2012, many big movies were making 1/4 to 1/3 of their total gross on that first weekend and drop-offs of 50% from week one to week two were common. But even as recently as last summer, no one foresaw what lay ahead on the 2014 landscape. One and done took everyone by surprise.

It didn't start right away. In fact, two of 2014's early success stories bucked the trend of recent years. Both The LEGO Movie and Captain America: Winter Soldier opened big and stayed strong. The LEGO Movie had a first weekend gross of $69M, dropped only 28% from its first to second weekend, and displayed consistency (with numbers > $10M) for six weeks. It made 27% of its total gross during its opening weekend. Captain America: Winter Soldier opened at $95M, dropped 57% during its first to second weekend, and had four strong weeks of double-digit million earnings before the "real" summer arrivals put it out to pasture. It made 37% of its total during its opening weekend.

But something in Captain America's performance augured what was to come. Big opening, big drop. It wasn't seen as alarming at the time because the film stayed strong for several weeks due to weak competition but the 57% fall-off was as unexpected as the near-$100M opening. The movie hit its $250M "target" but in an unconventional way. That's when the summer bloodbath started.

Weekend after weekend, big, shiny movies opened huge, challenging $100M, only to slide off a cliff the next weekend, giving way to something new. It started with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which garnered $111M during its first week out, fell by 60%, and finished with the first week comprising a stunning 54% of its total earnings. Godzilla followed two weeks later. Its numbers: $117M first week, 62% drop-off, 59% first-week to total ratio. Others included X-Men: Days of Future Past ($125M, 65%, 55%), Transformers 4 ($138M, 61%, 56%), and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ($102M, 49%, 49%). The bleeding finally abated with Guardians of the Galaxy ($134M, 53%, 40%). The jury is still out on the autumn titles. Interstellar had an opening week of $68M (of a currently projected $180M domestic total). Its other numbers: 44% first-to-second week drop, 38% first week-to-total ratio. Not "one-and-done" numbers. On the other hand, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 looked like this: $169M, 60%, 50% (based on a $340M projected final) - definitely "one-and-done" numbers.

The numbers associated with the would-be summer blockbusters are so similar that they're impossible to ignore and are indicative of a trend: see it immediately or don't bother. Of the high-profile summer films, only Maleficent and Guardians of the Galaxy bucked the trend. (A case can be made that Maleficent's success was at least partially the result of the absence of a Pixar release. And there's strong evidence that Guardians of the Galaxy was bolstered by repeat viewings.) Big movies have become like new toys: hot commodities when released but quickly discarded for the next shiny thing. This limits the potential earning power of any would-be blockbuster and, even considering overseas grosses, $200M to $250M isn't enough for films that often cost (when marketing is added in) significantly more than that.

If it's a trend, "one-and-done" is a cause of genuine alarm for everyone signing off on budgets in Hollywood. It creates an unsustainable model. These movies don't lose money but they don't make enough to keep the stock holders happy. Perception is at least as important as reality and the perception is that summer blockbusters should be making at least $300M. When 2014 closes, only two movies will likely have crossed the $300M mark: Guardians of the Galaxy and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1. By comparison, 2012 and 2013 each had three $400M+ movies. At least some of this can be attributed to "one-and-done."

So that's the groundwork. In Part 2, I'll look at the possible root causes for the "one-and-done" phenomenon and why I think this is the new playing field. In Part 3, I'll look into my crystal ball and see where the motion picture industry can go from here if, in fact, we have moved into an accelerated culture in which the shelf life of a big movie is only a few weeks.