Shiver Me Timbers!

July 10, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

$132 million. I'll be damned. I didn't think it was physically possible for a 155-minute movie to make that much money over a three-day weekend.

Consider the following... (All numbers are rounded off) Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (or Pirates 2, as it will hereafter be called) opened on about 8500 screens. The average countrywide price of a ticket is about $6.40. (This takes into account matinee and evening prices, as well as cheap locales and expensive ones.) For a 155-minute movie, the average theater can accomodate roughly 4 showings per day. (10:30 am, 2:00 pm, 5:30 pm, 9:00 pm) It's tough to guess at the average auditorium size, but let's say for argument it's 250. Doing the math (8500 screens x 4 showings per day x 3 days x 250 seats x $6.40), we end up with about $163 million, which means that over its opening weekend, the film played to (on average) 81% full houses. That's a lot of sold out shows. Amazing.

Here's something else to mull over. If the movie was about 95-100 minutes long, which it could easily have been with tighter scripting and editing, it could have expanded to six showings per day (10:00 am, 12:30 pm, 3:00 pm, 5:30 pm, 8:00 pm, 10:30 pm). That would have inflated its earning potential to $245 million. That probably represents the ultimate ceiling of a 8500-print movie opening on a 3-day weekend.

This weekend, Superman Returns played in about the same number of theaters as Pirates 2. It's about the same length. Doing a little reverse arthimatic, that means that, for it to make $22 million, there were an average of 35 people at each showing of the movie. Not bad, until you consider how full those Pirates 2 auditoriums were.

One could argue that Pirates 2 had the "perfect storm" of openings. It's family-friendly. It's action-packed. It's a blockbuster sequel. It has been well marketed. It comes during the year's peak movie-going season. And it follows a summer of mildly disappointing and underperforming movies. (To-date, only X-Men 3 has been better received than expected. Everything else, from Mission: Impossible 3 to Superman Returns, has made less than forecast, even though only Poseidon can be considered a financial failure, and it will likely recoup its costs overseas and on DVD.

Is there a lesson for Hollywood in all this? Perhaps. Trying to distill the elements that have made Pirates 2 phenomenally successful into a formula is a fool's errand, but two things should be kept in mind. People love sequels, and they love sequels even more when there's a broad-based appeal. Kids love Pirates 2. Parents love Pirates 2. Unaccompanied adults love it. It's a good date movie. Perhaps most importantly, teenagers love it. Incredibly, this is a movie that hits all demographics. That's what Hollywood should be paying attention to.

In May, I thought either The Da Vinci Code or Cars would top the summer box office. I was wrong. However, about a month ago, I changed my opinion to Pirates 2. I saw the way the wind was blowing. It will be interesting to see whether the movie can weather the second week drop-off syndrome that has plagued everything else last year and this year. Still, even a 50% fall-off would be impressive. Not many movies can claim to pull in $65 million during a first weekend, let alone a second.

Pirates 2 is a sure shot to reach $300 million, and I wouldn't bet against it topping the $400 million mark, but what about it taking aim at Titanic? That would surprise me. Today's movie market doesn't seem capable of supporting the kind of rabid, repeat viewing that was necessary to keep the sinking ship afloat. To reach Titanic, Pirates 2 would have to top the box office all the way into October. Considering how weak the rest of the summer slate is, that's not unreasonable. But a bigger obstacle is the traditional nosedive that the box office takes in August and September. People go to the beach and the mountains then back to school during that period, not to multiplexes. To match Titanic, Pirates 2 would have to reach $400 million (at a minimum) by the end of July. And, as impressive as the movie has been in its first three days, I'm not sure it's capable of that feat.

Of course, the real question is: What's the potential of Pirates 3?