Box Office Earnings, Explained: Why Showing Up Matters at the Movies

Categories: Film and TV
The almighty dollar.
The accounting department at Disney is working overtime these days, burdened with tallying the ever-growing box office reports for the blockbuster superhero film, The Avengers. Since its April 25th release, the film has earned a reported $1 billion in box office sales worldwide; it also set the record for opening weekend box office with $207 million dollars in sales.

"Opening weekend" is a pretty self-explanatory term. But many people are asking themselves, "Why should I care, and why is this important?" To understand this is to understand the Hollywood machine, as well as the differences between the world of big-budget flicks and indie offerings. Film nerds and casual movie watchers alike should understand how their viewing habits this week impact what they will see next year.

So why are the opening numbers so important? Well, it's twofold. First, whoever tops the list of grosses in a weekend will get the considerable media attention, which in turn drives even more moviegoers to that film. Are we smart enough to make decisions on our own? Of course not! If you heard that everyone else in the world went to see, say, Dark Shadows last weekend, part of you would want to see what all the fuss is about. Hollywood knows this, and works it to their advantage.

Word of mouth is the best kind of publicity, but the other factor here is marketing. If a film has a good showing in its first week, studios ramp up marketing efforts in order to get more people in the theater the next week. If the news is reporting it, if your friends are talking about it, and if you can't turn around twice without seeing a giant ad for it, chances are you're going to go see it.

Big numbers also mean studios can expand into other theaters and demand more screens at existing theaters where the film's showing. This is why we've all walked into the Regal Cinemas South Beach and been surprised that there isn't that much to see. The blockbusters often play in as many as eight of its 18 screens.

As moviegoers, we often are frustrated that all we could find at the multiplexes is "the same kind of movies over and over again." These might seem like the complaints of a bored movie snob, but sadly, that doesn't make it less true. Movies get made based on their income potential. And one surefire way to insure a film is mega-profitable is rehashing the same tired plotlines and characters, in sequels or simply telling the same story over with different elements. (Big-name celebrities can play into this too -- but that's another post.)

When the box office receipts were announced on Monday, I guarantee that studios all over Hollywood were looking around for anything that could replicate The Avengers' success. The teams at Disney (which owns Marvel) are already planning the sequel. The predicament here is that if the sequel doesn't top the new records the original has set, it will be deemed a failure. The bar rises even higher when these giant movies rake in unheard of dough, and rather than tinkering with the recipe, Hollywood tries to mass-produce it. So expect big-budget, superhero films for the summer of 2013 and 2014 -- particularly if the new Spiderman and Batman films do anywhere near as well as The Avengers. If they do (and they'll do pretty damn well, I think), then get used to men in tights and capes on the big screen for the next few years.

Frustrated with their choices, many moviegoers have delved into the world of independent movies where budgets are smaller, bigger risks are taken, and many films are funded by individual investors allowing filmmakers to tell their unique stories with less meddling. The definition of success is different here, too. The biggest "indie hit" of 2011 was Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, which took in $56 million in the U.S. Some would argue that Woody Allen doesn't necessarily qualify as truly indie, and while that may be true, it's also worth pointing out that was the biggest financial success of his career.

Another indie, The Artist, grossed over $44 million, and the majority of that didn't happen until early 2012 -- after all the raving film reviews, top ten lists, and the Academy Award nominations and wins. Still, films by directors as noted as Lars Von Trier and Pedro Almodovar made less than $4 million domestically apiece, but still were considered respectable. One of the biggest recent surprises here is the recently released The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a ensemble comedy of big-name British actors (Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson) about a group of retirees who move to a resort community in India. It's taken in nearly $5 million in its first three weeks, making it a hit in indie terms. But compare that to any of the mainstream films released, and you have yet another example of how far removed the indie realm and Hollywood are.

All of this is to simply say that at the end of the day, the power lays solely with the public. You can tell Hollywood what you want to see by what you show up to see. I might be biased here, but why not give your neighborhood art house a try? If you truly want to see something different than big budget mainstream fare, then send a message -- and the only way to do that is to vote with your feet. What you watch today dictates what you see tomorrow.

Kareem Tabsch is the co-founder and co-director of O Cinema.

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Alex Fumero
Alex Fumero

You should do a piece on how poorly Miami performs at the box office compared to other major cities.  On a per capita basis, I mean.  

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