What does Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and the Avengers have in common… besides Samuel L. Jackson? Each franchise has had one movie score over $200,000 in box office sales during their opening weekends. In Hollywood circles that is a big deal and a big indicator of a movie’s success, but is it? Is it really? You see box office numbers can be deceiving and it should go without saying that some of Hollywood’s biggest “successes” are also some of audiences’ worst movie-going experiences.
Spider-Man that’s a Lot of Money
Captain America: Civil War, debuted this past weekend with 181.8 million in opening weekend sales. That’s a pretty big deal, but those figures are not exactly a surprise to anyone. Superhero moves are hot these days, sequels usually tend to do better than their predecessors, and of course Marvel and Disney have perfected the art of the “hype.” Spider-Man, the original Sam Rami franchise -pre-emo Peter Parker- was the first movie to break the $100 million ceiling in opening box office weekend sales. This was back in 2002. Ten years later, another Marvel product, The Avengers, broke the vaunted $200 million ceiling setting the bar even higher, and studios have no intention to slow down. Everything from trailers to posters to viral internet videos are meant solely to put butts in seats. In fact, you non-nerds out there -we call you normies- may not even know it but this past Saturday was Free Comic Book Day. Guess, what comics Marvel gave out as part of their promotions? If you guessed Captain America and Civil War comics, you would be correct, and they’re not alone. DC was not far behind with a Suicide Squad comic featuring Harley Quinn, because that’s how you get big box office sales, but why do we care so much about box office sales?
The answer is actually two-fold. First, as Americans we always tend to have a winner mentality. Hollywood knows this better than most -they exploit it with every sports’ movie they have ever made. So, by declaring a movie as having the “biggest” opening weekend, or being the “first” in sales for the weekend, they are driving more people to the theaters for the second and third weekends. We all want to be part of “winning” and we don’t want to be left out of something other people are enjoying. Hollywood is very proactive in promoting their numbers, because they understand that we subconsciously take box office sales as an indicator of quality, or at least acceptability.
Secondly, the world is changing, and it has been changing since Toby McGuire swung after Willem Dafoe through the streets of New York. Think about how the entertainment industry has mutated in the past decade and a half -like a teenage boy bitten by a radioactive executive producer- and how this has affected the movie industry. In the bygone days of DVD and VHS, homes sales used to make up half of a movie’s revenue stream. Between 2012 and 2014 DVD sales saw an almost 10% drop and that number has been steadily declining ever since, while streaming service revenues increased by 32% during the same time frame. Now studios are left to rely solely on box office sales as their home release profits rapidly decline. Unfortunately, what that also means is that movies no longer has to withstand the test of time. All the major money is increasingly being made on the front end. Movies are becoming more and more about spectacle and hype than about quality and sustainability, and that means Hollywood is starting to care less and less about plot and more about using every trick in the book to get your butt in that seat on a Friday or Saturday night, especially if you happen to live in China.
Transformers: Age of External Market Growth
What does Battleship, Transformers, and Johnny Depp have in common… besides Samuel L. Jackson? In the United States each of those things has become box office poison, but scored big overseas. The shift in the entertainment industry has lead to a greater emphasis on foreign markets, especially in Asia and China where more and more Chinese people are finding themselves with disposable income and a taste for Michael Bay explosions. Johnny “Screw you Australia” Depp is the perfect example of this phenomenon. Have you wondered why in the name of the Carousal of Progress Disney is making another Pirates of the Caribbean movie? It’s because A-List celebrities still mean a lot with foreign markets. 2014’s Transcendence, the Depp helmed sci-fi flop only made $24 million in the States, but garnered over $80 million at global box offices. That still didn’t make it a hit, but it proved that Jack Sparrow could turn a profit. Disney is well aware of the power of the foreign markets, considering 54% of Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ $2 billion total box office came from foreign markets.
Take a look at Transformers: Age of Extinction, the movie no one was asking for. If you watched the latest Transformers abomination you would have noticed that the last half of the movie takes place in China… for no real reason whatsoever. This was done to appeal to Chinese audience. You may also have noticed a trend where movies seem to go out of their way to not offend and even pay tribute to the efficiency and honor of the Chinese government, because any movie that does criticize the Chinese Communist party stands no chance of making it past their censors. In fact, if you saw Iron Man 3 in a theater in Hong Kong, you would have been treated to an additional subplot starring two loyal Chinese scientists that never made it to American screens. The terrible remake of the movie Red Dawn, originally had Chinese villains, but when word reached the studio that the movie would not be shown in China the studio digitally altered the film in post production to make the enemies North Korean.
Why does Hollywood do this? Simply put, money. According to a recent study by the Motion Picture Association of America, almost 70% of a movie’s revenue now comes form overseas ticket sales. America may be still setting the trend for movies, be we are no longer the target audience. What’s even worse is that things like storytelling and nuanced humor go out the window with foreign targeted films. American humor doesn’t translate well into other languages, because concepts of humor are different across cultures, the same with many elements of emotional and subtle storytelling. However, what does translate well is explosions, and if you wonder why we are seeing more movies with CGI and big things blowing-up its because a fiery ball of death is truly our world’s universal language. This new emphasis is also one of the reasons why Marvel has begun releasing their movies one week earlier in overseas theaters. America is slowly becoming the second market to a lot of these big budget movies, because thanks to box office sales, Hollywood is now more eager to get into theaters in Beijing than New York.
This is all leading to a lopsided system. You see, the problem is that box office earnings -and especially opening weekend earnings- is that they are a bad indicator of a movie’s quality. Batman v Superman made $166.1 million in its opening weekend, despite sitting at a lousy 27% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s true that the movie had a significant drop-off in sales after the first weekend, but not before the studio raked in the cash both domestically and globally, enough to keep the DC train of pain going for a few more movies. Look at Avatar. When it opened it made over $77 million in its first weekend and ultimately grossed more than $2.8 billion. Unfortunately, that means we are now getting three more Avatar squeals coming up in the next few years, despite that fact that no one seems willing to tell James Cameron that people saw the movie for the 3D effects, and not the hackneyed soft-core blue alien Pocahontas story. In Hollywood, box office determines everything from what movies get made to the skin color of the actors that are cast, but is it even a reliable indicator of success?
Actually, there may not be a worse indicator of success, because the numbers can be deceptive. In fact, most opening weekend box office sales tend to be estimates, as the numbers are usually calculated on Saturday night with Sunday ticket sales extrapolated from past data. Also, these raw figures do not take into account things like budget or marketing expenses. So Avatar may have broken records with a $2.8 billion gross income in ticket sales, but if you take into account a $300 million budget, the movie only made a 933% return on investment. That’s really good, but if you look at a move like 1980’s Mad Max, which made $99.7 million on a $200,000 budget, it got a return of 24,837%. Yet, how many “Top Ten Box Office” lists is Mad Max on? In fact, you can break it down further and determine how much money was spent by studios per ticket sold. In 2011, the top three biggest movies were Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows II, ($381 million), Transformers: Dark of the Moon ($352.4 million), and the Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1 ($280.5 million)… Geez, that was a banner year for movies… Yet, if you break down sales by how much each studio spent per ticket sold you find out that Hangover 2 -yes, it truly was a banner year for movies- only cost the studios $2.50 per ticket sold to produce, whereas Transformers cost the studio $4.40 per ticket. Harry Potter and Twilight were able to keep the costs down at $2.61 and $3.12, respectively, because they shot two movies back to back and spread the cost out, but they were still not as profitable as a story about four drunk idiots making the same jokes they did two years earlier in a better movie.
Ultimately, this kind of ranking system says more about us than it does about the movies themselves. We put too much emphasis on which movie made more money, or who had a better opening weekend. Hollywood knows we are influenced by this sort of thing. They know that we all want to jump on the “bandwagon” and see what all the “hype” is about, and maybe the saddest part is that we no longer matter. Sp, even when America “votes with its wallets” against movies like Battleship and Transformers: Age of Extinction, all we do is prove how irrelevant we really are when compared with Asia and other places. These trends show no signs of slowing, so you had best get ready for more Avatars, more Pirates of the Caribbean, more Transformers, and more and more contests between studios to see who has the biggest box office in the boys’ locker room…
But if we can make one suggestion: Someone should really pull James Cameron aside and just tell him the truth already.