Our good friend Dave Chen highlighted an article over at the Columbia Journalism Review this weekend that essentially posited that weekend box-office reports are not only pointless, but they’re misleading. They don’t tell the whole story and, in some cases, barely tell any of the story at all.
Once upon a time, six decades ago, such box-office numbers were critical to the fortunes of Hollywood. The major studios then owned most of the large theater chains and made virtually all of their profits from ticket sales at their own theaters. But as of the late 1940s, antitrust rulings forced the Hollywood studios to divest their theaters, and the theater business evolved into multiplex chains that the studios did not control. As television, home video, pay cable, DVDs, and now streaming have become ubiquitous in American homes, the studios have radically changed their business model, moving their profit centers from the large to the small screen, making the box-office race less relevant.
Even the numbers themselves are misleading. The reported “grosses” are not those of the studios but the projected sales of tickets at the movie houses in the US and Canada (which is counted by Hollywood as part of the US). Whatever the amount actually is, movie houses remit about 50 percent to the movie distributor, which then deducts, off the top, its out-of-pocket costs, which includes advertising, prints, insurance, local taxes, and other logistical expenses. For an average big-studio movie, these costs now amount to about $40 million—so, just to stay in the black, a movie needs $74 million in ticket sales. Many films don’t make that much, and even those that do may not be profitable.
The article’s author, Edward Jay Epstein, is absolutely right, and anyone who regularly reads movie blogs knows that (which is why not goddamn a week goes by without someone kvetching because I didn’t include worldwide totals in a box-office list). It’s largely why I use the weekly box-office reports, not as a means to relay the misleading numbers, but as an impetus to write a broader list, often more interesting for trivia’s sake than in imparting the actual story behind the success of a movie.
It’s difficult, however, for us to tell the whole story because those numbers aren’t available to us — we aren’t privy to how much a studio spends to market a film, how much prints costs, the percentage taken off the top by exhibitors, DVD sales and rental fees, licensing fees, money earned from television rights, or revenue generated from licensing a movie to Netflix or Amazon. Those numbers, as the article points out, are highly confidential. We use the numbers we are given, and create the only story we’re able to create, even if it’s only a snapshot of one weekend in the entire life of a movie.
We are interested in the horse race, and those of us that are invested in the industry side of things can gain some statistical satisfaction in finding out, for instance, that Wreck-It-Ralph led the box-office this weekend with nearly $50 million, making it the biggest weekend for a Disney animated film of all time (narrowly edging out Tangled) or that Denzel Washington’s Flight made a massive $25 on only 1800 screens, an unheard of number for a film released in so few theaters these days. Of course, that also raises another question: Why was a Denzel movie released in so few screens, and would it have made substantially more if it’d opened in 3,000+ screens, as is typical of movies with marquee stars?
That said, by focusing on the weekend numbers, we do miss out on some interesting successes that quietly rack up large amounts over several months in theaters, those that make a lot of money overseas, and those that make huge profits thanks to modest budgets. Again, I don’t know how much it costs to market these films, nor how much the studios made in other profit streams, but I do find it interesting that these ten films — rarely discussed as huge successes — all made more than $100 million in profit.
Basically, using the numbers provided — North American and Worldwide Box Office, plus the reported budgets for the films — I went through all the 2012 releases so far and found 10 films that you probably didn’t know made over $100 million in profit this year. The profit number in parenthesis is arrived at by subtracting the budget from the worldwide box office. Some of these were quiet successes, while others were considered by many to be failures at the American box office (note, too, that three films considered under performers in America just missed the cut: Battleship ($93 million in profit; Underworld Awakening $88 million; Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance $75 million).
1. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island ($246 million)
2. The Vow ($166 million)
3. American Pie Reunion ($165 million)
4. Resident Evil Retribution ($165 million)
5. Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ($124 million)
6. Woman in Black ($112 million)
7. The Dictator ($110 million)
8. Looper ($108 million)
9. Step Up Revolution ($106 million)
10. Devil Inside ($100 million)