For nearly a decade now, morning talk shows and round-the-clock cable news channels have routinely announced the weekend box-office rankings. Why? Partly because they can. In 1997 and 1998, the various Websites that now provide overnight BO figures went online, and typically they post estimates for the weekend on Sunday afternoons. That’s great for those of us who write about films for a living. During the years when The Lord of the Rings was coming out, I looked in on Box Office Mojo  almost daily as part of my research for The Frodo Franchise. But why would a college student or a lawyer or a dentist care about what film “won” the weekend?
I suppose it’s partly the notion that box-office takes are like scores in a contest. The number one film is the winner, and people tend to like to hear about winners. The news covers big lottery results, even though virtually none of us is affected by them. I suppose, too, that there’s a vague assumption that if a film is packing them in, people must like it and therefore it’s worth seeing. Thus reports of big ticket sales in many cases may prolong the a film’s success.
The trouble with this is: Although gross BO returns are the only things getting reported on TV news, they are far from the only gauge of a film’s success. There’s a lot more to be learned by browsing through a site like Box Office Mojo.
First, consider the total number of screens a film is playing on. These days big films routinely start out in around 3000 theaters, and a few that are virtually guaranteed to be hits start out in even more (3858 for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, 4223 for Shrek 2). In multiplexes, they play on two or even three screens. Unless a blockbuster is released on the same weekend as another blockbuster (and the studios juggle their schedules to avoid such confrontations), it’s almost bound to win the weekend.
But how many people are in each of those theaters? If you were the owner of a small local chain of movie-houses, you’d care more about that than the total gross. Anything over $5000 per theater is considered reasonably successful, but usually the top films do better than that. This past weekend, for example, the chart’s topper, The Departed, averaged $8911, and runner-up Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning pulled in $6563. Not great, but decent.
Judged by per-screen averages, there are quite a few independent and foreign films playing in art houses that do very well indeed. The current indie hit Little Miss Sunshine opened in only seven theaters its first weekend (July 28-30), but it brought in $52,999 in each. (It had actually opened July 26, so that was actually a five-day count.) It was only number twenty in the weekend BO race, but on the basis of its early success, it eventually topped out at 1602 theaters and is still playing in 824.
Even now, though, after eleven weeks in release, Little Miss Sunshine has “only” grossed $55,010,203. Does that mean it’s actually not a hit? The same news sources that announce the top films of the weekend often mention when a film crosses the $100 million dollar mark. That’s a sort of benchmark for a blockbuster to be labeled a success—or it used to be, before productions budgets ballooned into the multi-hundred-million-dollar range.
That’s the other big figure, of course: the budget. Miami Vice makes for an interesting comparison with Little Miss Sunshine. Miami Vice just went out of distribution a week ago, on October 5. It had been in theaters for ten weeks, and its domestic total gross was $63,450,470. Little Miss Sunshine has now been out for eleven weeks and is number eleven on the BO chart. Its total may creep up to a point somewhere close to Miami Vice’s by the time it leaves theaters. The difference is, Miami Vice cost about $135 million and Little Miss Sunshine was bought by its distributor, Fox Searchlight, for a reported $8 million at the Sundance Film Festival. So although Miami Vice topped the chart on its opening weekend and Little Miss Sunshine never climbed higher than the number three slot (on its fifth weekend), it’s pretty clear which one was a hit.
That strategy of opening a film in only a small number of theaters is called “platforming.” It’s done with small films that the distributors think will get good reviews and word-of-mouth. If it fails, at least the company will have saved on prints and advertising (P& A).
P & A create costs for the distributor that often go well beyond the announced production budget. A major Hollywood company can spend tens of millions of dollars on them. In extreme cases P & A add fifty per cent to the total cost of making, marketing, and distributing a film. The public seldom hears figures for P & A, so people may get the impression that a film is more profitable for its maker than it really is.
Of course not all the money in those high gross figures announced on Monday mornings goes back to the studio. Across a film’s run, on average about half of its ticket income stays with the theater owner (and more than that overseas). So a Hollywood film has to gross roughly twice its production and P & A costs just to break even. That actually doesn’t happen all that often, so the studio makes its real profits on the DVD (which costs little to make and brings in about $11 in profit per disc to its maker).
The “horse race” figures announced by news sources are just for domestic grosses (that is, the USA and Canada). These days, big blockbusters tend to make more abroad than domestically. The Lord of the Rings, for example, took in about two thirds of its gross BO outside North America. Little Miss Sunshine, however, probably won’t do so well abroad. Comedies tend not to, given that different cultures have different senses of humor, and comedies also depend on dialogue that may not be conveyed well by subtitles.
All these factors (except P & A costs) can be traced on Box Office Mojo. Follow links on the menu at the left to find weekend BO summaries for any weekend since the site began. These include numbers of theaters, the percentage of change in each film’s earnings, the film’s production budget (where known), per-theater averages, and total earnings to date. (Weekly charts are also available.) The site also covers “international” BO (i.e., outside North America) and “worldwide” (i.e., really worldwide).
That “percentage of change in each film’s earnings” is another key to why winning the first weekend isn’t the most important factor. If a film has legs, as Little Miss Sunshine has, its percentage change from one weekend to the next will be low. A drop of over 50% is generally bad news. Miami Vice dropped 60.2% its second weekend, from first to fourth place on the chart, while the surprise hit The Devil Wears Prada went down only 38.6%. After Brokeback Mountain earned a record-breaking $109,485 per screen on its opening weekend, it expanded from five to sixty-nine screens, and its second weekend percentage rose 358.2%.
On a grander scale, Box Office Mojo charts of all-time BO winners . These can be accessed for domestic, international, or worldwide, and even broken down by genre and other categories. Newscasters like these charts, too, and occasionally when a new film breaks into the top ten, as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest recently did, they announce the fact.
Dead Man’s Chest is currently number three in the elite group of films that have grossed over a billion dollars worldwide, with Titanic at number one and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King number two. Usually that’s taken to mean that these three have earned more than any other film ever made. Uh, not exactly …
That’s only in unadjusted dollars. Inflation has driven tickets prices gradually up, and naturally films released at a time when one commonly pays around $8 to get into a movie will make more on average than those released thirty years ago. Unfortunately it’s impossible to adjust all the miscellaneous currencies for all the countries where movies are shown, so Box Office Mojo can only offer a chart of domestic BO grosses adjusted for inflation.
On the unadjusted domestic chart , Titanic is number one, Dead Man’s Chest number six, and Return of the King number nine. Adjusted for inflation , though, they are at numbers six, forty-four, and forty-nine, respectively. The real top three money-makers in theatrical release are Gone with the Wind, Star Wars, and The Sound of Music.
Box Office Mojo is a fun site to click around, either to trace the fortunes of your favorite titles or to get a general sense of how the film industry works. You can search any title and get a set of basic figures on it. And you can talk back to your TV on Monday mornings and say, “Ha! But what about the per-screen averages?”