Producers and directors seem to really hate all the emphasis on box office and budgets in the media. Costner is always talking about how Waterworld was, well, dead in the water before it was ever screened because of all the coverage about the skyrocketing budget. And maybe he has a point; what difference should it make to the person in the theatre how much money a movie cost or profited if they’re enjoying it, right?
But if you really follow the industry, and want to understand the decisions that get made and the context that surrounds a given film, you have to pay attention. For better or worse, money is by leaps and bounds the dominant force in moviemaking, and the weekend box office return is what determines who will have jobs on Monday, who will be struggling for work, and who will get promoted. The simple fact of the matter is that the single best way to tell what will be out on this weekend next year is to look at the box office returns for this past weekend.
Here’s an example that I bet a lot of people will miss. This weekend, The Return opened with little fanfare to just about $4.5 million dollars, and effectively put an end to the Asian-influenced supernatural horror films of the last five years. See, back in ’02, two movies came out that sent the horror genre on two different paths simulateously: Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever and Gore Verbinski’s The Ring. While not a conventional genre pic, Cabin Fever was in spirit and execution a throwback to the hardcore seventies grindhouse style of horror. Gritty, low-budget, un-stylized films with intense gore and nudity, but with some subtle thematic and cultural resonance in the best of them. Movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Halloween… if you notice the pattern here, you already know how this side of the story turns out. Roth created commercial possibilities for Rob Zombie, Alexander Aja, James Wan, and Hollywood quickly jumped on board with remakes of the previously mentioned films, with still more on the way. In fact, because the budgets- and the expectations- are so low on those films, they remain very popular and you can rest assured that we’re going to see more of them (I’m particularly curious to see what Rob Zombie does with the Halloween franchise).
On the other side, The Ring demonstrated great legs, good word of mouth, decent reviews, and its $128 million dollar domestic haul catapulted Naomi Watts to stardom. Based on Hideo Nakata’s magnificent Japanese film Ringu, studios quickly took notice and began snapping up every modestly successful Asian horror film in sight. Now I have no problem with Roth and his ilk (affectionately referred to as the Splat Pack in a recent Time article), but I prefer this second group of films. The remakes were often flimsy, but they could get away with a pg-13 rating, which made them more viable commercially, while hanging onto a pervading creepiness and dread that American horror hasn’t really seen since The Shining and The Changeling. But after Pulse opened to just $8 million on its way to $20 million, and The Grudge 2 opened reasonably well with $20 million but virtually collapsed subsequently (it’ll be a reach to hit $40 million), things weren’t looking good. And while The Return isn’t a remake, it’s definitely the same kind of film and playing to the same audience. With a budget in the neighborhood of $15 million, it’s almost certainly going to lose money, and that’ll probably do it for that whole arm of studio horror films.
There is a remake of the Pang Brothers’ The Eye due out about this time next year with Jessica Alba, but with the combination of this downward trend and a Sixth Sense-ish, been there, done that quality, I can’t imagine Lionsgate is going to put a lot of muscle into the marketing. It is, for all intents and purposes, done before it’s even reached the screen. In fact, the directing team on that film- David Moreau and Xavier Palud- have already jumped the proverbial ship and signed on to direct Saw IV as their follow-up to The Eye. So I think we have a lot more Eli Roth to look forward to, and a lot less Hideo Nakata.
Oh well. That’s when happens when studios and producers make movies because they can, and not because they believe in the script, which I guarantee you is what happened with The Return. Somebody looked at the box office figures for The Grudge and said to some poor assistant: “I want to make a PG-13 ghost story with Sarah Michelle Gellar,” and they bought the next script that came through their door that fit the bill. Voila, two years later, here we are having this conversation.
See what I mean about paying attention?
So that’s my personal little rant. The big box-office story this weekend is obviously Borat, which won the weekend with $29 million. Fox added 1700 theatres, so it’s actually up 9%, even though the per screen average fell sharply from $31,000 last weekend to $11,000 this weekend. That’s still pretty good, but I bet repeat business and Midwest figures aren’t where the execs want it to be. We’ll have to see if the buzz carries it much over $100 million (still extraordinary, but I think a slower release pattern would have earned more in the long run).
The Santa Clause 3 came in second with $16.8 million, showing a solid hold, followed by Flushed Away, which was only down 11% to $16.7 million. This time of year is always good for kid and family flicks. Stranger Than Fiction opened at number four with $14.1 million, and a decent $6,000 per screen average. Short of a miraculous Oscar nod for Ferrell, though, this doesn’t have a prayer of reaching Ricky Bobby numbers. Saw III fell off another 55% for $6.6 million and a $69.8 million cume, and should finish up very close to Saw II’s $87 million. Babel made $5.6 million from 1200 theatres, and will need great word of mouth and award recognition to hit Constant Gardner numbers. The Departed continues to kick ass, making another $5.2 million and raising its cume $109.7 million, Marty’s highest grosser by a lot. Numbers like that are making a Best Picture nod all but a sure thing. Clinging to the number 7 spot was Buffy the Box Office Slayer in the aforementioned The Return with a whopping $4.7 million. The Prestige may overtake it in Tuesday’s final numbers, as it’s right behind with $4.6, down 38%. Nolan’s pic isn’t doing bang-up business, but it’s held up well enough. Clocking in at number ten is Ridley Scott’s A Good Year, which is a certifiable bomb for him and Russell Crowe, taking in just $3.7 million. Gladiator seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?
And poor David Ayer’s Harsh Times opened well out of the top ten (number 13, to be exact) with $1.8 million and a per screen average of just under $2,000, even lower than analysts already-dismal expectations. The guy mortgaged his house to make the movie, which isn’t getting stellar reviews but is supposed to feature a blistering performance by Christian Bale. Ayer sold it to an independent distributor that apparently turned out to be a nightmare, and was quoted in a New York Times article as saying he longs for “the warm, loving embrace of the studios.” Jesus- how bad does your experience have to be that you’re begging for a studio to cut anything interesting out of a movie you mortgaged your house to make and then market it like The Punisher?
That’s it for this week. Tune in next Monday when we find out just how durable 007 is, and if anyone cares about a movie about talking penguins.