Box Office Awesome

Well, I fell off the regular posting wagon, mostly because as I tried trudging through my recap of November and it got longer and longer such that it was January already and I was posting a recap of the entire holiday season I realized that it wasn’t all that fun.

Seriously, November and December were two months of suck for box office news. Until Christmas Day there was a whopping one exciting box office story to speak of, and that was Twilight. This isn’t to say that the movies released during that period were bad, because Quantum of Solace was enjoyable and Bolt was pretty spectacular, but the only interesting things about the movie business was in the context of Twilight.

It’s unfortunately something I’ve come to realize as I’ve written off and on about the movie box office over the years: there is a lot of boring shit here. I’m sure there are some people who manage to get up each week and remain excited about the minutia, but I’m not one of those people. At least, I’m not anymore. I’m interested in the slightly off kilter, the surprising, and the weird.

In short, I’m interested in the Box Office Awesome.

Thankfully, 2009 is turning out to be the year of the awesome box office. And while in aggregate it’s great news for movies, with the domestic receipts for January and February both hitting record levels, the stories for the individual films are more interesting to me.

But, since it’d be remiss to not finish out 2008, there’re two awesome stories of the holidays.

Twilight Crushes the Competition

Last August, if you’d told someone, anyone, that Quantum of Solace would disappoint such that it wasn’t going to be the biggest film of November, they might have considered and nodded thoughtfully after remembering that Madagascar 2 was on the schedule.

What they would not have believed was that a tweeny vampire flick would beat out Bond not only in the final tally but also in the opening weekend. And this after Bond had delivered the biggest opening of his extremely long and lucrative career.

Twilight was absolutely stunning, surprising just about everyone and beating even the most bullish predictions by almost $20m for the opening. It’s final tally of $191m was probably a good 50% higher than the most hopeful predictions. In three days it became Summit’s biggest film, and it managed some very strong staying power.

In comparison to the $69/$191 performance, the $67/$168 run for Quantum of Solace seems entirely pedestrian. True, Bond does have a much stronger play in the international market, earning over $400m there (for a $575m worldwide tally), but Twilight wasn’t entirely lost, and managed $375m worldwide.

That’s a large gap, to be sure, but once you take budgeting into account, Bond cost $200m to make (possibly the most expensive film ever per minute of screen time), while Twilight cost a paltry $37m, so it managed to pull in 10 times its budget in receipts. Bond would have needed to be Titanic to compete with that.

Even so, I doubt anyone involved with 007 is really disappointed. The inevitable Bond 23 will continue to build on the brand and earn another half billion easily.

The real loser in all of this is Disney, who had the misfortune of releasing their animated film Bolt up against Twilight. This is somewhat sad, as it’s a film where Disney’s animation has really come into its own again. Despite the behind-the-scenes problems and switches of director from Chris Sanders to Chris Williams, the production was top notch and it compares well with early Pixar films in quality.

However, quality isn’t everything and in the face of the vampire onslaught taking its business, Bolt managed just a slim $26m opening weekend. It managed to hold up very well in the second weekend (Thanksgiving), but saw its fortunes tumble rather hard throughout December. It’s final tally of $114m likely didn’t get much celebration, but the international cume of $173m was fairly strong.

Even so, it was the second Disney film in a row that was hurt by a bad release date, after High School Musical 3. Worse, in the realm of bragging rights, it got clobbered by Dreamworks’ Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. In the battle between the two animation giants, Dreamworks came out quite a bit stronger than Disney/Pixar. The two-hit combo of Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda earned over $1.2 billion worldwide. Bolt and WALL-E combined to a respectable, but considerably smaller $822m.

Christmas Gifts for Everyone

After an extremely poor December, which saw a succession of small opening and smaller final tallies from some big names like Keanu Reeves (The Day the Earth Stood Still), Will Smith (Seven Pounds), and Jim Carrey (Yes Man), the box office bounced back in a big way on Christmas Day.

There was the big budget award bait The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the Disney produced Adam Sandler kidpic Bedtime Stories, Tom Cruise as a Nazi, Frank Miller’s solo directoral debut with The Spirit, and a film about a Owen Wilson’s dog.

While Beverly Hills Chihuahua should have told us not to bet against our canine brethren, I think I just got done saying how Bolt did not deliver the goods. So it’s probably not too much to say that Marley and Me was a big surprise. It managed a commanding $14m on Christmas Day and followed up with $36m for it’s weekend opening. A strong performance through the end of the year and into January propelled the dramady to $148m domestic, and it even managed over $70m internationally. (Non-Americans don’t seem to have quite such a love affair with cinematic dogs.)

However, this wasn’t a feast for one dog, as both Bedtime Stories and Benjamin Button managed very similar opening numbers, earning over $10m on opening day and finishing out their four day frame with around $38m. They diverged a bit from there, as the Sandler pic managed to hold on well for another weekend or two before tailing off around $110m (and had nearly $100m internationally). Benjamin Button took a slightly longer road as it piled on critical awards and finished with $127m in the US, but also beat the double century mark outside the states.

But wait, there’s more! The Bryan Singer directed, Tom Cruise starring Valkyrie managed to best $20m in its opening frame and finished with a respectable $83m. It also managed $109m internationally. It wasn’t quite the awards bait both Singer and Cruise probably wanted, but it did wash away a lot of the bad taste that Cruise has left in the mouth of the general public over the past few years.

It should be noted that while none of these films did spectacular business, they all did very strong business. Three of them topped the century mark, and they managed to erase a lot of the bad business that the earlier weekends in December had created. (2008 finished just barely behind 2007 in the final aggregate box office tally.) It’s hard to say who the overall winner is. Marley and Me managed a pretty strong win domestically, but it was just about  matched worldwide by Bedtime Stories. Benjamin Button did extremely well internationally, but got beat out in the awards by Slumdog Millionaire. And Tom Cruise managed to bring his career back on track. Winners all around, for the most part, but not superstars.

There’s one loser, however, and that’s The Spirit. Frank Miller’s attempt to bring Will Eisner’s classic hero to the big screen was a spectacular failure on all fronts. It looked like a rehash of Sin City, didn’t interest the fans, didn’t interest the general public, and by all accounts was terrible from start to finish. It earned under $4m on it’s opening Christmas Day, and it was all downhill from there. The final US tally of $19m was over $10m behind the OPENING of Sin City. The worldwide haul of $38m doesn’t look that great, either.

Those are the awesome box office stories from late 2008. Next up I’ll tackle some doozies form the first few months of 2009.

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