Box Office Awesome: The early ’09 Marathon

While the short run film that makes its movie in the first few days and little else afterwards is interesting and awesome in an academic sense, it’s rarely good news.

Well, for studios it’s not always bad news. If you assume that a given film has a maximum ceiling of business that it could get and that films probably do get that business (i.e. what a film makes is what a film should make, accounting for quality, marketing, audience taste, etc.) then a studio certainly wants the movie to make as much money up front, whent they get a lion’s share of the cut. For theater owners it’s significantly less good.

Alternatively, you can assume that any film that’s frontloaded does so because there’s a problem. Perhaps it had bad word of mouth, so people who saw it opening weekend did not inspire others to also see it. Or it had a narrow fan base that was largely sated in one weekend. Or maybe it just sucked.

Really, what everyone wants is a film with legs. The studios might prefer a film that earns $60m to have a $30m opening rather than a $10m opening. But they’d much prefer a film that opens to $30m to earn $100m than $60m.

Over the past several years, movies have tended toward frontloading. This is a combination of an incresed number of theaters, an increase in the number of screens per theater, an increase in audience knowledge before release so they’re hyped up for the opening weekend, and that many of the biggest movies in recent years have had dedicated fan bases which is more likely to turn out early (and not necessarily often.) Just consider the number of comic book movies and the behavior typical of comic book fans.

So it’s with some delight that there are films that can still surprise and pull out the old school legs. These actually aren’t super rare, especially for films that are released as counter-programming, but they do provide a nice contrast.

Consider last year’s mega-hyped box office sensation The Dark Knight. It opened massively, at almost $160m, a number that would alone have it at #4 in 2009 (and even #10 in 2008). For a movie of such size, it actually held on rather well, grossing over $530m, better than three times its opening weekend gross. You’d think that in the face of such a monolithic force, any other film would be shuffled off to the wayside. Indeed, against that opening weekend, the competitor managed just $27m. However, Mamma Mia! held on extremely well and managed over 5 times its opening gross in the end, with $144m. More than that, it absoultely raked it in worldwide, earning over $458m outside the US. (The Dark Knight managed JUST $468m outside the US.)

2009’s been a bit of an odd year, however. While the business is up, it’s up because there are a wide variety of films that are doing well. Last time we covered the sprinters, but the bigger story is the marathon runners, like Mamma Mia!.

There have been a few quiet films, like the Alex Proyas directed Knowing. It opened to a small-ish $25m, but has earned almost $80m total. Those aren’t spectacular legs, but they are decent, and it’s the second highest grossing film for distributor Summit Entertainment (which struck gold last November with Twilight.) Or Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, which had a soft $15m opening against Wolverine, but has passed $50m total.

There’s also a trifecta of films which opened to less than $20m but finished up north of $70m. The bromance comedy¬† I Love You, Man earned just shy of $18m opening weekend but has a total of $71m. And January’s canine comedy Hotel for Dogs opened just over $17m and finished with $73m. The champ here, though, is Coraline, the fantastic 3D adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novella opened very softly at under $17m, but it managed to keep the money rolling and has surpassed $75m.

Those are the little films that could.

But there’s a bigger story at play. In January, a trifecta of films managed to turn on the wheels in a big way.

The first was Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood’s latest film (and possibly last as a lead actor.) After opening in limited release in 2008 for awards consideration, it went wide on January 9 and earned $29m. That was already a huge success for him as an actor, besting the $18m opening that Space Cowboys earned almost a decade ago. And while it didn’t earn the accolades that earlier Eastwood films have, it did display the trademark legs, and has grossed over $147m total, the highest of his career. If it does mark the end of Eastwood’s career as an actor (if not director), it’s certainly a box office high note to end on.

The second marathon success was the Kevin James comedy Paul Blart, Mall Cop. Its opening weekend was actually larger than expected, at $31m, and had already cemented the film as a success. However, the broad demographic comedy managed to turn some really lengthy tricks and has amassed over $146m total. This was probably a film the producers would have been happy to have opened to $20m and finish with $60. To defeat the expectations from the get-go and to pull in audiences in a really big way. Kevin James has certainly graduated from TV Work (The King of Queens) and playing second fiddle to big stars like Will Smith (Hitch) and Adam Sandler (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry) to headline films of his own.

However, the big winner in the legs department has to be the Liam Neeson revenge flick, Taken. A product of French action uber-producer Luc Besson, this was a film that screamed low-key dump prior to its release. Like many of Besson’s films, this was a straight-up actioner. It had a modest budget and looked like it would earn a small return in worldwide revenue, perhaps breaking even compared to its budget before earning a profit on DVD. Besson’s not known for blockbusters, but rather his ability to churn out entertainment on a budget.

Warning bells were in the air when Taken staked out the final weekend in January for its release. The problem, really, is that its first Sunday fell on February 1, or as its better known: Super Bowl Sunday. The sporting uber-event takes so much of the American cultural conscience that the only films that open on the weekend are strict counter-programming. Last Year’s Hannah Montana concert movie opened against the Super Bowl, for instance.

Since Taken’s an action film, the message seemed to be that the studio didn’t have faith in it. Why release a film that’s theoretically pitched at men (and possibly older men) against an event that is pitched at the same?

However, instead of crashing and burning to a likely expected $10m open and $25m finish, Taken did something very odd. It had an opening DAY of over $9m, and was past $20m after two. It did have the predicted crash on the Sunday, but even so it managed a $24m weekend and was already considered a success. Had it followed the course of so many other films this year and tumbled quickly, nobody would have batted an eye or had a bad word to say about Taken’s business. It likely would have become a minor trivia point as that film that did okay against the Superbowl.

But there’s a difference between being an interesting piece of trivia and being a part of Box Office Awesome. Taken is definitely in the latter group. Here’s some percentages: 17%, 8%, 41%, 13%, 26%, 10%, 38%, 34%.

Those are the percentage drops for the next eight weeks after that opening weekend, covering the first two months that Taken was in the theaters. When you go two months and your biggest drop is 41% (and that was after a holiday weekend), you’ve got some amazing legs. Taken was in the top 10 of the box office for all of those nine weeks, and while it started to tail off more at the end (and afterwards, once it dropped out of the top 10), the staying power was tremendous, something rarely seen in this day and age.

The final tally for Taken is just shy of $145m, slightly lower than both Gran Torino and Paul Blart: Mall Cop, but considering the lower opening weekend, it’s had the best legs of any of the movie so far this year. While it’s only had the sixteenth largest opening weekend (just barely larger than the opening take of Knowing), it’s got the sixth highest total gross. Movies that open this softly and go onto have high grosses are usually relegated to the holiday season, particularly mid-to-late December launches. Very few of them managed to do what Taken did without the benefit of a large holiday boost or two. While Taken did receive a bit of a boost over President’s Day, that pales in comparison to the benefit of having one of the big three holidays (Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, or Christmas) happen early in a movie’s run.

For a little actioner that managed to take it’s dumping-ground release date and turn out what will probably be the most impressive box office run of the year, Taken is most definitely Box Office Awesome

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