The MCU Shuffle

The news of the moment is the addition of a new film added to the ever impressive Marvel Cinematic Universe lineup. This time around it’s a sequel of sorts to this summer’s Ant-Man, and will be entitled Ant-Man and the Wasp.

I’m going to assume that this will be the Scott Lang Ant-Man played by Paul Rudd and the Hope van Dyne Wasp played by Evangeline Lilly who was teased at the end of the film, and not some Hank Pym played computer-de-aged Michael Douglas led vehicle. (Although an entire film set in the 80s would be kinda cool.)

The selected date for this film is almost three years from the first: July 6, 2018.

But wait, you think. Wasn’t something already in that date? Yes, yes there was. The Black Panther movie starring Chadwick Boseman had been slotted in that prime summer moment and now has to vacate it for the… higher profile (?) sequel.

Also on the move is the Captain Marvel movie, leaving it’s November 2018 release date.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen these two films on the move. A year ago, they were originally announced for November, 2017 (Black Panther) and July 2018 (Captain Marvel). Oh, for those heady days when we were all excited about a CM movie in a prime summer slot. Those plans were torpedoed once Sony and Marvel got to an agreement to fold Spider-Man into the MCU. Spidey’s a huge character, of course, and he needs a huge character release date. Like that prime July 2017 slot, which had been held by Thor 3. So Thor moved to the November slot held by Black Panther, BP moved to the July slot held by Captain Marvel, and CM moved to the November 2018 slot held by… nothing.

(Unaffected in all these shuffles were GotG 2, Avengers 3 and 4, and Inhumans.)

This time, there is some supposedly good news. Black Panther is actually moving forward in the schedule. Not quite as early as its original release date, but now it’s slotted in February, 2018, just in time for the President’s Day weekend. It’s also primed to capitalized on Black History Month!

I say that news is supposedly good, because, well… February’s a bit of a down month. It tends to be a bit cramped, filling up with mid-tier releases, and while some do gather a fair amount of success, true breakouts are few and far between. Only two films, ever, have earned more than $200 million domestically after opening in February: The Passion of the Christ, which, well, had a number of other factors at play, and The LEGO Movie.

What this shift says to me is that Marvel feels more confident in a sequel than in an original property. It feels like preemptive damage control. Why waste a prime slot when you can just give it an acceptable one. The holiday weekend can be quite good for business, but after that it’s kind of a long haul, as March tends to fill up with high profile releases that take audience attention. Plus, besides that one holiday Monday, there’s little to otherwise bolster it. Easter and spring breaks aren’t until over a month later.

So that’s BP, which we get earlier, but doesn’t really speak of any faith the studio has in the property.

What about Captain Marvel? It’s jumping four months later to March of 2019. If it’s moving, surely something is going into its slot.

However, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Last time it moved it was because BP was taking its place. BP’s going in the other direction, so why is Captain Marvel moving?

As best I can tell it’s for some balance. With the AM&TW jumping in the schedule and the moves, the MCU now has three films a year from 2017-2019. They also announced three untitled for 2020, so that seems to be what they want their output to be at.Had Captain Marvel stayed November 2018, that would have had four films hitting that year. (Avengers 3 is hitting in May 2018 and isn’t going to be affected by any changes.) That’s too many, I suppose, so CM abandons the November slot for nothing.

Its new March date has been pitched as a good thing. It speaks of confidence because now it’s starting the blockbuster season, whatever that means. It’s also on International Women’s Day.

So how is the new date? Well, it’s okay. The new date is probably on par with the old one. I’ve tended to feel that the early November release dates are overrated. The films that are big for them are because of the film, not the calendar. They’re too early to get a bump from both Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the huge films that hit later in the month take away their thunder. It’s possible Marvel agrees. With this shift of CM, they don’t have any late year releases after Thor 3.

March doesn’t really have that problem. There is the capacity for big films, but they tend to spread out. Easter is a mobile holiday, so it can help, but it could also be a wash. Spring breaks hit at different times, but provide some boost.

In contrast, early November tends to be facing really light competition, much as early May does. October’s becoming a stronger month, but it tends to be from one standout rather than a glut. February, as noted above, sees a glut.So really, for CM, the shift is probably a wash for potential. November and Holiday sounds sexier, but March is good enough. But the surrounding message is unsatisfying. This is a film that originally had that prime July slot. That was the slot that held Dark Knights and Pirates and Harry Potters. You’ve got some studio oomph in that Mid-July slot. Now this film has been bumped nine months later. It’s gone from Hoo-Rah! to sexy! to …okay?

On one hand, I get it. Schedules are going to change. Things will happen and hiccup and a studio needs to adjust. But last October when Marvel did their big release announcement, they were met with universal praise. “This is how you do announcements,” people said. “Look! We’ve got Black Panther and Captain Marvel!”

A few weeks earlier, WB had more or less revealed their DC movie schedule in an investor call. The contrast between the two was highlighted. Marvel showing, yet again, that it does things the right way.

Now they’ve basically squandered and ruined all that goodwill. The excitement over Black Panther being the first POC lead remains. It was going to come out three weeks before the Jason Momoa led Aquaman, and now it’s going to have a few more months lead time.But Captain Marvel, oh. She has a fierce and dedicated fanbase They were excited and have now seen two release date shifts. Now they get to rationalize how this is a good thing. All while wondering how long it’s going to be before the part is even cast. Boseman is suiting up with the Panther tights next summer, prior to his own film, but we may not see anything of Captain Marvel before March of 2019.

Perhaps that’s by design. The original announcement may have been entirely to get people fired up, but the production heart may not be in it. Something, anything, could happen and they may quietly bump the release date again. Or perhaps cancel it entirely.

This wouldn’t be a surprise. Fans have been clamoring for a Black Widow movie for years, but there’s no indication of any interest from the studio. Kevin Feige has highlighted her supporting spots in various films, but that’s not the same thing. Feige has also said that they have a grand plan for the MCU, and they can’t just force something into the lineup, like a Black Widow movie. But now we’ve seen two films forced into the lineup. The grand plan is all smoke and promises.

Those promises are empty.

(WB, it should be noted, never did a full announcement of those release dates. They had previous selected various untitled film dates, and we could match them to the announced titles, which have mostly been confirmed at this point, but it was just a little bit looser and gives them the option of deniability. If something happens to cause a shift, they don’t really have egg on their face because of it.)

Box Office Awesome: Go Big or Go… Home?

The general consensus, at least business-wise, is this year has been a great summer for movie business. And, um… is it? Really?

To be sure, the top end for 2015 has been great. Jurassic World shattered expectations for the second biggest first-run of all time. I don’t know anyone who was even predicting $400 million domestic, much less edging into the mid-600s. And even if Avengers: Age of Ultron didn’t do the gonzo business expected, it’s still an extremely solid performer in abstract. Beyond those two are the animation over-performers of Inside Out and Minions. If the biggest films are doing that well, doesn’t that mean it’s great overall?

Well, maybe.

See, there’s going to be a neat trick when all is said and done. The gulf between the 4th place film (Minions) and the 5th place film (Pitch Perfect 2) is already almost at $140 million, and will probably be close to $150 million when all is said and done.

Pitch Perfect 2 is “only” at $183 million. (It’s a vast over-performer relative to expectations, but bear with me for a moment.) The gap between them is huge. In fact, this summer will be the first in twenty years that no film has grossed between $200 and $300 million. (Assuming, of course, that Straight Outta Compton doesn’t have some crazy late legs to get over the mark.)

It’s not just the summer, either. Except for Cinderella, which barely limped over the double century mark thanks to efforts by Disney to pair it with Age of Ultron and Inside Out, no other film this year has hit in that $200-300 million range.

Again, the last time that happened was 1995. The trick was in 1995, the highest grossing film the entire year was Toy Story which did not even make $200m. We’re in vastly different territory for what films are capable of. Ticket prices have nearly doubled in that time, and the population of the US and Canada (the Domestic Market) has increased some 65 million.

Our hit films, are really big hits. We’ve already got 5 films that have made at least $300 million. And that’s not including American Sniper which had an extremely limited Christmas release before going wide over the MLK weekend, which technically means it’s a 2014 film, but it made almost all its $350 million in 2015. For the rest of the year, there will be at least two more films that also get that big, the final Hunger Games film and, of course, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. So this year is going to be huge for the top of the line success.

Oh, yeah. The previous record for $300 million grossing films, is 4.

But paired with that is near complete absence of the mid-level blockbuster status. The hits have gotten hittier, but they’ve apparently sucked the life out of everything else. Movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Have done acceptably solid local business, but nothing spectacular. That’s in spite of absolutely glowing reviews.

This brings to mind the comments in recent years about the future of blockbuster films. Steven Spielberg and his blockbuster-creating brethren have posited that there’s an end on the horizon. The status of budgets getting bigger and bigger is going to doom blockbusters because people have so much gosh-darn distractions.

Except that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. The blockbuster will survive, it seems, but only in an increasingly branded status. If you like cinematic universes, you’re golden.

But it feels like anything not aiming for the broadest possible audience is doomed to relative mediocrity. Much like the turn of the century changes to the industry spelled doom to the $50 million budget mid-level studio efforts, it seems that this decade has been pruning back on anything that doesn’t have a really well-established brand.

This isn’t exactly new. Hollywood has long been in the franchise business and branding is part and parcel of the game. But the budgetary requirements mean that even to have a chance at success, you need to have an established brand from the get-go.

If you’re playing with the shared worlds of Marvel or DC or already established franchises, that’s good. But the likelihood of getting anything new off the ground is looking like a harder and harder sell. There’s a catch 22 going on: you to be successful to have a shot at a franchise, but you need a recognized brand in order to get that success.

Blockbusters are here to stay, but “originality” for whatever definition you apply to it, is out the window.

The trials and tribulations of Dreamworks Animation is pretty much a pinpoint example of that. For the past several years, the studio has been trying to get new franchises off the ground. They’ve tried several times to get a new series started, to replace their Shrek and Madagascar lines. And except for The Croods, they’ve all been pretty much whiffs since the first How to Train Your Dragon, which was over 5 years ago. All these original property attempts, and many, many commercial failures.

Even Home, which turned out to be a massive spring surprise, didn’t quite get the return from international markets that would let them say “this is a success!”

The DWA brand, it seems, isn’t quite enough to get audiences to come just because. A marked contrast to Walt Disney Animation and Pixar.

The Future of Marvel Moviedom

It was supposed to be better than this.

The promise that we were shown in 2008, which saw the rise of a new movie superstar (after a long and troubled career) and the beginning of the first major comic book universe was supposed to skip merrily along.

Marvel had given into that promise, with a series of films that created a franchise without quite being a series. We’d gotten Iron Man and it was brilliant (not perfect, no, but few films are, especially at this level). The sequence of films through 2012 was announced, and it read like a hit list of all the major players of the Marvel U remaining big guns that Marvel hadn’t signed off to Fox or Sony. We’d get Thor and Cap and then the whole Avengers team.

Awesome, right?

They’d lined up some great talent in there, starting with Kenneth Branagh directing Thor (really! Not a joke!) and culminating in the nerdgasm decision to let Joss Whedon helm The Avengers.

All they needed to do was get through the Iron Man sequel. All the same major talent is back, so they just needed to let Downey do his thing and set a few seeds for the future.

Well, now we’ve gotten the better part of two months to look at Iron Man 2. And I’m left to wonder what the hell happened.

Iron Man was a big surprise. It came out of nowhere, turned into a $300m film, and showed that superhero films could work without a top tier character. (True, it got blown out of the water by The Dark Knight, but take away Heath Ledger’s death and the distance between the two films would probably have been cut in half.)

Clearly, if Marvel wanted to get the ball rolling on their own movie production studio, they couldn’t have done it any better way. Following up the film should have been a breeze. Improving on it, business-wise, should have been the simplest thing in the world.

The number of sequels that outperform the well-received originals is immense. In fact, if you’ve got a film that audiences like, you can chuck out a sequel that is regarded as CRAP by everyone and still do better. Look at Transformers 2, which was made WITHOUT A SCRIPT and managed to earn $80m more than the first.

Iron Man 2 isn’t a bad film. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say it’s as good as the first, but it’s entertaining and has some great action sequences along with good funny bits. Downey is again perfectly spot-on for the role, and I don’t think anyone can legitimately complain about him as Tony Stark.

It opened very well, a good 30% more than the first. That’s the (current) fifth largest opening in history. It’s a nice improvement on the already strong opening for the original and while it did have some degree of audience rush (sequels tend to get that more than first films), it should have been an indication that it would outearn the original, and probably was expected to hit somewhere between Spidermans 2 and 3.

The weak slate of films that followed it up in May should have encouraged that. Just about every film released between Iron Man and The Karate Kid underperformed to massive degree. Robin Hood might be the quietest $100m earning film in history. Shrek 4 earned $50m LESS than its predecessor in the opening, and will end up as the lowest grossing film of the entire series by a wide margin. Prince of Persia and Sex and the City were both disappointments. And the best thing that can be said about the five films released post-Memorial Day is that Get Him to the Greek is going to do about as well as expected.

Against such a weak line-up, where should Iron Man 2 ended up? $350m? $400m?

After seven weekends in release, it’s crossed the triple century mark, but just barely. It’s going to pass $305m today. The good news is that Iron Man 1 didn’t get to $300m as quickly. In fact, it didn’t get there until its 48th day in release. (That would be this Friday, had it been released on the same date as IM2.)

The bad news is that at this point in its run, IM1 was earning twice as much per day as IM2.

In its 7th weekend, IM2 earned just shy of $2.9m. IM1 earned over $5.6m. IM1 didn’t drop below $3m a weekend until its 9th.

IM2 fell below half a million in daily takes for the first time last Thursday, its 42nd day in release. IM1 didn’t have that happen until its 60th day.

If you look at the day to day matchups between the two films, there’s a clear pattern. IM2 is ahead, thanks to the extra $30m it got for its opening, but the gap between the two is closing rapidly. The numbers it pulls in are about two weeks behind those for IM1.

Two months ago, the future of IM2 was very bright. It was going to be big, but nobody knew how big. Now, that future has dimmed a little. It’s still a big film (because any film that crosses $300m is big), but it has a best case scenario of matching the total of the first film. That’s BEST case. The easy path it had in May is gone. Now it’s almost two months into a box office run with a number of films that are going to take away business.

Now, I doubt anyone at Marvel, Paramount, or Disney is complaining. The international receipts are up from the first film, albeit not by a great amount (superheroes don’t tend to play nearly as well overseas), so they are looking at an overall improvement.

Next year they’ve got Thor hitting in early May and Captain America in July. The Avengers hits in May of 2012. And all of these are ushered in by a pair of $300m earners that have gotten high marks from audiences and critics.

But mightn’t they be a little worried? Thor and Cap don’t have the exceptionally high profile figure of Robert Downey Jr. to lead the film. So what sort of numbers are they looking at? They can’t bank on a break-out like IM1, so are they thinking that these are $250m films? $200m?

And what about The Avengers? That’s a huge wild card. On one hand, it’s going to play like a second sequel to Iron Man. But second sequels don’t tend to do as well as the first. This is especially the case if the first sequel is seen as a step down from the original. Look at the Matrix, Pirates, or Shrek films. All had a very well received original, huge explosion of business for the sequel, and then rather large drop-off for the third. Iron Man might be in the same boat, except it hasn’t seen the explosion of business.

That could be another point of concern: Perhaps the first film saturated the market. Anyone who was interested in any superhero besides Batman or Spider-Man saw it so there’s no room to grow. There’s only room to shrink.

There’s another possible problem. One criticism levied against IM2 is that it spent too much time building the universe at the expense of the story of the film itself. There were seeds planted for Thor and the Avengers that didn’t feel quite necessary to tell the story at hand. What if non-comic fan audiences don’t care about that stuff? What if it’s actually a detriment?

Next year the two films released are sure to play into those Marvel Universe elements. Hell, Captain America even has the Avengers connection right in the title. If those elements aren’t going to play well, this could be a well-intentioned but unfortunately doomed experiment.

And Joss Whedon’s Avengers film will probably be yet another in his long string of disappointments.

You can be sure that on the other side of the business, DC/WB is keeping a close eye to see what happens while they’re gearing up to produce Flash, Wonder Woman, and new Superman films. If the universe element doesn’t play, you won’t be seeing a JLA movie any time soon, no matter how well Green Lantern does.

And if The Avengers bombs, no worries. Batman 3 is going to hit a couple months later.

Box Office Awesome Year in Review

Well, it’s been a good six months since my last post. Which isn’t to say that the Box Office Awesome stopped in June, just that I got sidetracked. I even had a draft started in October to showcase one of the later awesome stories. So to rectify the situation, I’m going to look at 2009 month by month, because it was the year of awesome.

January

2009 got off to a rocking start, earning over $1 billion for the first time, in what is traditionally a fairly slow month. January of ’08, aided by Cloverfield’s rocking start, earned $841 million, and no other year has even reached $780 million. The difference between January ’09 and most other years is the complete domestic box office of The Hangover… and then some.

As for the top awesome stories, it’s probably a tie between Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Gran Torino, and Taken. All three had rollicking good wide openings, and all three finished with spitting distance of $150m. On a personal preference, I’m most impressed by Taken, which had some of the most impressive legs for a film in a long time.

Perhaps most impressive is that only two films had previously crested the century mark after an opening in January. One of those was the special edition of Star Wars in 1997 and the other was Black Hawk Down in 2002. What was an extreme outlier in the past for a month that usually consisted of films opening around $20m and finishing with $50m or so.

February

Keeping with the theme, February ’09 was also the biggest for that month in history, with $769m. No film that opened this year crested the $100m mark, (a rather marked change from the past, which has seen such big earners as Hitch, Ghost Rider, Daredevil, and The Passion of the Christ).

The most awesome run likely has to go to Friday the 13th, which epitomized a growing trend, especially among horror fare, or earning a huge percentage of the total box office in one day. A close second is Madea Goes to Jail, which had a similarly large opening and quick finish, but managed a respectable $93m overall, the biggest of Tyler Perry’s career.

Also worth noting are the leggy pair from the first weekend of the month, He’s Just Not That Into You and Coraline. The former was actually the highest grossing film released in February, while the latter likely proved that 3D could be more than just a gimmick, and earned a cool $75m to boot, after a somewhat soft $16m opening.

March

In contrast to the first two months, March wasn’t especially great as a whole. Just $651m was earned, good only for 5th, and well behind the $795m earned in March of 2007. That year was aided by the trifecta of 300, Wild Hogs, and Blades of Glory, though, so nothing this year could really compete.

The top box office story was Watchmen, which showed the limits of fanboy appealing comic book films. Despite earning $55m over opening weekend, it finished with just $107m, and was quickly forgotten. The opening weekend can be attributed to some genius marketing by WB, especially the exceptional trailer that appeared before The Dark Knight in 2008. The lack of legs can be attributed to the fact that everyone who wanted to see it probably did opening weekend, and general audiences didn’t quite that the original story was a rather deeply thoughtful look at the history and construction of comics and comic stories.

Or you can assume that the final product was glossy, but not very good, and rather missed the point of the original.

Also worth noting is Knowing, which managed almost $80m after a $24m start and apparently has kept the good word up since as a somewhat thoughtful actioner.

The final weekend of the month brought us Dreamworks’ latest in Monsters vs. Aliens. A $59m opening and $198m finish was enough to make it the biggest film for the month, but apparently not enough to keep a TV spin-off alive.

April

2009 is back on top again in the 4th month, although not to a huge degree. The $695m earned was barely ahead of the $683m earned in 2006.

The top story, by far, is Fast and Furious, which rocked an amazing $70m weekend, more than the third film in the series earned in total. The $155m final tally wasn’t a show of great legs, but was the biggest for the series. Vin Diesel has another lease on his career.

The opening weekend is key, though. The previous high for the month was way down at $42m, for Anger Management. That film had the box office muscle of Adam Sandler behind it, while Fast and Furious just had cars. Never underestimate the draw of mechanical toys.

The other key story was the Hannah Montana movie. The $32m opening was good for 5th best in April of all time. The $79m finish wasn’t anything to write home about, but was respectable enough and adds another data point to a growing trend that tween and teen girls are a growing force at the box office, one that (as we’ll see later in the year) cannot be ignored.

May

Like January, May of 2009 crested the billion mark. And like January, that was the first time the box office did so.

Perhaps what’s most impressive was how un-shocking the business of the month was. No film really had a surprising and breakout performance, even as Star Trek was a public and even critical darling, the only really amazing thing about the $79m start and $257m finish was that it did it after a 2nd weekend start, typically the weakest of the month.

The big story might be that four different franchises saw films take steps backwards, and still helped propel the month to such heights. Wolverine fell behind the two previous X-Men films, in both opening and final tally. Angels and Demons fell far behind The Da Vinci Code, earning over $30m less in the opening, and over $80m less in total. Night at the Museum II had a big opening weekend, but fell almost $75m behind the first film in the series.

And Terminator: Salvation. It’s not really awesome, but it is perhaps the biggest story of the month. After the not-very-well liked Terminator 3 earned $150m and got thoroughly trounced by Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003, the producers decided to take a different tactic with the 4th film in the series. However, Salvation both had a smaller opening and a lower $125m total, despite 6 years of inflation helping it along. Since then, we’ve seen the production company go bankrupt and offer up the rights in an auction. The homicidal robots from the future seem to be dead, at this point. While fans may want to see the return of James Cameron to the franchise, he’s clearly moved onto bigger things.

The final weekend of the month brought Up, Pixar’s first 3D pic. After two years of slightly worrying performance between Ratatouille and WALL-e, Up was a huge step forwards, garnering the second biggest domestic take for the brand, after Finding Nemo. (It also claims the domestic animated crown for the year, but there’s a bit more to the story there.)

June

Yet again, 2009 takes the monthly crown, by edging out 2008 by about $50m.

There were some big misses for the month, like Year One, Land of the Lost, and Imagine That, but there was also some massive amounts of awesome.

The big story is The Hangover, a massive breakout hit for everyone involved. While films of this type have a proven track record of success, with most of Judd Apatow’s library and even a number of Adam Sandler works doing fine business, they tend to hit somewhere between $100m and $150m if they’re big hits. Wedding Crashers was the paragon, by cresting the double century mark on some pretty hefty legs of its own.

The Hangover beat all of those in spades, and then some. I’m sure going into it, the producers would have been happy with a $30m opening, $90m finish. Contrast that with the $44m opening and $277m finish (!) The performance was enough that people spent June talking about the comedic hit over Pixar’s latest masterpiece.

However, June wasn’t done there. The Proposal came two weeks later and propelled Sandra Bullock back into the comedy spotlight. She hadn’t had a $100m hit since Miss Congeniality in 2000, and hadn’t had much of anything of note since 2002, but The Proposal opened to $33m and finished with $163m, as yet the best of her career.

Finally, the last weekend of the month brought the juggernaut. The second Transformers film hit everywhere and pulled in a massive $200m in the first five days. Despite being rather incomprehensible and almost entirely a collection of explosions, slow-mo shots, and extremely low-brow humor, the critically reviled tentpole didn’t fall off the planet afterward, and finished with just over $400m. Fans everywhere hope that Michael Bay can have a script the next time he starts shooting a film. Michael Bays everywhere just roll around in the Awesome Pool of money.

July

As a whole, 2009 only had the third best July on record, over $140m behind July of 2007, which at over $1.3 billion is still the biggest month in box office history. It also trailed behind July of ’08. Those months were powered by Transformers, Harry Potter 5, The Simpson’s Movie, and most of the runs of Ratatouille and Live Free or Die Hard in ’07, and the massive hauls of The Dark Knight in ’08, along with Hancock and most of WALL-e’s run.

In comparison, ’09 was a bit lackluster. The latest Harry Potter film did have some amazing midnight sneaks, cresting $20m for the first time in history, as well as a final haul north of $300m (for the first time since the original film in the series in 2001). And not quite half of Transformers 2’s run came in July.

The most awesome story, though, belongs to the latest Ice Age flick. The domestic haul of $196m is respectable, and just barely edges out the second film in the series, but the real story is overseas. It earned $691m outside of the US and Canada. That’s the third most in box office history (at this moment). The only films that earned more are The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King at $742m and Titanic, which pushed an insane $1.2 billion outside the US.

Ice Age 3 earned more overseas than any Star Wars film. Any Harry Potter film. Any Pirates of the Caribbean film. Any comic book movie. Any Shrek film. It did absolutely bonkers business and while it might be regarded as a mid-tier animation hit because of the domestic number, it shows what an absolute powerhouse the series is. Films can make a lot of money, overseas, and Ice Age 3 managed to tap into some cross-cultural zeitgeist in a way that Pixar and Dreamworks have never been able to.

August

Coming in at second place, although it was fairly close, as only $15m separated the $920m of ’07 from the $905m of ’09. As good as G.I. Joe did, it’s rather far behind the third Bourne film to lead the month.

The awesome story of the month has to go to District 9. While it didn’t quite do as well, either in opening or final tally, as Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, the initial expectations for the film were much lower. Despite the producer credit for Peter Jackson, director Neill Blomkamp was a complete unknown on the big screen. He’d had some internet presence and street cred for his short film Alive in Joburg (on which District 9 was based), and had initially been tapped to direct the Halo movie after doing three short films to promote Halo 3, but hadn’t done any sort of feature.

District 9 showed he was able to deliver great sci-fi action on a budget, and get people in the theaters. In contrast to a number of other recent trends, District 9 showed that audiences still just want to be entertained, and you can do that for $30m or less.

Also of note for the month is the now traditional horror entry for Labor Day: The Final Destination, which managed to score the biggest opening and final tally for the now decade old series. But it cost more and made less than D9, so it’s not quite as awesome.

September

Again lagging behind 2007 (there’s a reason it was the biggest box office year of all time), the softest month of the year earned just $543m.

Because it’s such a soft month, there isn’t much that stands out. Tyler Perry’s had a habit of releasing two films a year (one in the winter/spring, one in the fall), and that’s the case here, but I Can Do Bad All By Myself wasn’t really amazing, performing just about average for him with the 3rd biggest opening and 4th highest final tally of his eight films.

Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs gets the awesome stamp for the month, though, simply because it did so well. Its $30m opening is good for third best in September history and the $122m final tally is also third best. September usually sees a family film that does quite well, but none have done quite as well as this.

October

2009 is back on top in the month of frights, with $692m, almost $50m ahead of 2004, which had a pair of heavy hitters in Shark Tale and The Grudge.

There’s actually a fair bit of interesting tidbits here. Couple’s Retreat managed to crest $100m despite almost nothing positive in the way of reviews. Where the Wild Things Are saw a large opening, but an equally large crash afterward. And Zombieland managed to become the biggest zombie-themed film in history.

But there’s only one awesome story of the month, and that’s Paranormal Activity. The ultra-low budget film had the strangest path getting to theaters, and once there it had one of the weirdest box office runs in history.

It actually got started in September, when it opened on just 12 theaters (mostly in college towns and the like), and those theaters only showed it after midnight. The result was a respectable $77 thousand, perfectly fine for a film like this, but it also was the start of a monumentally ingenious marketing campaign. People could go to a website and request a showing for their own town.

The next weekend saw an addition of 21 theaters. Again, with just midnight showings, it earned just over half a million, more than a 500% increase over the previous week. At this point, it was almost apparent that there was something special at play. The first weekend had a per-theater average of about $6 thousand. The second weekend saw that rise to $16 thousand. This is rather rare for a film, especially one that’s expanding.

The third weekend is the shocker, though. Another 127 theaters were added, for 160 total. The film was given a full slate of showings across the day, and the weekend total shot up to almost $8 million. The per theater average went up again to almost $50 thousand, an extremely good number and one usually only seen in the first weekend of a platform release on many fewer screens.

Technically, Paranormal Activity didn’t go wide until its fourth weekend, when it added another 600 theaters and expanded the business again to $19m. At this point, the film was a bona fide hit, and had $33m in total. Nobody would have blinked had it started to fade at this point.

But it didn’t. In its fifth weekend, it saw almost 1200 more theaters added and it finally topped the charts in first place, earning $21m (and a very nice per theater average of $25 thousand). It was also well ahead of the latest in the Halloween mainstay of the Saw series, which saw a measly $14m for the weekend. It was clear at this point that the king of scares had fallen to the little film that could. Saw VI finished with just $27m, which was lower than the opening weekend of any film in the series back to the second and less than half of the final tally of any previous film.

At this point, Paranormal Activity started to fade, but it did so gracefully. A soft decline over the Halloween weekend pushed it to $84m total. While the falls were bigger after that, it still managed to hang on long enough to earn $107m total. Against a budget of $10,000.

It’s brought a lot of comparisons to The Blair Witch Project, which had a similarly low budget and similarly awesome run in 1999. These are justified, because both films were a huge surprise. They also both had some inventive and extremely successful marketing campaigns.

November

By earning $989 million in total, 2009’s November is back on top. The previous record holder was 2003, which is a bit odd because there wasn’t a Harry Potter film that year. In fact, the biggest opening belonged to The Matrix Revolutions. Elf was the biggest film of the month, though. Sometimes the box office is weird.

For awesome, though, nothing ever released in November can compare to New Moon, the second Twilight film. While the first did some boffo business last year, opening to almost $70m and finishing with over $190m, the sequel is something for the ages.

The opening weekend was huge. At $142m, it’s the third biggest in history. While the final tally of around $290m (it’s still playing and earning a bit) doesn’t seem that great in light of such a large opening, there’s a lot more under the hood. In fact, New Moon really showcases some great lessons to learn about the box office.

Let’s start with that opening. In fact, just the first part of it. New Moon started off like a rocket with around $26m in midnight sneaks. This beat the previous record holder in Harry Potter 6 at about $22m, and was a good $8m ahead of The Dark Knight’s $18m. Harry Potter 6 cooled off at that point, and earned $58m for its opening day. The Dark Knight, of course, had the biggest single day in history at $67m. Had, of course, because New Moon beat that, clocking in an astounding $72m in the first 24 hours. That’s $3m an hour! It’s more than the first film earned in the entire opening weekend.

After that, things cooled off quickly. Its Saturday saw a fall of over 40% to $42m, and Sunday dropped again to $27m, which meant over half the opening weekend was earned on Friday. Normally, this would indicate that a film was all hype and no substance. look at the opening and final tally of Friday the 13th in February. A $19m opening day translated to just $40m for the weekend and $65m total. However, there’s two things to consider. First is the simple fact that New Moon is huge. A full 50% growth over the previous film is astounding (and the worldwide bump is even better, jumping by almost $300m).

Secondly, we need to consider the demographics. Twilight, much like Hannah Montana, is a film for tween and teen girls. This is a market force that is strong, but it doesn’t have a lot of crossover. Blockbusters tend to be rather heavily gendered: they’re aimed primarily at boys and men (usually between 15 and 35), but it’s expected that everyone will go see them. The big comic book movies will often see about 40-45% of their audience be women, and I’m sure that things like Transformers and such see similar percentages.

However, films aimed at women don’t have that crossover. Something like Sex and the City probably saw about 70-80% of its audience as women. There’s a very strong cultural message at play: it’s expected that girls will go see the boys films, but the guys won’t see the girls’ films.

And that’s true for Twilight. You’ve got a very dedicated audience, but it doesn’t translate into a breakout word of mouth. And so that audience comes out in force during the opening, but the subsequent business (both for the later days of the weekend and the rest of the run), tapers off quickly because it’s probably mostly just repeat business at that point.

After the massive drops, there was a bit of praising that Twilight was likely dead, that it had peaked and was going to go away. And that next year’s Eclipse would be a failure. I don’t think that’s going to be the case at all. The audience for the films has shown that it’s very dedicated and reacts positively to them. The target market likes the films, and because of that Eclipse is probably going to be another monster next summer.

New Moon showed that blockbusters don’t need to be comic book or sci-fi flicks aimed at boys. Girls can create their own Box Office Awesome, too.

However, that’s not the only awesome story. In a case of counter-programming, another film actually opened against Twilight: New Moon and has seen some stunning success. Sandra Bullock’s third film of the year was The Blind Side, and if The Proposal showed that she could do big things, The Blind Side underlined, italicized, and sent out the memo in triplicate.

The opening weekend for The Blind Side was $34m, a perfectly fine and respectable opening, and on any other weekend, it would have been big news by itself. But it was overshadowed by New Moon’s bow that was $106m higher. The following weekend it saw a rise to $40m over the post-Thanksgiving frame. This time it was just $2m behind New Moon. In the third weekend it earned $20m and hit #1.

Since then it’s held on remarkably well, earning over $10m each weekend and pushing it’s total north of $200m. Between this and The Proposal, Sandra Bullock is back in a huge way, and any future releases deserve respect for box office prowess.

December

Another month, another record. December of 2009 gathered $1.06 billion, the first time in history the billion mark had been passed in the twelfth month.

As for the awesome story, I think everyone’s in agreement that Sherlock Holmes takes it. It gathered the biggest Christmas day gross and the biggest Christmas opening in history. It’s cemented Robert Downey Jr. as a box office force, and spawned another franchise for him. It should be cresting the…

Okay, then. While Holmes is doing some good business, it’s clearly not the big story. That would be long to James Cameron. Again.

Way back in 1997, he helmed a little film about a big boat that sank. It had some negative pre-release buzz, was the most expensive film in history at the time, and was seen as a huge gamble. Titanic opened modestly to $28m, barely $3m ahead of Tomorrow Never Dies, which would go on to be the biggest James Bond film to date. (It’s since been surpassed.) Given the budget and the way films tend to run, it seemed like Titanic would be a failure, even if its opening was strong for the time.

From that point on, history was in the making. It stayed above $20m for the first ten weekend and remained in first place until April, over three months later. It was in the top ten until June. Along the way it shattered box office records, garnering $600m domestic and an astounding $1.2 billion overseas. (That last number, by itself, would be good enough for the biggest worldwide take of any film, topping The Return of the King.) It also won a heap of awards and cemented James Cameron as one of the top filmmakers of all time.

He then effectively retired from feature films. There were some things he wanted to work on, like an adaptation of the brilliant manga Battle Angel, as well as something that was called Project 880. But ever the envelope pusher, he wanted things to be technically perfect, and that wasn’t possible at the time. So he waited. And waited. And waited.

Battle Angel is still in the wings, but Project 880 has come to the screen in the shape of Avatar. It had a lot of hype, about how it would really push 3D technology and was something like the most visually amazing film of all time. Sometime in November, a bit of bad buzz started, and it got the moniker of most expensive movie attached, possibly costing as much as $500m, well ahead of the third Pirates of the Caribbean film (at $300m). While the official number is considerably less, it was apparent that Avatar had a high price tag and would need some good business. Still, it looked fun and enjoyable and even if Sherlock Holmes seemed to have larger anticipation, it looked like it could do $250m domestic and possibly $700m worldwide. Enough that it wouldn’t be a loss. A step down from Cameron’s last film, to be sure, but Titanic was a once in history event.

The opening weekend for Avatar was just shy of the December record. It was visually impressive but a bit thin on story. Audiences seemed happy and a run to $300m wasn’t out of the question.

Then the weekday numbers started hitting. It earned $16m each on its first Monday through Wednesday, extremely consistent numbers, especially for a top tier film. Usually you expect that a film, no matter when it’s released, to see some drop-off in the dailies. But Avatar held on and its first Tuesday was the second best in history, while the Monday and Wednesday were third best for non-opening, non holiday dates.

Then it earned $11m on Christmas Eve, the most a film had ever made on what is normally a very weak box office day. Christmas Day brought another $23m, a nicely strong hold from the opening Friday of $26m. At this point, Avatar was looking good. $300m seemed like a surer bet, but it has also come in second place twice. On Wednesday, it was bested by the opening day of the Alvin and the Chipmunks sequel and on Friday Sherlock Holmes was on top.

Even so, the Cameron flick held out better over the entire weekend, earning over $75m and taking the crown for biggest second weekend in history from The Dark Knight. This is despite having an opening less than half of the Batman flick. It also had its sights set on the biggest box office week of the year: the Christmas to New Years week when everyone’s away from work and school and able to put in some massive leisure time.

Avatar responded strongly. Every day that week was bigger than the week before. The $19m Monday was the second biggest non-holiday Monday. The $18m Tuesday and Wednesday were both second-best non-opening for those days. And the $14m Thursday was the biggest New Years Eve gross in history.

In two weeks, it had gathered $283m, and the questions about the film had evaporated. No longer was there any wonder about whether it’d be a success, but rather how successful would it be? Transformers 2’s hold on the 2009 box office crown was in serious jeopardy. And the third weekend gross of $68m laid to rest any questions about whether Avatar would top $400m. That is by far the biggest third weekend ever, topping Spider-Man’s $45m from way back in 2002.

With $352m in the domestic bank, box office aficionados have started to wonder where it will end up. It seems likely that Avatar will pass Shrek 2 and even Star Wars at $440m and $460m. There seems a possibility that it will even top The Dark Knight’s mammoth $533m. But the real question is whether Cameron has done it again. Will he top his own $600m record and take down Titanic?

Right now, we don’t know. There’s still a $250m gap between the films, and even though it’s shown some amazing consistency, that’s a lot of money for any film to make, much less after it’s already had 17 days in release. At this point in its release, Titanic had $157m in the bank, but it had four more weekends of at least $25m, seven of at least $20m, and twelve above, $15m. Avatar, at some point, is going to start falling behind. When it does, we’ll likely be able to project much more easily where it will end up.

If it managed another soft drop in weekend 4, perhaps pulling in something as ridiculous as $45m, it’ll take that weekend crown (besting Titanic’s $28m). Weekend 5 might be the watershed comparison. Titanic earned $30m then. If Avatar can stay somewhat close by that point, I’d give it even odds to pass $600m, even if it starts to fall faster from then on.

However, if the next two weekends see more normal drops (say around 40-45% each), then it’s probably going to see a final tally somewhere around The Dark Knight. Still massive. Still enough to call it a great success, but not the record.

Of course, the domestic side is only part of the story. Titanic made Cameron king of the entire world. The over $1.8 billion earned was at the time more than twice what the previous record holder of Jurassic Park had gathered. Since Titanic opened, only ten films have even gotten past that half-way mark, and none have gotten to 2/3rds of Titanic’s worldwide haul.

Before this year, only three other films in history had even crested $1 billion worldwide. The Dark Knight was the latest, and it only did so barely.

Avatar’s already done it. In 17 days, it passed the $1 billion mark worldwide, and it seems likely that it will take the #2 spot from Return of the King in the next week or so. It already has $666m in overseas grosses, and will pass $700m in short order. Only RotK and Titanic can claim to have hit that mark. How much further it goes is anyone’s guess. Much like the domestic numbers there’s a lot of questions about how well it can hold on.

Regardless of where it ends up, Avatar is a stunning success. It’s likely that whatever the order, Cameron will have the top two films both domestically and worldwide when all’s said and done. The inevitable sequel might be assured of passing Titanic’s numbers, even if Avatar itself doesn’t.

In the truest sense of the word, Avatar is Awesome.

Conclusion

2009 was awesome. It set seven monthly records and passed $10 billion in total revenue for the year, for the very first time. More than that, it saw an almost 10% increase in the number of tickets sold, so despite the higher priced 3D and IMAX tickets, more people were going to see the films. Whether because of quality or the recession making people have their vacations a bit closer to home, something really worked this year, and the movie industry paid off in a big way.

Will 2010 hold the same? I’m not sure. There are a few bright sequels on schedule, with Iron Man 2, the fourth Shrek film, Sex and the City 2, Twilight: Eclipse, and Toy Story 3 all hitting this summer. There’s also a spate of possibly huge new films, like Prince of Persia, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Last Airbender (a.k.a. the other Avatar), and Christopher Nolan’s follow up to The Dark Knight in Inception. The holiday season sees another Harry Potter film, a third Narnia, and the slick new Tron film.

Whether this collection is good enough to beat 2009 is a big question. ’09 had a record setting 30 movies pass $100m (and two more could also beat that mark in the weekends to come), and such a broad collection of successful films is necessary to get the box office up so high. We’ll keep an eye on it, though, because the Awesome never ends.

Top 10 Box Office Awesome Stories of 2009

  • 10 Watchmen and Friday the 13th show that some films are done after opening weekend
  • 9 Fast and Furious gets off to a scorching $70m start, shattering the April record
  • 8 Taken, Paul Blart, and Gran Torino prove that January films can be huge
  • 7 The Hangover pulls in some massive holds to be a huge summer blockbuster
  • 6 The Propsoal and The Blind Side show Sandra Bullock’s box office muscle
  • 5 Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs gets third highest international gross in history
  • 4 Twilight: New Moon show that girls are a box office force
  • 3 Paranormal Activity is the little film that could
  • 2 Total box office crosses $10 billion for the first time
  • 1  Avatar makes a run at Titanic

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

Box Office Awesome: The Early ’09 Sprint

To say that 2009 has been a heap of awesome box office is a massive understatement. It’s running no less than 14% ahead of any previous year on record and while it’s only been holding stead against 2008 and has been losing a bit of ground against 2007, it’s still running almost half a billion dollars ahead of any previous year.

But awesome is not created equal. Just this weekend, with the Memorial Day holiday and the traditional “start of summer” has seen two films enter the marketplace and both posting numbers that would be large without context but are somewhat disappointing in practice. WB’s attempt to salvage the Terminator franchise seems like it’s doomed to shoot under the 2003’s Rise of the Machines. And while the new Smithsonian entry in the Night at the Museum franchise is going to open tops in the box office, it’s not likely to reach the much vaunted and desired heights of its predecessor.

It’s actually been the story the entire year: the films with hype and large expectations have generally disappointed. Angels and Demons opened $30m less than The Da Vinci Code and looks like it’s going to be the victim of Prince Caspian syndrome. Wolverine opened large (biggest of the year), but is barely going to double the opening take when all is said and done. And the incredibly hyped and heavily promoted entry into the increasingly valuable March box office, Watchmen, had a large $55m opening and didn’t even double that in the end.

So, if the top of the line films aren’t satisfying, what is? Well, there are some films that are at least meeting expectations. Dreamworks’ latest animated entry, Monsters vs. Aliens has done boffo business and will probably finish up just shy of $200m. A sequel is already in the works (and possibly a TV offshoot.) Likewise, Star Trek has wowed audiences and critics and will soon pass MvA as the biggest film of the year. Between those two alone, Paramount has already had a very nice year, and their big entry, Transformers, is still to hit in late June.

But one studio and two films alone don’t make a great year. What has made this a great year, a year of Box Office Awesome that we can only hope continues is the huge spate of films that have surprised.

What’s really awesome about these surprises is that they have come in two wildly divergent trends. On one hand you’ve got the films that have followed the increasing trend where the bulk of businesss has happened during the opening weekend. While there’s top of the line entries like Wolverine and Watchmen (and possibly Terminator Salvation, but we’ll have to wait and see), a number of others have followed suit.

There’s the Hannah Montana movie, of course, which managed to encourage tweens and parents to drop $32m in one weekend, a large 42% of the current tally. Or Tyler Perry’s latest, Madea Goes to Jail, which earned $41m in three days, an even bigger 45% of the final.

Then there’s Fast and Furious, the fourth installment in the road racing franchise which brings back the original stars. Considering the response to the third, jokes were abound when Universal decided to shift the release date from the cushy summer confines of June to early April, often a box office dead zone.

Things paid off, however, as it pulled in over $70m in three days, shutting up critics of the move and possibly encouraging Hollywood to push summer forward another month. It didn’t stick around long, though, as the opening accounts for over 46% of its $153m total.

However, while all of these films are impressive, they don’t hold a candle to the king of one weekend wonders. Actually, in this case, it’s more of a one day wonder.

I give you Friday the Thirteenth.

The horror franchise reboot opened to a massive $19m on its titular day in February. The prospects looked good at that point for it to pull in some massive business: it had both Valentine’s Day and the four day President’s Day weekend to bolster its business.

However, the Saturday gross fell over 25%. Sunday saw a drop over over 50% and it finished the three day opening weekend just north of $40m, barely twice its opening day. The actual holiday boosted Monday saw another drop above 50% and it finished the long weekend at under $44m.

Still, at this point things were looking fine. Even if it saw large drops in the coming weekends, it should finish up with around $80m. We could make jokes about how it saw almost a quarter of its business in one day and have a laugh while Platinum Dunes took their massive haul all the way to the bank, right?

Well, it did see large drops. Incredibly large drops. The second weekend take was under $8m, a drop of over 80%. Never had a film that large dropped so much. The third weekend saw a drop of over 53%. That would be, in fact, the lowest percentage drop in its first seven weekends. The film was already out of the top ten at that point and after hitting $40m in three days it took another eighteen to get to $60m.

The final tally for the slasher flick is just $65m. The opening weekend accounted for over 62% of this total.

The movie landscape is changing for sure. Even a year ago, we’d have laughed at the idea of big films, #1 films earning more than half their gross in the opening weekend, but it’s already happened twice this year and there are a number of close calls.

Moreover, we’re seeing films that are extremely frontloaded in the opening weekend itself. Friday the Thirteenth isn’t even the most notable in this regard. Hannah Montana fell 40% between Friday and Saturday, but managed to rebound rather well in weekend 2.

Perhaps in the future, if the theater doesn’t disappear entirely, we’ll start to get films that really do become one-day events.

It’s perhaps a bit troubling to consider that, but at the same time it’s something really awesome to behold.

Next time we’ll look at the other end of the spectrum: the dying breed of movie marathon runs. It will include what might be the most Awesome box office story of the year.

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.

October Movie Recap

It’s possible the Saw franchise has damaged October horror movies. This year there were only two non-Saw entries, and one of those was a low-budget teen horror film along the lines of The Covenant. Will October recover to reclaim its Halloween genre?

Of course due to a quirk in the calendar, it is possible studios just considered it a bad year to release horror films.

Beverly Hills Chihuahua

Prediction: $25m open, $75m final

Actual: $29m open, $92m current, $95m final

Leading off the month was the success of Disney’s talking dogs. This is a surprise in multiple ways, possibly mostly because the reviews were not completely negative. For films like this, a middling response can be considered a victory.

As is becoming typical for Disney’s fall live action releases, this played very strong and had some pretty good legs. After the opening it seemed like it would get past the century mark, but it won’t quite be able to make it. Even so, this is a big victory. International totals aren’t very high, but it’s played rather well in Mexico.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist

Prediction: $15m Open, $50m Final

Actual: $11m Open, $31m Final

It seems it’s already been pulled from theaters. This isn’t quite as strong as I expected, but for an indie film on a $10m budget, this is very good and helps cement Michael Cera’s status as one of the biggest young stars in Hollywood.

There’s some question about how long he can keep playing the slightly awkward geeky guy as he gets older, but for now he’s well set to continue at least through the next year. He’s starring with Jack Black in The Year One, a Judd Apatow produced comedy set in biblical times. He’s also set to star as the titular character in the film adaptation of Scott Pilgrim, directed by Edgar Wright (Shawn of the Dead, Hot Fuzz). And there’s another indie turn as he leads in Youth in Revolt, a dark comedy about a sex-obsessed teenager. Finally, there’s some movement toward making a feature film extension of Arrested Development, where Cera first became a star.

This wasn’t quite Juno take two, but it was still respectable.

Appaloosa

Prediction: $4m Open, $12m Final

Actual: $5m Open, $20m Final

In contrast to the expectations of most films released, Appaloosa has played very well. It’s another entry to prove that westerns remain a solid niche for films. They aren’t likely to break out any time soon, but if the budgets are kept reasonable, they can be quietly profitable. In this case, it cost $20m to make and will be turning a nice profit once it hits the home video market.

An American Carol

Prediction: $5m Open, $10m Final

Actual: $3.6m Open, $7m Final

As far as predicting that the final tally would be about double the opening, I was spot on. This was a bit weaker than expected, but at this level it’s not really significant. Against a budget of $20m, this isn’t too bad of a loss, but it’s certainly not likely to get that back in any short order.

Perhaps most notable is that Bill Maher’s Religulous, a decidedly liberal film, opened on the same weekend on less than one third the number of screens and made just a couple hundred thousand less for the weekend. It’s also had better legs and has earned over $12m. Plus it only cost $2.5m to make

Flash of Genius

Prediction: $3m Open, $10m Final

Actual: $2.3m Open, $4.2m Final

Apparently this was out of theaters within a month. Greg Kinnear continues his streak as an actor respected for his talents but with absolutely no drawing power for audiences. He’ll probably need to shift his career to providing supporting roles. He’s doing just that next year in The Green Zone, with Matt Damon and Amy Ryan. Unfortunately, that film is set in Iraq, which is another box office non-starter.

Blindness

Prediction: $5m Open, $15m Final

Actual: $1.9m Open, $3.3m Final

Another lackluster opening. In strong contrast to Flash of Genius or An American Carol, however, this one has played relatively strongly internationally, earning almost $12m. Even so, it’s got to be a disappointment compared to the $25m budget.

Quarantine

Prediction: $15m Open, $30m Final

Actual: $14m Open, $32m Final

Against a budget of just $12m, this is a nice success for Sony’s Screen Gems. It had no stars, but the Blair Witch-esque advertising helped it play very well. It’s likely that audiences considered it fresh and inviting which helped cement the success.

As is typical with these sorts of viral films, the legs were almost non-existant. Even so, I doubt anyone involved was disappointed with this result.

Body of Lies

Prediction: $20m Open, $60m Final

Actual: $13m Open, $39m Final

Despite the prestige of the names involved, Body of Lies couldn’t overcome the Gulf War movie syndrome. Reviews were lackluster, citing the problems with a shiny but soulless espionage thriller that feels very convoluted at times.

The budget for this was a large $70m. The international receipts push the worldwide total above $80m, so it’s not likely that this will lose a ton of money, but it still has to be extremely disappointing for everyone involved.

Also, given the way just about every film set in the modern Middle East has played, it would probably be wise for Hollywood to give up on the concept for a while, no matter who is involved. Body of Lies probably had the highest profile stars and director yet for such a film, and it did nothing.

The Express

Prediction: $20m Open, $70m Final

Actual: $5m Open, $10m Final

Ultimately, trying to pitch a sports drama about overcoming long odds is fine, but doing it by focusing on someone who never played in the NFL and mostly just leaves audiences wondering “Who?” isn’t a recipe for success.

This is a bit disappointing, because Ernie Davis’ story is amazing and compelling. However, ultimately he’s just a minor blip in sports history and not likely to get a big response except from a niche audience.

Had this just been a small indie film, this would be a perfectly fine result. In fact, they probably could have played it as a platform release to try and build up momentum. Unfortunately, there’s a $40m cost attached, and it’ll take a long time to turn that around.

City of Ember

Prediction: $15m Open, $50m Final

Actual: $3m Open, $8m Final

Given the much higher profile and accessible family fare like Beverly Hills Chihuahua this isn’t terribly surprising. However, this is yet another lackluster adaptaion of a children’s book. The producers of Coraline are likely getting quite worried.

It’s also more bad news for Walden Media. In fact, this is the worst performance for the production studio, earning less than either Hoot or The Seeker: The Dark is Rising. To add to the pain, City of Ember cost $55m to make, and even with international reciepts, it’s only earned around $12m. This is an expensive miss. Given how poorly Prince Capsian did, there have to be some grave concerns about future films from the brand.

Of course there is some good news. Not with Ember, but with Walden. Journey to the Center of the Earth exceeded expectations in a grand manner, and the international take for Prince Caspain is a very healthy $278m. That’s still down from the $450m that The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe earned, but it’s enough to take off the sting.

What is perhaps the biggest concern is that for the most part, book adaptaions just don’t take off. They can be profitable, but the expectations need to be set appropriately. Budgets can’t be that large, and unless there is a very large and active fanbase, any projections should be well tempered. Unless you’ve got an extremely hot property like Harry Potter or Twilight, the only sure way to get a film to break out seems to be to disassociate it with the book connection. Witness how well Shrek and Night at the Museum did. It’s likely that few of the audience members were there because they liked the book.

Max Payne

Prediction: $25m Open, $55m Final

Actual: $17m Open, $40m Current, ~$41m Final

In comparison to similar titles, this is actually quite strong. It’s a similar haul to the first Resident Evil in 2002 and last year’s Hitman, both of which arguably had stronger release dates. It’s not quite as high as some films with a similar feel, such as Constatine, but in the realm of lower-budget action flicks, this is actually pretty good. My prediction was a bit too bullish, in retrospect.

This is also considerably stronger than star Mark Wahlberg’s We Own the Night, which opened on a similar weekend in 2007. That one finished with slightly more than $28m. It’s not that this is a spectacular result, but it’s not bad, given everything involved. And with a budget of $35m and an overseas gross that matched the domestic take, Max Payne will turn a nice little profit. For a film basically at the level of The Transporter series, this is quite good.

Next year Wahlberg has two high profile flicks. The sequel to The Italian Job is slated to finally come out (likely in the summer), and in December he’s starring in Peter Jackson’s next film, The Lovely Bones. In both cases, he stands a strong chance to pass the century mark.

Sex Drive

Prediction: $20m Open, $55m Final

Actual: $3.6m Open, $8.4m Final

I vastly overstated how effective Summit Entertainment would be at getting the word out for this film. Of course at this point, all of the distributor’s films have been completely overshadowed by the success of Twilight.

With a worldwide haul of $11m and a budget of $19m, this is in the red at the moment, but could see a profit on video. Or cable.

The Secret Life of Bees

No prediction

Actual: $11m Open, $37m Current, ~$38m Final

This was a bit of a surprise success, snagging #3 for the weekend after Max Payne and Beverly Hills Chihuahua. It played very well with a sorely underserved demographic: African American women.

As is typical for films targeting African Americans, this played very weakly internationally, but it only cost $11m to make, so it’s already earned a tidy profit for Fox Searchlight.

W.

No Prediction

Actual: $11m open, $26m Final

I’m rounding the opening weekends to the nearest million. The Secret Life of Bees had $10,527,000 while W. was at $10,505,000, an incredibly close gap.

For director Oliver Stone, always at home with controversy, this is a bit of a disappointment. His three previous films earned more, two of them above $70m. Even the reviled Alexander managed to gather up $34m.

In the case of W., it’s likely that this was a poor release date. Given how much political fervor existed in October, adding a politically charged film wasn’t going to take off. There was so much emotional investment in the presidential race this year that anyone who went to see a movie wanted some escape.

On one hand, you’ve got people who are apologetic to Bush and don’t want to see a film critical of him by a liberal like Stone. On the other you’ve got people who are already critical of Bush and don’t want to spend a couple hours watching his life on screen. In a few years, this might be an interesting film to check out, once people have had a bit of distance.

High School Musical 3: Senior Year

Prediction: $35m Open, $90m Final

Actual: $42m Open, $89m Current, ~$92m Final

And here we have probably the weirdest box office run ever. There’s such a confluence of events that came together to effect this run, both internal and external, that I’m sure that HSM3 will go down as one of the most unique box office stories of all time. The fact that my final prediction was that close is amazing.

To start, this is probably the first time that a direct to TV/video movie has ever had a theatrical sequel. I actually predicted, after the success of the first film for Disney, that HSM2 would get a big screen release. This didn’t happen, though, and Disney reaped the rewards as over 30m people checked in for the opening weekend premier. Had all of those people gone to the opening weekend of the third film, it would have been vying with The Dark Knight for the biggest opening weekend of all time.

Clearly that didn’t happen. The opening weekend was still very strong, but somewhat surprisingly, it wasn’t the biggest in October’s history. Both Scary Movie 3 and Shark Tale top it. This is despite having a very dedicated fanbase and almost no competition. At this point, some people began to question Disney’s release strategy for the film.

Even so, with an opening like that, it seemed like HSM3 could cruise to some supremely strong heights. And in a normal year, it probably would have. But here’s where the story gets weird.

After four weekdays of lackluster businss due to school and whatnot, it was heading into its second weekend on Halloween Friday. Expectations were high as competition was still non-existant and Musicals tend to hold up well. Mamma Mia! dropped less than 40% in its second frame this summer.

But that Friday was killer. HSM3 earned just $1.6m, a 90% drop from its opening day. With an established fanbase, a large Friday to Friday drop is expected, but in most cases, this would be something in the 60% range. 90% is unprecedented. For a film to do that, it would have to be completely hated and abandoned. Like Gigli. Actually Gigli only dropped 85%, so it actually did better than HSM3.

But High School Musical is well loved by its fans. The third film is no different. On the second Saturday, it bounced up about 400% to just over $8m. This was down less than half of the business from the first Saturday and looked much more normal. The second Sunday was similar.

So what happened here? Halloween on a Friday. For movies, it absolutely sucks. It eats up the box office like nothing else because kids who might be going to films are instead going to parties and whatnot. In the case of HSM3, it’s entirely likely the intended audience was out costumed as the members of the cast on Friday. Then they turned around and went to the movie again on Saturday.

What’s really weird is that Disney should know this. Halloween last fell on a Friday in 2003. Disney released Brother Bear that year and after a week in limited release, they chose to go wide with it on November 1, a Saturday. This seemed to turn out rather well as it earned about $20m in two days and went onto finish with $85m.

Had HSM3 gotten a normal Friday for its second weekend, it probably would have earned another $5m or so. As it stands, it got an incredibly weird weekend where the Friday to Weekend ratio was over 9. That NEVER happens.

Were it just the Halloween weekend, HSM3 would be the victim of a strange quirk in the calendar, and people would be wondering why Disney made such a release date decision. But it doesn’t stop there.

After the second weekend, it had a relatively soft drop and its second Monday was just 21% down from the first. Then the second Tuesday happened and it shot up to almost $2m. The first Tuesday it’d earned under $1.2m, so it beat that by a healthy margin. It also beat the vastly depressed second Friday by a good $300,000.

As a best guess, Election Day had a bunch of adults dropping their kids off at the movie theater before going to vote. Or a bunch of Obamaniacs choosing to go see a film in celebration after they voted. Or something. It’s not entirely unprecedented, as Brother Bear jumped 10% on the Election Tuesday, but that was also 2003, and off year for voting. In 2004 Election Day fell on a Thursday. Shark Tale jumped about 35% that day.

On the Wednesday the 5th, the film fell by 70% to just over half of its Monday take. But then on Thursday it received another positive bump of 34%. Given how similar this is to the Shark Tale bump on the first Thursday in November, I’m not sure we can attribute the latter’s jump on that day to the Election. Then on the third Friday, HSM3 rose to $2.5m, further proving how bad Halloween is on a Friday.

Surely, at this point it would turn into a normal film and have its standard drops each week. Such is not the case. On November 11, a week after Election Day, it had another absurd bump, this time of 80% over Monday the 10th. It was down just 15% Tuesday to Tuesday, because of… Veterans Day. It’s not really much of a holiday, all things considered, but apparently people decided the way to celebrate was to go see kids singing about school.

And after Veterans Day, it seemed that, yes, it finally has settled down to a normal box office run.

Unfortunately, as strange and interesting as High School Musical 3’s run has been, there’s probably not a lot to learn from it, at least in box office comparisons. It’s such a wide outlier in so many ways that finding a comparable movie in the future will be nigh impossible.

But it seems rather clear that Disney left a lot of money on the table with the release. The fact that they lost about $5m on Halloween is clear, but given the size of the fanbase, a $90m haul has to be a bit disappointing. Mamma Mia!, Hairspray, and Enchanted all had a similar audience demographic and each managed to get past $100m easily. Of course, they all had much better release dates.

Disney probably could have earned a similarly higher amount by waiting until Thanksgiving, like Enchanted. Of course that would have had the problem of crossing over with Twilight, which plays to a similar audience. And it would have necessitating moving Bolt elsewhere in the schedule. But as nice as Bolt’s legs might be, it’s likely that High School Musical 3 would have earned more on the same release date.

Of course, in the end here’s a film that cost $11m to make and it’s going to gather almost nine times that domestically and already has over twenty times that world-wide. That’s not to mention the huge amount it’s going to earn once it shows up on DVD and the Disney Channel. We may not see a High School Musical 4, and Disney might have lost about $50m by their release choices, but it’s not likely to hurt them in the end.

Saw V

Prediction: $25m Open, $55m Final

Actual: $30m Open, $57m Final

Despite the same release date and a similar budget to High School Musical 3, there’s much less that’s interesting about the box office run for Saw V. It’s interesting in comparison only.

To compare some numbers:

$19m, $32m, $34m, $32m, $30m

Those are the opening weekends of the five Saw films. You’ve got the first, which came out as an October surprise in 2004, the second and third building on the popularity, then the fourth and fifth tailing off from the peak but still doing respectably.

$55m, $87m, $80m, $63m, $57m

Those are the final tallies for the five Saw films. You’ve got the first surprise success, a huge jump to the second, and then declining grosses therafter. The extremely large drop between the third and fourth is especially telling. It’s also worth noting that despite having an opening weekend over $10m higher, the fifth film only outgrossed the first by $2m.

33, 36, 42, 50, 53

Those are the percentage of the entire box office run that happened in the opening weekend. And Saw V is terrible in this regard. It’s abundantly clear that audiences are tiring of the franchise. The fans come out (in decreasing numbers) for the opening weekend and then they get abandoned.

At this rate, when Saw X comes out in 2013, we should expect it to open to $20m and finish with $30m.

While it seems likely that Lionsgate will abandone the franchise before that happens, consider that the films are incredibly cheap. Saw V, even with a bad box office run managed to earn five times its budget domestically. There will be a Saw VI next year and probably many more to come.

Pride & Glory

Prediction: $10m Open, $30m Final

Actual: $6m Open, $16m Final

As I noted in my prediction, this was lost in the shuffle. both HSM3 and Saw V opened stronger than predicted, and this had less chance to break in. The legs were actually relatively strong, but that’s a small consolation.

Pride & Glory cost $30m to make, so it’s not only the most expensive film released this weekend, but also the only one to lose money.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Prediction: $5m Open, $15m Final

Actual: $0.4m Open, $1.1m Final

It seems likely that the combination of High School Musical 3 and the strong release this film had in 2007 combined to cancel out any interest this year.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Prediction: $25m Open, $70m Final

Actual: $10m Open, $31m Current, ~$31m Final

The Halloween release date did have an effect, depressing the opening Friday despite an established (if small) fanbase for director Kevin Smith.

However, a larger problem arose due to the subject matter of the film. Some venues chose not to allow advertising of it, and some theaters chose not to show it. This led to some haphazard attempts to keep interest up and get the word out. They called the film just “Zack and Miri” in some cases, although it’s questionable how much of an effect removing the “Porno” from the title can really have. If people know what it’s about, they’re already decided, and if they don’t, then they won’t really enjoy being surprised.

For Smith, this is actually his largest film to date, just barely beating out Dogma. He’s actually been remarkably consistent since that film was released as all of his have earned between $24m and $31m. Whether he manages to break out at any point will mostly depend on if he can garner any reception outside of his core audience. His next film is apparently not going to be a comedy, so that may help.

While this is a success for Smith, it probably isn’t for star Seth Rogen. After his huge success last year with Knocked Up and Superbad, he looked prime to hit it big this year. His voice work has done well in Horton Hears a Who and Kung Fu Panda, but neither of those really showcased him, and the celebrity names usually don’t matter for animated entries. Pineapple Express did respectably well this summer, but it was a bit of a drop compared to the 2007 pair.

Zack and Miri isn’t the sort of business he’d like to establish if he wants to be a comedy leading man. While all of the big comedy names have hit snags from time to time, they’ve tended to do so much later in their careers. Rogen doesn’t have the track record to keep getting projects if he can’t keep the dollars coming in consistently.

He’s got two more comedies next year. Observe and Report has him teaming up with Anna Faris who’s coming off of a surprise success in The House Bunny. And next July he’s in Funny People with Adam Sandler and directed by Judd Apatow. That one, at least, should be safely large.

The Haunting of Molly Hartley

Prediction: $10m Open, $20m Final

Actual: $5m Open, $13m Final

If you’re going to release a PG-13 horror film, don’t do it on Halloween Friday.

Overall

A mostly forgettable month, business-wise, with a number of bad to moderate performances. Disney comes away as the big winner with Beverly Hills Chihuahua and High School Musical 3.

December Movie Preview

Hot on the heels of a scorching November comes the big question. As 2008 enters its final month, can it remain ahead of the record tally of 2007? Currently, 2008 is about $150m ahead, which isn’t small, but amounts to less than a 2% difference between the years. However, the big issue is whether the December releases will remain strong enough. Last year, the final month was extremely strong, earning about a billion dollars under the lead of films like I Am Legend, National Treasure, and Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Can this month do the same? We shall have to find out.

Weekend of December 5

Punisher: War Zone

Comic book movies are incredibly lucrative. In fact, there probably isn’t a single IP generating industry that does better as a whole. That includes the movie industry itself. Led by the likes of Spider-Man, Batman, and Iron Man, top tier comic films will command large budgets and get even larger commercial (and sometimes critical) response. Even lower tier entries, without name brand recognition, can do very well. Wanted did some fairly spectacular business this summer, and even Hellboy has managed a quietly successful franchise.

What is perhaps odd about comic books is that they’re given some incredible chances in the realm of film. Usually if something doesn’t work out, it’s dead and gone. Book authors live in fear of the chance that a bad film will be made of their work, because it means they may not get those regular checks for rights securement. A bad movie means that ALL movies based on that source are likely to be bad, and should be avoided.

Not so for comic books. If there’s a misstep, not only does the sub-industry keep trucking, but there’s now a pervasive effort to shrug off the bad film and just start again, within a few years. After Ang Lee’s Hulk disappointed, Universal shrugged it off and went ahead with a re-start to the franchise (after just one film), and had the enjoyable (but about equally successful) Incredible Hulk this year. Superman Returns didn’t get the sort of response that WB and DC wanted, so they’re doing another franchise reboot.

And that brings us to Punisher: War Zone. The previous Punisher film starring Thomas Jane and John Travolta had a miniscule budget and a horrid response, both critically (28% positive on Rotten Tomatoes), and commercially (just $33m domestic). Ironically, because of the small budget, it’s actually a profitable film.

Due to the response, Punisher: War Zone is a complete restart to the franchise. Like The Incredible Hulk, little connection to the previous film remains except for the title. Instead of Thomas Jane, the titular character is being played by Ray Stevenson. German martial artist turned film director Lexi Alexander has the reigns behind the camera. And the budget has been increased from a paltry $15m to a massive $35m.

To say that the deck is still stacked against Frank Castle is a bit of an understatement. On one hand, expectations are justifiably low. As The Incredible Hulk showed, restarts don’t have any strong likelihood of improving on the predecessor. In addition, the release date here is terrible. The weekend following Thanksgiving is bad enough for holdovers (which routinely lose half of their business or more, even when well received), but it’s abysmal for new films. The strongest opener on the post-Thanksgiving frame is The Last Samurai, and it only managed $24m, even being in the time when Tom Cruise was a major draw (i.e. pre-couch). It’s notable that no other films are getting a wide release this weekend.

In addition to that, the news surrounding the film doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Rumors abounded that director Alexander had been taken off the project and that the film would be reshot and edited to get a PG-13 rating. These were probably untrue, but nothing seems to have removed that taint from the film.

It’s possible that Punisher: War Zone will be an enjoyable action film, but at best it’s looking forward to cult status and profits from the eventual DVD release. It isn’t likely to spawn a direct sequel and since it’s potentially the third failed start for the character in film (there was an ’89 film starring Dolph Lundgren), it’s unlikely that Frank Castle will get another chance.

As a bonus though, The Wire’s Dominic West is playing the villain.

Opening: $10m, Final: $30m

Weekend of December 12

The Day the Earth Stood Still

If the restart is a film with a uniquely comic book association, the remake has a long cinematic history. That history is not one that is particularly well regarded, especially as the cries of Hollywood’s lack of originality abound. It’s not surprising to see why remakes are popular. The industry is full of people who got into film because they love film, and specific films in particular. At a certain point in their careers, they’ll often want to try and bring those beloved classics up to date with modern technology.

The artistic success of these efforts is often questioned. However, remakes are often commercially successful, and the sci-fi variety that The Day the Earth Stood Still represents has been especially so of late. War of the Worlds did spectacular business in the summer of 2005, but the closest analogue is going to be last December’s I Am Legend.

The similarities between the two films abound. Both are based on short stories that were made into well regarded films that spoke to a Cold War audience and have been tweaked to speak to the post-9/11 audiences of today. Both are headlined by successful action stars who are both making more forays into dramatic roles. And both have a similarly gripping ad campaign that speaks of some dark gothic sensibilities and probing questions about our humanity.

Of course, it’s not a perfect match. For one, while Keanu Reeves is successful, he’s not at Will Smith’s level, but then nobody is. Reeves isn’t nearly as well received, often garnering jokes that various inanimate objects would suffice just as well. With that said, he is a draw and at least in this case, his flat delivery may serve the role of Klaatu particularly well.

Also, I Am Legend was a rather understated film, mostly showcasing Will Smith’s isolation in a quiet New York and playing up the creepy thriller tension. In comparison, The Day the Earth Stood Still is more of an effects-fest, still creepy, but the alien-ness of it is being pushed.

Overall, the prognosis for this should be rather good. At the time of release, Quantum of Solace will have been in theaters for a month and no other top tier action films will have been released. In comparison to Transporter 3 and Punisher: War Zone, this is a release that’s designed to take the #1 spot.

In addition, there aren’t any strongly comparable films being released for the rest of the month. As such, it should enjoy the comfortable holds that December usually grants films.

Opening: $45m, Final: $200m

Delgo

There’s a definite tiering system to computer animated films. At the top the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks develop films that garner much critical success, they also have large budgets and envelope-pushing technology almost at every turn. The industry has come a long way since those were the only two players, but they still are the names that everyone looks towards.

At the bottom are a number of smaller studios which have realized that the technology exists now to do computer animation inexpesively and still deliver some impressive imagery. This isn’t particularly new, as even back in the 90s there were attempts to deliver lower budget features that still delivered. The most notable of these is likely Blue Planet, an unfinished film made by Rainbow Studios (later acquired by THQ), that generated some early internet excitement with its anti-Pixar trailer that had White Zombie’s ‘More Human than Human’ as the musical track.

It wasn’t until Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius hit the theaters that lower-budget fare has garnered an effective box office response. Since then, the number of such releases has grown to the point that it’s clear that the pasta-against-the-wall strategy is at work from a number of studios. While Pixar, Dreamworks, and Fox’s Blue Sky Studios are seen as reliable, quality entertainment, the other choices are often a bit hit-and-miss. Even animation stalwart Disney hit a rough patch with outsourced offerings like Valient and The Wild before it seemed to find its own CGI feet in-house.

So what does this all mean for Freestyle releasing’s Delgo. It probably highlights a number of ways that the successful CGI offerings have managed to separate themselves from the pack. In that Delgo is doing just about everything wrong.

First, realistic animation isn’t really a good idea. Despite some amazing advances in technology, using computers to create humans still leaves a lot to be desired, looking a bit creepy to audiences. Despite dumping millions into Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the film flopped (and took the fledgling Square animation studio with it), with the primary criticism being that it didn’t look real enough.

The smart studios have realized that not only is realism an as yet unrealistic dream for computer animation, but they can even bypass it by focusing on subjects that don’t need to look human (as in Toy Story), or by using stylized humans to bypass the realism issue entirely (as seen in The Incredibles and a number of other films.)

For Delgo, the characters aren’t human, but they seem to have a very realistic style to them, and as such, the inhuman designs actually heighten the problem. They don’t seem like characters you can relate to and empathize with.

Second is that using animation as a cost-saving measure works best if you’re doing it in the right way. Spending your budget to develop a lavish-otherworldly setting isn’t nearly as effective as using it to do the few things you can’t necessarily pull off in real life. Call it The Simpsons rule of animation: you can do anything, and it doesn’t really increase your cost much in the end.

Delgo, like a number of previous films, has plunged assets into developing a lush and vibrant alien world, but one that’s entirely without life. The still images look good, but once in motion, they don’t deliver.

And third, but possibly most important, is the primary reason that Pixar especially (and to a lesser extent Dreamworks) is successful: they make good movies and then have excellent marketing. It’s critical that the film is advertised as a quality way to pass a couple hours, and this is especially true because it’s not possible to rely on the wow-factor of the medium to get an audience.

This doesn’t mean that the film needs to be great, or that the advertising needs to saturate, but it’s important that the story and characters are strong and inviting and that the trailers sell the film’s strengths.

Delgo completely fails in this, by having a tepid trailer that tries to play up a weak science-fiction story (another iffy area for animation in general) with some cliched character archetypes. What’s worse is that the production quality of the trailer left a lot to be desired, with sound issues abound.

What Delgo brings to mind is 2003’s Kaena: The Prophecy, a luke-warm French/Canada offering that can be forgiven for its weakness by being a relatively early computer animated offering. And by being foreign. Delgo doesn’t have that excuse (although it is from an Indie studio.) It is also all but guaranteed to outgross Kaena, if only because it’s showing up on more than three theaters. Still, Kaena’s $2,000 opening on one theater gives us a good benchmark. Delgo will probably get a similar average across its entire opening.

Opening: $5m, Final: $15m

Weekend of December 19

Seven Pounds

For the third straight year, Will Smith has a high profile December release. And even though he’s mostly known as a summer stalwart, he’s no stranger to Holiday releases. Enemy of the State earned $100m a decade ago and five years earlier he was in the ensemble Six Degrees of Separation.

Of course there’s also 2001’s Ali and 2000’s The Legend of Bagger Vance, but both of those did so poorly it’s possible Smith got a little gun-shy about the winter releases. But all of that’s changed. Since Ali’s release, every film he’s headlined has easily suprassed $100m. And all but one have opened above $40m.

That one exception is The Pursuit of Happyness, his December effort from 2006. The film was a large departure for him, as he eschewed his action and comedy mainstays for a straight-up drama. Despite the $26m opening, the legs for the film were spectacular as it played strongly not just through the end of the year, but well into the winter months. The final tall of $163m showed that Smith wasn’t limited to effects-driven extravaganzas.

This is important because even though I Am Legend delivered Smith’s largest opening and second-largest final gross, The Pursuit of Happyness is the closest match for Seven Pounds. This is another straight-up drama that has Smith playing an everyman dealing with somewhat extra-ordinary circumstances. In fact the films have the same director in Gabriele Muccino.

The box office prospects for The Pursuit of Happyness were a bit up in the air at the time, and it seems audiences were tentative on the prospect of Smith leading a serious drama. This time around, that’s not likely to be the case, as he’s proven his chops so to speak. The opening should be larger, but the final gross may not improve upon the already solid heights that Happyness attained. In any case, Smith should push his century streak to nine films.

Opening: $40m, Final: $160m

Yes Man

Jim Carrey is an actor of contrasts. Despite being regaled as the king of Comedy for a number of years, his solo successes were usually more modest than realized. And as such, the recent bashing that he’s received is somewhat undeserved. His attempts to make a career in dramatic roles hasn’t turned out well, but even though he’s been quiet, his comedies have been remarkably consistent.

Unlike Will Smith, Carrey is a Holiday mainstay. This begain in 1994 when Dumb and Dumber hit $127m and cemented Carrey as a star. Since then he’s had the second Ace Ventura film and How the Grinch Stole Christmas as well as the less impressive Man in the Moon and The Magestic. More recently he had the back-to-back December successes of Lemony Snicket and Fun with Dick and Jane. While neither film earned critical praise, they did gross over $100m apiece.

Yes Man seems to be a bit of a return to Carrey’s larger successes where he’s an ordinary man who experiences a change that causes him to act and view the world in a different manner. Bruce Almighty is his second biggest film, and Liar Liar is his third biggest. Yes Man bears a lot of similarity to these and it’s likely that audiences will respond in a similar manner.

The concern is that audiences have moved past Carrey. While he was a strong box office draw for a very long time, he’s only had two films released since Fun With Dick and Jane. Last year’s The Number 23 (which was both a critical and commercial failure), and Horton Hears a Who, where Carrey lent his voice. It was successful, but celebrity voices aren’t necessarily a major selling point in animation.

Moreover, movies of this sort are even longer. Bruce Almighty was over five years ago, and Liar Liar was almost twelve years ago. As such, it’s probably wise to keep expectations more mild this time around.

The interesting question here is what is a bigger draw: Jim Carrey returning to his strengths, or Will Smith playing to his milder dramatic side. I think Smith has the edge in the end, but it’s possible that Carrey will open larger.

Opening: $45m, Final: $140m

The Tale of Desperaux

If Delgo is an animated film that’s doing just about everything wrong, Desperaux is one that’s at least attempting to do everything right. They’ve got a catchy, engaging story with an identifiable hero, some lushly spectacular visuals, and a very strong advertising campaign.

As the poster notes, Desperaux is a small mouse with big dreams. He has large ears and apparently no fear as he goes forth to seek adventure, save the world, and woo the (very human) princess. All this despite being sickly and weak.

This is a fairly standard fantasy with triumph of the little guy over extremely large odds, but it’s played very well here. The trailer is presented in a storybook manner, and Despereaux comes across as a classic adventure hero in the likes of Errol Flynn. Even better, the humor is spot-on, with the interplay between the humans and rodents full of amusing moments.

The cast is an ensemble of celebrity voices, as is typical for just about any non-Pixar animated offering, but with the likes of Matthew Broderick, Robbie Coltraine, and Kevin Kline (among many others), it seems fairly clear they weren’t chosen for their box office prowess but (hopefully) because they fit the roles well. Perhaps the biggest current name is Emma Watson, who plays the princess.

The source material is a novel by Kate DiCamilio, who also wrote Because of Winn-Dixie which was a mildly successful, if bland, film in 2005. Desperaux seems like it will play considerably stronger.

If there’s any big concern, it’s Charlotte’s Web. The must hyped animated adaptation in 2006 earned less than $12m over its opening weekend. It did manage to turn around and gather $82m overall, but that’s not the best reassurence. Of course there have been a number of fairly weak-opening but strong legs animated films in December. The Prince of Egypt managed $101m after a $14m opening a decade ago. The Emperor’s New Groove earned less than $10m for its opening, but earned almost $90m overall. And Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius gathered $80m after a $13m opening in 2001. To a lesser degree, Hoodwinked earned $51m after a $12m opening in 2005.

This means that even if the opening isn’t particularly strong, Desperaux can probably expect very good legs throughout the holiday season and beyond. It’s not likely to get up to Pixar or Dreamworks levels, but it should do rather well in the end.

Opening: $20m, Final: $110m

Weekend of December 26 (Films open on Thursday, December 25)

Bedtime Stories

After Will Smith, Adam Sandler is the most consistently bankable star in Hollywood. Over the past decade, he’s had nine straight comedies gross at least $100m. He’s also made a few attempts at more dramatic fare and hasn’t been critically reviled for doing so. And now he’s taking a slight change of pace with Bedtime Stories, a family-friendly fantasy adventure (although still with strong comedic elements.)

The strength of Sandler as a box office star shouldn’t be underestimated. Even though he’s not had an absolutely huge hit, his consistency is amazing. Bedtime Stories, though, has an added advantage. The closest and easiest comparison is actually Night at the Museum, which opened to $30m in December of ’06 and had a tremendous run, earning $115m by the end of the year and $250m in total.

Disney likely has similar expectations for Bedtime Stories. Sandler is a bigger star than Ben Stiller, even though Stiller has had some larger hits, such as Meet the Fockers (released just prior to Christmas in 2004). If the family friendly nature of the comedy doesn’t turn off the slightly more mature (yet juvenile) tastes of Sandler’s normal fans, there could be an amazing crossover potential which could drive Bedtime Stories beyond the heights of Night at the Museum.

If there’s a concern here, it’s probably that the crossover appeal won’t happen, or worse, that there will be a cancellation effect. If Sandler’s fans decide that this is too kiddified for them, and families decide that Sandler’s brand of humor isn’t right, it could end up doing somewhat less stellar business. However, given Sandler’s career track, that doesn’t seem incredibly likely. The success of Click! where he played a similar everyman in an odd situation should be indicative.

It’s a bit debatable whether or not Bedtime Stories has a stronger release date than Night at the Museum. While it’s opening on Christmas Day, and thus avoids the movie dead zone of Christmas Eve, Night at the Museum has the advantage of a couple days of business previous. The Christmas Day to New Years Day period is extremely strong for films, and a few days business isn’t likely to bleed off any interest, so Night at the Museum might have about $30m going in its favor here. Of course this may be mitigated by the second weekend, which falls January 2-4 this year, and may cancel out that advantage. We’ll have to see, there.

One other point of note is the competition. Night at the Museum opened against three films, none of them in direct competition. The previous weekend had three films, and while Eragon and Charlotte’s Web both could be considered competitors, they had opened considerably weaker than expected. Bedtime Stories has four other films opening, and three the previous weekend. Four of those seven may provide stronger competition.

Despite these problems, it seems very likely that Bedtime Stories will be an extremely strong film for its opening week and is likely to become the highest grossing of Adam Sandler’s career.

Opening: $40m 3-day, $50m 4-day, Final: $230m

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

For such a well-regarded director, David Fincher isn’t that successful. His six films have averaged just $60m, and only one of those has crossed the century mark. In 1995, Se7en managed to barely squeak past that while simultaneously vaulting Fincher to the spotlight. Since then, he has delivered strong performances, and even managed to create a cult favorite in Fight Club, but his biggest success was 2002’s Panic Room, which only managed $96m

It’s not too surprising then that he’s hooked up again with Brad Pitt, who starred in Se7en. Pitt isn’t quite the superstar he’s often portrayed as, but he does have some box office chops. From the release of Ocean’s Eleven in 2001, every live action, wide-release film he starred in crossed $100m until Burn After Reading earlier this year. Of course, three of those films were the ensemble Ocean’s trilogy, so really he managed to get there with Troy and Mr. & Mrs. Smith.

Benjamin Button is based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story about a man who is born old and grows younger throughout his life. The time and placement of the story have been changed for the film, so that the titular character lives out his life throughout the 20th and into the 21st century (instead of being born in 1860.)

On sight, this seems to be a bit of an odd choice for a film. The premise is strong and interesting, to be sure, but it’s not an especially active concept. It seems more likely that there’s an attempt to please the critics and hopefully garner a number of awards rather than get audiences out in a big way. Early response seems to be positive, so this may be a good strategy. As such this may be a leggy film rather than one that opens large.

Perhaps most interesting is that the script penned by Eric Roth, who is well familiar with Christmas releases. He’s had The Good Shepard in 2006, Munich in 2005, and Ali in 2001, as well as The Postman way back in 1997. The first three films on the list were similarly in the position of desiring the awards, but are generally regarded as flawed, despite the pedigree of some people involved, notably Matt Damon, Robert DeNiro, Steven Spielberg, Will Smith, and Michael Mann. There could be some concern that Benjamin Button is going to also come across as interesting but flawed.

The opening frame should be somewhat muted, despite the Christmas boost, but it should play well through January 4, at least. If there are awards considerations, it may be have a strong performance into February.

Opening: $20m 3-day, $25m 4-day, Final: $95m ($125m if it’s a contender)

Marley and Me

Arguably the dark horse entry for the holiday weekend, this film stars Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, but rather than being a romantic comedy, it’s about their relationship with their dog from hell, Marley. Not that Marley’s a strongly bad dog, it just seems like he’s untrained.

There is some strength here. Dog comedies of various sorts tend to be fairly popular. Both Aniston and Wilson have fairly strong comedic chops, although in her case they tend to be of the romantic variety. There looks to be some romance here, and it will be interesting to see if there’s some crossover between the family comedy crowd looking at the dog and the romantic comedy crowd looking at the couple.

However, it’s up in the air whether or not either is able to truly draw an audience. Aniston’s biggest films are Bruce Almighty (Jim Carrey as the draw), The Break-Up (Vince Vaughn), and Along Came Polly (Ben Stiller). For Wilson, his biggest hit as a lead came in Wedding Crashers, also with Vince Vaughn. He had prominence in Night at the Museum, but that was Ben Stiller’s show. And Cars was animated, so he’s not really in play as a draw there. Even Wilson’s smaller comedies generally have him teaming up with higher profile stars such as Jackie Chan and Eddie Murphy.

If we want a comedy with Wilson as the lead, we have March’s Drillbit Taylor, which opened to just $10m and finished with $32m. That isn’t something you want to emulate in December. For Aniston, there’s Rumor Has It, which opened on Christmas Day in 2005. That happened to be a Sunday, leading to the absurdly small opening weekend of $3.5m. It managed $43m by the end of its run, but wasn’t really memorable.

Instead of the stars, we may need to look to the dog as the real lead. For comparisons, we have Beverly Hills Chihuahua, which had a surprisingly strong opening of $29m and looks to finish slightly shy of the century mark. Dogs are still popular. A more direct comparison of ‘owner with a bad dog’ would lead us to look back to the late 80s and early 90s, where Turner & Hooch and Beethoven had fairly strong, but not spectacular runs.

In all, there’s a chance Marley and Me could play fairly well. But there are some questions as to the drawing power of the stars. A bigger concern is that there’s a lot of competition for the comedy dollar. Both Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey are considerably bigger for laughs, and both will be playing strong in a big way.

Opening: $10m 3-day, $15m 4-day, Final: $75m

The Spirit

This almost has the chance to be the most contentious film released for Christmas. On one hand is the source material, which is one of the most well-regarded parts of superhero and comic history, created by one of the greatest sequential artists ever. On the other hand is the director, also well regarded in comics history and one of the greatest artists ever, but considerably divisive.

The Spirit comes from the early period of superhero comics. Created by Will Eisner in 1940 as a 7-page weekly insert in Sunday newspapers, it was a brilliant work where Eisner established a number of storytelling elements that continue to be used (or unfortunately ignored) to this day. Were that all Eisner had done, it would have been an amazing career, but he continued to produce brilliant work up until his death, even inventing the modern graphic novel. It is no accident that the most prestigious of comic book awards are named after him.

The Spirit is such a seminal work, it’s fairly surprising it hasn’t been made into a feature film before. In fact, there were a number of attempts from the early 1990s to 2005 to do just that, but until Frank Miller came on the project, little had been done. At that point, development started to show promise. Eisner was a long-time friend of Miller, so there was a high degree of hope that the resulting product would be faithful to Eisner’s vision. Additionally, from a business standpoint, it’s almost a perfect storm of the right name being on the right project at the right time.

At the moment, Frank Miller is probably the third strongest name in movies for comic books, after Marvel and Batman. The success of Sin City has led to a bit of confusion as to why the sequel hasn’t happened yet (it’s still to be determined.) More importantly, the huge surprise success of 300 has rocketed Miller as a golden boy of comics, about two decades after he hit his early huge successes actually drawing and writing the books. Having him doing his first solo writer/director work was a bit of a coup.

So on the surface, you’ve got a plumb character, great history, and combination of strong comics talent would make it seem like this is the perfect project. Where’s the contention?

Unfortunately, Frank Miller isn’t Will Eisner. Miller is amazingly talented as an artist, certainly one of the best at laying out a page, and he does a very strong pastiche of film noir techniques. It’s really no accident that the Sin City film pretty much used the comics as a shot for shot storyboard. Miller’s visual style is that strong and it works very well.

However, Eisner was a completely different artist, especially on The Spirit. Far from the brooding noir of Miller (or even the contemporary Batman of the 1940s), the Spirit is bouncing with life, humor, and color. His 7 page adventures were snappy, quick, and fun.

The two men might have been close friends, but the differences are strong. From the release of the first trailer, it was apparent that these differences had caused some issues, to say the least. The initial teaser is just a short black and white clip that seemed to suck all of the life and humor out of the original comic. Worse, the dialogue was terrifically bad, as the Spirit narrates that the city is both his mother and his lover, a combination that is disturbing, to say the least. Perhaps most telling, the end of the teaser has the title rendered in lettering that is strongly reminiscent of the Sin City logo.

Since then, the news hasn’t gotten much better. The characters all seem to be warped versions of themselves, especially the women. While it’s true that The Spirit in the comics had a lot to do with a number of sexy women, they were also strong and independent and individual. Now they’ve all been rendered as sexpots of the two standard Miller varietys: dangerous virgins, or dangerous whores.

Samuel L. Jackson is in the film as the main villain, the Octopus. This was a character who Eisner justifiably felt was so evil that he couldn’t be shown on the page. Miller couldn’t figure out a way to make that work, so he’s dressed up Jackson as a pimp in heavy make-up.

Jackson has also indicated that there is humor in the film. But more recent trailers have given the indication that it’s more slapstick than anything else. The Spirit and the Octopus have been transformed into muscle-bound super-men, which is at odds with the original nature of the book. The Spirit was originally conceived as a detective story, but Eisner added a mask because superheroes were popular at the time.

Where does this leave the film? On one hand, there’s the possibility that the fans will be strong divided over it. Some fans have already decried it or ar at least losing hope with each passing day. Others, especially those strongly dedicated to Miller, are likely still excited. How these two will interact is really a large question.

Outside of the fans is the general audience, most of whom aren’t familiar with the character. These will instead be mostly swayed by the 300 and Sin City connections. Even though both films are regarded as flawed, that’s likely to be a strong connection, especially with action crowd. Also, the competition is fairly light. The Day the Earth Stood Still is likely to be the biggest competitor, and it will be entering its third weekend at this point.

Assuming a slighlty muted fan response, the general audience reception is likely to determine the film’s success. It probably won’t play as well as 300, but given the strength of the release date, Sin City’s $74m is probably going to be an average result, at worst. If it’s well received, it could go much further. If reviews are weak or it doesn’t jump out of the gate well, it may just peter out quickly.

Opening: $25m 3-day, $30m 4-day, Final: $90m

Valkyrie (Opens December 26)

And here is the most contentious film, despite The Spirit’s best efforts. The reason for the contention is Tom Cruise, appearing here for his first major starring role since Mission: Impossible 3. That film came out just after the infamous couch incident, and Cruise’s reputation hasn’t been the same since.

He’s had to deal with an increasingly critical public, rampant mocking of his family and religion, and a lot of critical questions into the validity of his strenght of career. This has gotten to the point that even now, well before Valkyrie has been screened to critics, it is getting strongly negative reactions.

Whether or not the criticism leveled at Cruise is justified doesn’t really matter at this point. His appearance in the film is a lightning rod, and how audiences react to that will have a strong effect on the final result. On the one hand, Cruise was one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood. From 2000-2006, every film he starred in went on to gross at least $100m, a stretch of 7 films. He had 5 more such films in the 90s and 2 in the 80s. Additionally, Cruise’s cameo in Tropic Thunder was regarded as spectacular and hilarious. That alone may have generated a fair amount of good will toward him.

On the other hand, Valkyrie isn’t a cameo. It’s also not a comedy. This is a hard-hitting war drama about a bunch of Nazis. The subject matter isn’t likely to draw anyone in, even though it might be fascinating. Of course since it’s about a bunch of Germans, Cruise’s blatantly American accent is a bit offputting.

Behind the camera is Bryan Singer, who has done both popular and well-regarded movies, sometimes both. He got his start with The Usual Suspects, a cult surprise if there ever was one, but he’s most known for directing the first two X-Men films and Superman Returns. The trio of comic book movies has built up Singer’s geek cred, as has his production of the hit TV show House. Of course, Superman Returns hasn’t been nearly as well received as the two X-Men films, so the popular reception might be a bit cool there.

The combination of factors doesn’t lead to a rosy future for Valkyrie. With the deck stacked as it is, only an extremely strong critical reaction and serious awards consideration are likely to turn things around.

Opening: $10m, Final: $60m

Overall

December has a lot of question marks this year. It bears a fair amount of superficial similarity to 2006, but there are a lot of possibilities for the films to swing around against expectations. There are a wide number of options so just about every movie fan should have something to choose. That could go a long way to helping 2008 stay ahead of 2007.

November Movie Preview

After two months of throwing everything at theaters to see what sticks, Hollywood enters the holiday season by slowing down the number of releases (down to one a weekend, in some cases), heating up the advertising (which has been hitting since mid-summer), and expecting bigger returns (although even with a holiday bounce, High School Musical 3 could be a tough act to beat.)

November is a bit of an odd month. Opening weekends tend to be very large, almost on par with May releases, but the weekday numbers are, for the most part, pretty bad. It’s actually arguable that the weak weekdays are the reason for the strong weekends. In 2001, Monsters, Inc. beat Shrek on just about every comparable weekend, however it grossed less in the final tally, mostly because Shrek had the stronger weekday numbers. Following this, Pixar started to pressure Disney to give it the more profitable summer release dates.

So while November is big… it’s not summer big. The strength of the Thanksgiving holiday is overshadowed by the incredible weakness of the following weekend. It’s also not December big. Opening weekends are better, but the week following Christmas is the best movie viewing season of the year. But even so, November is big, and while we won’t see another Harry Potter this year, it should have fireworks enough.

Weekend of November 7

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

In between the pop cultural phenom of Shrek and the brilliant surprise of Kung Fu Panda, Dreamworks experimented a lot with other properties. They’ve seen success enough, between Over the Hedge, Shark Tale, and Bee Movie, but they didn’t find anything that really latched on. Except for the penguins.

What amounted to a series of cameos made the first Madagascar film a success. The penguins were a hoot and easy to market because of their brevity. Add an inspired performance by Sacha Baron Cohen and it’s not entirely surprising that audiences glossed over an otherwise completely mediocre film. Given the comedic talent of the cast (arguably better than Shrek), it’s surprisingly underwhelming. However, audiences supported it to the tune of $193m, so a sequel was inevitable.

The advertising has been very much a rest-on-their-laurels move, pretty much just re-introducing the important points: funny zoo animals, funnier lemurs, even more funny penguins. At a guess based on the title, the setting changes from Madagascar to Africa.

The weekend is roughly the same as that of Monsters, Inc., Bee Movie, and The Incredibles which has proven quite profitable over the course of the last decade for family films. While it’s not absent from competition, it does have a weekend buffer between it and High School Musical 3, so families aren’t likely to be spent on competing products.

The biggest question is whether Madagascar will remain a franchise for Dreamworks. Kung Fu Panda succeeded very well earlier this year, and provided a rough benchmark for Madagascar’s success. If Madagascar 2 is heavily under either the $60m opening or the $215m final gross, it might be best to put the zoo animals back on the shelf.

Opening: $55m, Final: $165m

Unfortunately, I was sidetracked from writing this post before the weekend began, so I won’t provide predictions for Role Models or Soul Men, since they’re already out in the wild. Despite already being released, I won’t be updating the above prediction on Madagascar 2, either.

Weekend of November 14

Quantum of Solace

Perhaps the most venerable franchise ever, James Bond is still making large returns many decades after his debut. The fact that the acting face has changed so much and he’s now on his sixth hasn’t really affected his box office acumen. During the Pierce Brosnan years, it seemed like Bond had established a fairly standard model of success: they would open strongly in November, play strongly as a counterpoint to the more family-friendly fare (while still keeping the PG-13 rating that would allow families to attend if they so chose), and then finish north of $100m. The box office tallies rose for each film, but so did ticket prices and budgets, so the difference between Goldeneye and Die Another Day isn’t so large.

Despite getting a reboot and a new lead in Daniel Craig, Casino Royale didn’t seem to deviate much. In fact, upon release, it looked like a disappointment, since it was down from the last Brosnan effort. The budget was also up, and for a moment it seemed like a misstep to take Bond in a new direction.

But then the business kept up, and despite lagging behind Die Another Day in the beginning, Casino Royale had a spectacular run and earned over four times the opening weekend. Internationally the news was even better, and it cruised pas half a billion in worldwide receipts. The reboot gambit had paid off. Bond is now more hip, edgy, and accessible than ever before. He’s not the suave playboy of Connery or Brosnan, but instead a superspy who walks with the likes of Jason Bourne and grabs the viewer in a more immediate manner.

In a way, you can look at Casino Royale as a proof of concept film. It’s taking a known product and using the familiar while still pushing the boundaries of expectation. Quantum of Solace is likely to step away from the familiar. They have already delivered the familair to the viewer and can now move on. The story this time is new (although the title is taken from a Bond short story) and from the advertising we’re promised to see further into the darkness of Bond’s soul.

In a sense, an apt comparison to these Bond films is the current Batman franchise. With Batman Begins, there were a number of familiar and expected elements, but also this boundry pushing and slightly skewed viewpoints on the character and universe. The Dark Knight followed up with an even more edgy view. It wasn’t a film that rested on the laurels of earlier success and it broke out in a very big way because of that.

That’s not to say that Quantum of Solace is going to see two-and-a-half times the box office of Casino Royale. The Dark Knight had a number of factors which accounted for its momentous box office haul. However, the anticipation for the film is high and it should see an increase.

Aiding it is the fact that competition is virtually non-existant. The biggest competitor in general that it might have faced was Harry Potter, which has been shuffled to next summer. The more direct competition is at least two weekends away, and not nearly at the same level. When looking at the action dollar, Jason Statham’s Transporter 3 and Punisher: War Zone aren’t going to compare to James Bond.

The biggest question here is whether or not it’ll be big enough to retake the title of biggest spy from Jason Bourne and Ethan Hunt. Given the international receipts that are already piling in (including the biggest opening weekend in British box office history), it seems quite likely that Bond will do so.

Opening: $75m, Final: $260m

Weekend of November 21

Bolt

Disney animation has come a long way since the heyday of the 90s. The once venerable summer institution has become something of an also-ran in the field of feature cartoons, regularly exceeded by studio-mate Pixar and Dreamworks. The last strong entry that Disney released was Lilo & Stitch in 2002, which took a quirky character and premise to incredible heights and spawned a brand of direct to video sequels and an enjoyable TV series (a realm where Disney still does quite strongly)

But on the silver screen, the studio hasn’t seen quite the same strong returns. Following Lilo & Stitch were three lackluster efforts in Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, and Home on the Range. The last was so unimpressive that it was released outside the traditional summer or holiday bracket. It earned just $50m, and Disney hasn’t had a traditional 2D animated release since.

In an effort to keep up with the times, the studio has transitioned to computer animated fare. Initially with Chicken Little in 2005, which earned a strong but not spectacular $135m, then Meet the Robinsons in the spring of ’07 which stopped just short of $100m. Compared to the grosses that Pixar and Dreamworks sees, this is a bit of a downer and really isn’t even impressive enough to compare to Fox’s Blue Sky Studios releases. The quality of the product has been good, but it’s not been able to deliver, and Disney’s once great marketing machine seems to be falling apart. Witness how WALL-E, despite absolutely spectacular reviews, failed to take off in a big way this summer. (Or how last year’s Ratatoille barely crossed the double century mark.)

Thus the stage is set for Bolt. The story here is servicably enjoyable: an acting dog doesn’t realize he’s not a superhero and believes his owner is really being abducted by bad guys, so he breaks loose to go save her. It’s high concept enough to grab a wide audience and has a good amount of visual humor potential for the kids. Even so, it’s not quite enough to break this open as sure-fire.

The interesting part is behind the scenes. Bolt was originally called American Dog, and was helmed by Chris Sanders as his follow-up to Lilo & Stitch. He eventually got the ax because his take was a bit too weird and out there for the studio execs, but you can still get a sense of his quirky style.

And beyond that are just two words: Hamster. Ball.

Potentially the breakout character of the year is Rhino the hamster, who is pitch-perfect in the advertising and may sell the film all on his own. He’s small, fat, and shows absolutely no fear in part due to his apparently impervious plastic ball.

Bolt is still an uneven possibility, but it’s got potential. It won’t likely match up to the Pixar efforts, or even Dreamworks, but it could be a step in the right direction. Ironically, next year will see Disney return to the traditional 2D roots with The Princess and the Frog.

Opening: $35m, Final: $140m

Twilight

The realm of young adult book adaptations has a fairly strong break between two groups. On one hand is Harry Potter. On the other is everything else. Some may argue that Narnia belongs in with Harry Potter, but at this point, it looks like a one-hit-wonder.

In most cases, this isn’t a problem. Studios realize that the likes of Holes, Nim’s Island, and Bridge to Terabithia are not in the Harry Potter league, and everything is scaled as appropriate. Budgets and expectations are smaller and a haul under $100m isn’t seen as an ideal opening weekend but rather a good total run.

Even so, there is an ongoing effort to find the next Harry Potter. It’s in this transition ground that we find the disappointments. Films that can cross the century threshold, but aren’t good enough to really break out. A Series of Unfortunate Events exists here, which despite the presence of Jim Carrey doing his creepy uncle best, shot just under $120m. Or Eragon, which was a phenomenal disappointment at $75m, but in retrospect we have to wonder what they were thinking. Of course we can’t ignore Prince Caspian, the second Narnia film which managed to halve the spectacular box office of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

All these films have tried to fit into the Potter shoes and failed.

Which brings us to Twilight, the latest book series to try and follow in those large footsteps. Sort of.

The Twilight series came out of nowhere in 2005 where its story of love between a human girl and vampire boy captured the hearts and minds of tween and teen girls everywhere. That’s where we see the first difference from the aforementioned films. This isn’t a strict fantasy, although it does have supernatural elements. The selling point here is the gothic, moody, teenage angst.

The second big difference is that Twilight has a very definite gender skew. While girls tend to be more likely to read than boys, movie audiences are more balanced. Twilight, though, doesn’t exhibit the properties that are likely to get boys out for a viewing. At first, this might be seen as a weakness, but it’s slowly become clear that girls and younger women can and are a box office force to be reckoned with. The recent successes of musicals Hairspray and Mamma Mia! are a testament. Also the large response for The Princess Diaries. Plus there’s Disney’s recent direct forays for the tween and teen set in Hannah Montana and High School Musical (although the latter may have left a large amount on the table due to a poor release date.) All of these films have done great business, and Twilight, despite not having quite the same bounciness or musical nature is tapping into the same audience, and it’s got name recognition and excitement to match.

(Also, lest anyone forget, Titanic’s box office run was built on the repeat business of girls and women.)

Shows are already selling out for the film, so there’s enough reason to believe the opening weekend could be large, if not huge. It’s entirely possible that distributor Summit Entertainment will see more in three days of Twilight than it earned in all of its other films combined. And even if it doesn’t, Twilight was a cheap film to produce, possibly as little as $30m. That’s another difference from the earlier films. Boys tend to need big budgets to satisfy their cinematic cravings. Girls don’t seem to require the same. What it means is that Twilight has a very fast road to profitability.

Opening: $45m, Final: $150m

Weekend of November 28 (Films open November 26)

Australia

Baz Luhrmann has made a bit of a name for himself in film. His efforts tend to have lurid sets and costume design and an air to the direction that belies his stage direction roots. His efforts are both otherworldly yet still accessible. Perhaps most important is that Luhrmann’s films seem to have a rather strong appeal for multiple demographics.

It’s somewhat surprising to think that he’s only done three films. Australia is his fourth effort and it marks a bit of a change. While his previous films were presented somewhat as stage plays, Australia has the sense of a more typical grand cinematic effort. It still looks lavish and engaging, but not quite in the slightly surreal way of his previous films.

The story is centered around the WW2 bombing of Darwin. Nicole Kidman is an english aristocrat who, with the help of Hugh Jackman as a cattle drover, must protect her cattle and possibly some aboriginal kids from the horrors of war. There’s probably some romance in there, too.

On the upside, Australia looks quite good. Despite the WW2 setting, it’s not a war film, and the advertising plays up the romance and adventure, as well as having a heightened sense that Australia is an otherworldly place. Kidman and Jackman are both popular stars, although as yet they aren’t quite top tier; Jackman especially hasn’t seen a large film outside of an effects vehicle. This could be their chance to see a large breakout.

The downside is, well, the setting. Australia might be a wonderful place, but it’s possibly too niche to appeal to American audiences. Despite the richness of Australia’s history and wonderful differences it has compared to the US (or, well, just about anywhere on Earth), this might be relegated to a high adventure romance film and the audience might be strongly leaning towards women.

Luhrmann’s two previous films earned between $40m and $60m in the US, but had much stronger overseas grosses above $100m. It’s possible Australia could see a similar discrepancy, although Fox has to hope it will do better stateside, considering the $130m budget. The long Thanksgiving weekend could help it along.

Opening: $20m (three day)/$30m (five day), Final: $75m

Four Christmases

It’s almost a tradition now that a film comes out almost every year that focuses on people who are against the spirit of the season in some fashion. Recent entries to this have included Bad Santa, Christmas with the Kranks, and Fred Clause.

The last is prescient, since Vince Vaughn is also the star here. He’s teamed up with Reese Witherspoon this time as they play a couple who has their tradition of avoiding their families for Christmas overturned by some inopportune weather and a poorly placed news crew force them to have Christmas with their families. All four of them. The comedy hijinks presumably ensue.

The pairing of Vaughn and Witherspoon is a bit of a coup from a comedy-with-romance (if not a strict romantic comedy) perspective. Vaughn’s comedic chops are quite strong. His biggest film is Wedding Crashers, but he’s also had The Break-Up, Dodgeball and a scene-stealing performance in Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Beyond those, he’s had a number of solid performances running all the way back to Old School.

For Witherspoon, she’s been a bit quiet since her Oscar-winning performance in Walk The Line, but she had three straight years of big success from 2001-2003 with the two Legally Blonde films and Sweet Home Alabama.

Despite the romance angle, there’s no reason to think that this will skew heavily female. Vaughn should bring out the guys, as he tends to be big for the proto-typical frat-boy crowd. Even so, there seems to be a fairly set ceiling for these sorts of films. Competition is light, though, with Role Models entering its fourth weekend. Also, Australia may play stronger with the romance crowd.

Opening: $25m (three day)/$35m (five day), Final: $80m

Transporter 3

Jason Statham has established his career quite well. He is the late-summer action guy. If you want someone to lead the Labor Day weekend, he is your man, and he’ll do it faster and cheaper than anyone else. This niche is something he does quite well, but few people are under any illusions that he’s able to lead films to bigger and better things.

So it’s really odd that his latest film is opening over a much bigger holiday weekend. Thanksgiving isn’t normally the ground for a straight up actioner, but stranger things have happened.

In its favor, the Transporter franchise is definitely the most recognizable vehicle for Statham and it is relatively popular. Even his non-Transporter films tend to play up some similarity, be it the bang-up action (as in Crank), or having him behind the wheel (as in… just about everything else), so it’s clear that if they’re going to try an experiement in a new release date, this is probably the best choice.

Even so, Statham’s box office prowess is really predictable. For any film where he could be considered the primary lead, his biggest is the previous Transporter effort, which managed an amazing $43m total. It was also his biggest opening at $16m. In most cases, an opening and final around 2/3rds to 3/4ths those numbers is likely.

However, while this is an experiment, it’s unlikely it can go horribly wrong. Even with the odd release date, Statham should bring out his modest fan-base, and if action fans have tired a bit of James Bond, they may be looking for something new to whet their appetites.

Opening: $15m (three day)/$20m (five day), Final: $45m