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