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

July Movie Recap

Before I drop into the recap for July, I’d like to look at Wall-E again. In my June recap, I estimated that it would end up around $250 million. This was largely because Pixar films tend to have strong legs with final tallies at least four times the opening weekend. The opening here was $15m ahead of Ratatoille, so a final tally about $45-60 million more in the end would be about on par.

Instead, Wall-E has taken its fantastic reviews and strong audience response in hand while falling quite fast. Fast, at least for a Pixar film. This would be a strong result for any other studio, but with its current total (about $205m) it is unlikely to earn much more than $220m, if even that. Indeed, its final tally will likely be roughly the same as Kung Fu Panda.

And while that may be the strongest Dreamworks effort ever, it isn’t the same. Pixar is the name in animation, and I’m beginning to wonder if audiences are starting to take them for granted. There’s this expectation that the films will be great, and they are, but how do you top greatness? I’m sure that they’re wondering the same thing over in Emeryville, even as they work on next year’s expected masterpiece.

Now, onto the July films.

Hancock

Prediction: $70m open, $230m final

Actual: $63m open, $215m current, ~$230m final

My open was low because trying to predict how an Independence Day film opens is a crapshoot from. It earned about $100m in the 5+ day opening frame and is tracking rather close to 2005’s War of the Worlds. Will Smith’s going to make a run at three straight $200m earners this december with Seven Pounds, but even if it doesn’t make it, he’s proving again and again that he’s the strongest draw in Hollywood… and he makes smart film choices.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Prediction: $30m open, $75m final

Actual: $35m open, $71m current, ~$75m final

After the opening, I held out hope that Hellboy would see some strong legs and end up north of the century mark, if only barely. However, it’s fallen rather hard and fast in just about every weekend since and will instead end up close to my original final prediction. I’m figuring that the market for Hellboy was just about saturated. Fans of the first film likely went out this time and may have dragged along some friends, as did the advertising. This is a nice uptick and, after he’s done with the Hobbit movies, del Toro may come back and do a third.

Meet Dave

Prediction: $25m open, $70m final

Actual: $5m open, $11m current, ~$11m final

Usually it seems Murphy can show up in bad films and just barely eke out success. Usually. Sometimes there’s a Pluto Nash. Meet Dave isn’t quite that bad, but, really, when you’re underperforming at this level, it’s all bad. He might really be wanting a Beverly Hills Cop IV right about now.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Prediction: $15m open, $40m final

Actual: $21m open, $72m current, ~$90m final

At the beginning of the summer, if anyone had tried to guess which of the two Walden Media films would be marked a success and which a failure, I’ll bet most people would have chosen Journey to be the latter. As it happens, it’s turning into yet another mid-range success for the development studio, and will soon be the highest grossing of theirs outside of the Narnia flicks. And the recent one of those is probably best forgotten, at least business-wise.

There’s an outside shot this crosses $100m, which would be a stunning success. Depending on how hard and fast The Mummy falls this coming weekend, this might even be the higher grossing Brendan Fraser film of the summer.

Apparently, it doesn’t suck, either, which helps a lot for the final tally.

The Dark Knight

Prediction: $85m open, $270m final

Actual: $158m open, $393m current, ~$510m final

It passed my predicted final tally sometime on its 9th day. It will pass $400m in 19 days. Shrek 2 is the current fasted to that mark with $43 days. And it will cruise past all but the loftiest of goals by the time it leaves theaters.

I went into detail in my last post, but that was prior to the second weekend of the film, where it saw $75m. That’s a mighty total, and good for the biggest second weekend of all time, but it was likely at that point that Titanic became out of reach. A weekend north of $80m might have kept it in sight, and $90m would have made it a fight, but even though it had covered half the distance in 10 days, the latter $300m is the hurdle. Its third weekend of $43m is good for second best in history (after Spider-Man’s $45m) which further proves that Batman can’t top James Cameron. So the boat has sailed out of sight, but it can rest assured that it will be the second biggest film of all time, could break into the top 30 adjusted for inflation, and could possibly have the biggest fourth weekend with a strong hold (beating Titanic at something.)

Mamma Mia!

Prediction: $25m open, $80m final

Actual: $28m open, $87m current, ~$130m final

Welcome to the success of counter-programming. There’s money to be made in hitting a niche beneath a behemoth. The ABBA musical started off a near copy of Hairspray, but in the weeks since it’s held on strongly and will likely end up the third highest grossing musical in history (after Grease and Chicago). This could become a summer tradition to run counterpoint to all the exposions.

Space Chimps

Prediction: $10m open, $35m final

Actual: $7m open, $21m current, ~$25m final

While Wall-E’s fallen off faster than expected, it didn’t lose so much business that families were looking for something else in its place. Also, Journey to the Center of the Earth has provided business for that market. Space Chimps will likely be remembered as another disposable computer animation flick. Or forgotten as one.

Step Brothers

Prediction: $35m, $115m final

Actual: $31m open, $63m current, ~$100m final

It’s not doing quite as I predicted, but I think the final tally will be in the same ballpark. For Ferrell this marks a slight return to his preferred consistency. Semi-Pro’s final tally of $33m was probably quite worrisome. However, at this point it’s probably quite clear that he’s not going to replace Adam Sandler. While he does have three films above $100m and this one could join them there, it’s definitely not a sure thing and he’s not likely to see grosses in the range of Talledega Nights for his comedies unless they’re exemplary.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe

Prediction: $25m open, $65m final

Actual: $10m open, $17m current, ~$20m final

As it happens, no, this film cannot re-establish the series for the big screen. It’s performing even worse than Serenity.

American Teen

At the time I did this prediction, it was slated to get a semi-wide release. Instead, the distributors have opted for an indie/platform release. It will probably end up with at least a few million but isn’t likely to take off.

Overall

While The Dark Knight is justfiably hogging the spotlight, July was quite a strong month overall. Thanks largely to Batman’s amazing performance, the year on year tally has surged ahead of last year’s record pace. It’s completely up in the air as to whether it can keep that up, though. Last August was quite strong, with Bourne, Superbad, and Halloween all delivering stronger than expected performances.

Rarified Air

I’m going to break a bit from my monthly previews and recaps to talk about some box office specifics. A lot of numbers follow, but we’re looking at some awesome numbers.

If you’ve been following entertainment news at all over the past few days, you probably know that The Dark Knight is huge. It’s historically huge, earning $18.5 million in Friday midnight shows, over $67 million over the entire Friday, and a massive $158 million for its opening weekend.

These are all record breaking numbers. Bigger than Revenge of the Sith for the midnight shows and bigger than Spidey 3 for the opening day and weekend totals. Batman’s also gotten the record for biggest Sunday, widest release (in terms of theaters, not screens), and highest per-screen average for an ultra-wide release. (For wide releases, the record still belongs to the greatest musical talent of all time, Hannah Montana. But her film only hit 600 screens, not 4,366.)

With this performance, The Dark Night has blown away just about every weekend prediction. The stock for the film has rose steadily over time. My early summer prediction of $85 million seemed a bit bullish at the time, but was laughable by the beginning of July. The excellent ad campaign, curiosity due to Heath Ledger’s Death, and stellar performance from heroic rival Iron Man (which gives a good barometer for expectated response) were coming together to create a perfect storm of audience excitement. As such, the predictions rose from the $90s to the low $100s to the $130s up until about a week before the performance.

Despite this (which was putting Batman in the running with Jack Sparrow for the second biggest opening of all time) there were two strong undercurrents of thought. The first was that Spidey’s record was safe: Batman’s considerably darker, DC heroes don’t open as big, the competition is much more fierce in July than early May. At the same time, Warner Bros. was publically stating that they expected ONLY about $90-100m.

I believe the high water prediction was somewhere in the mid $140s, within spitting distance of Spiderman 3, but still shy.

When Friday’s numbers hit, all bets were off. The $67 million was a good $8m beyond Spidey’s Friday, and even a large drop on Saturday would keep it in the running. For large opening films, especially sequels, a poor weekend multiplier (ratio of Friday to the whole weekend) is somewhat expected. There’s a lot of demand to get there and see the film opening day, and as such the ratio will be very low because after the Friday, demand decreases a big way. Even so, Spidey 3 had a large drop and with the extra $8m, Batman could take a bigger drop and still come out ahead.

As it happened, there was a large drop on Saturday, to $47 million. That $20m drop is huge, almost 30%, and it led to some speculation that, despite the big Friday, Batman wouldn’t even stick around enough to even take the weekend total. That would be very bad news for Warner Bros. They played it conservatively, and gave an early weekend estimate of $151-1533m, just barely ahead of Spidey 3. A bit later, they estimated $155m, but rival studios were suspicious. WB had only estimated a drop of about 20% on Sunday, which seemed small, especially in light of the 30% on Saturday.

However, on Monday, the weekend figures hit the final numbers, and the weekend haul came in at $158m, a clear jump up from Spidey. Sunday’s figure was $43m, a mere 8% drop from Saturday.

So what happened here? Why the big drop from Friday to Saturday, but the small one from Sunday? Well first is that unlike many huge sequels, the critical response from both the media and audiences has been overwhelmingly positive. While it’s probably a close toss-up in the end, The Dark Knight is at least on par with Iron Man in terms of percieved quality. Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker is consistently cited as a standout point and has already garnered some Oscar buzz.

Second is that, counter-intuitively, it seems the market wasn’t saturated. So many people wanted to see this film, that even with 4300 screens they couldn’t find a place to sit. If they’re stuck trying to find a place on Friday or Saturday, they wait until Sunday.

But wait, wasn’t Friday still 20m bigger than Saturday? Why wasn’t Saturday huge and Sunday small if there was that much extra money in the making.

Consider the Midnight shows. Theaters did a massive number of showings early on Friday which accounted for over $18 million of that day’s business. A number also scheduled 3am (and 6am and 9am) shows to try and meet demand that first day. While a number probably did shows for Midnight Saturday and Midnight Sunday, they would be less inclined to keep things running 24 hours a day for three straight days. Hence, there were less showings, and less chances for people to get in. While it’s not a perfect fit, remove the midnight haul from Friday’s take and you’ve got about $49m. Now the drop to Saturday is miniscule and the small drop to Sunday doesn’t seem so strange.

After $158 million in three days, it sat a mere $42m from the vaunted $200m barrier. The big question was how much it would drop in the weekdays and thus how long it would take to cross that point. For mid-summer films, a drop of about 50% from Sunday to Monday is about normal, especially if the Sunday is large. But the subsequent weekdays will probably see consistent drops of about 10% or so. Demand is high for the weekend and tails off somewhat rapidly from there. It’s for this reason that almost all huge-opening films see extremely large drops in the second weekend, even if they’re well-received. There’s a bit of a limit to how much business these things can retain when you’re opening over the century mark.

Speculation follows: If Monday was $21m, it would sit at $179m after four days and probably in the upper $190s after day five. It would fairly easily pass $200m in six. Over the course of the week, we could get a good idea of what it would haul in weekend two. If it dropped, say, to $14m on Thursday, it would probably be close to $225-$230m for the first week, and absolutely astounding haul, but it probably wouldn’t be looking at much more than $60m for the second weekend. Still spectacular, but probably indicative that it’s going to drop fairly fast, so after weekend three it would be below $30m and around half that for weekend 4. A track record like that would see The Dark Knight cruising past $400m, but probably petering out somewhere in the realm of Pirates 2 ($423m).

However, we’ve got an actual number for Monday, and it’s amazing: almost $24.5m. This puts the total haul in four days at almost $183m, and it’s just $17m shy of $200m. It needs a drop of 30% on Tuesday to FAIL to get to the double century in five days. This is almost impossible. Its drop on Sunday and Monday are the lowest in the top ten. Given how much distance is between it and the number 2 film (Mamma Mia! which, to be perfectly fair, is doing wonderfully) this is amazing.

If it keeps with the trend of films of this size, it could see drops of 10-15% for each of the next few days, which means it could earn about $22m or more on Tuesday. Doing that could put it in shooting distance of meeting the entire run of Batman Begins… in five days. That was a spectacularly received film that did very, very good business, and The Dark Knight is making it look like a joke.

In fact, it’s making all of its Batman compatriots look like jokes. It surged passed the entire gross of Batman and Robin in two days. It passed Batman Returns in on Monday and ended up within 2 million of Batman Forever. Both of those films at one time had the opening weekend record. And at its current pace, it should pass Batman, the current highest grossing film in the franchise, sometime next weekend.

The speed that The Dark Knight is accomplishing these records cannot be understated. The current speediest grossing film is Pirates 2, which reached $200m in 8 days and $300m in 16. The Dark Knight will hit the first mark in 5 days and the second in 10 or 11. The current record holder for $400m is Shrek 2, which accomplished that feat in a stunning 43 days (Pirates 2 took 45.) With the way things currently look, a bullish prediction would have Batman crossing the quadruple century in under a month. It’s all but assured of knocking Star Wars Episode 1 and its $431m gross out of the top 5 of all time.

But the big question, which is starting to float, is the big T. Does Batman have what it takes to beat Titanic? Or, more realistically, does it even have a chance?

To answer this, we really need to understand how big that $600m gross really is. It is huge. The second place film of all time is Star Wars, which has just $460m. That $140m gap means you could add the grosses for any of the following films to Star Wars and not equal Titanic: Click, Anger Management, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the first one), Live Free or Die Hard, Superman, The Rock, The Departed, Minority Report, and so on. All of these films were regarded as strong box office contenders, which did some spectacular business. In the case of TMNT, it was the highest grossing film from its studio (New Line) until the release of Fellowship of the Ring. The Departed is far and away the highest grossing film of Martin Scorscese’s career. And Adam Sandler is one of the most consistently successful actors in history. Yet none of these films can make Star Wars match Titanic.

Here’s a story. In 2001, when Harry Potter shattered the opening weekend record with its $90m opening, it led to speculation that it might beat Titanic. In a conversation about this possibility, someone said it was all but guaranteed. After all, Harry Potter had this huge synergy across all demographics and was a huge cultural phenomenon. Plus it had an extremely strong holiday for its follow-up weekend (Thanksgiving) and was a really good movie. (The last was alleged by many fans of the series.)

Ultimately, Harry Potter was an extremely strong film, becoming the highest grossing of the year, but its final tally of $317m was barely more than half of Titanic’s final tally.

Of course, Harry Potter isn’t alone in that. Subsequent record weekend holders Spiderman and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest have also had such talk abound, as have Shrek 2, Star Wars Episode III and (before Harry Potter) Star Wars Episode I. All of these films have done stellar business, earning the most of their release year, but none have gotten even 75% of the total business that Titanic has.

If it isn’t clear, $600m is huge. And as big as the response for The Dark Knight has been, it probably doesn’t have the ability to top Titanic. But it’s not impossible to assume. If it earns $70m in weekend 2, $40m in weekend 3 and $25m in weekend 4, it will probably finish up at least on par with Star Wars’ $460m and could go somewhat more. But to get to $600m, it would need a historically strong hold. Better than Shrek 2 had in its second weekend ($72m, with the whole Memorial Day Holiday pulling in over $90m). It would probably need to see at least $90m for the three days to have a shot. And even then, it would need similarly strong holds in future weeks.

And as strong as it is right now, eventually audiences are likely to tire and look to other films. The third Mummy film will take some business. There’s another Star Wars film next month. And for people who aren’t strongly interested in the dark and brooding nature of The Dark Knight, they will be sidetracked by numerous comedies.

Still, when looking at the question of where The Dark Knight could end up (and Titanic isn’t outside the realm of possibility, but it’s rather unlikely) it is probably more important to consider where it is likely to end up.

Above $400m, certainly, and even $450m isn’t even three times its immense opening weekend. I would give it 2-1 odds of crossing the $500m mark. It would be just the second film in history to do that. Whatever the case, it’s certainly a run worth acclaim.