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

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.