I've said this many times before. Box office punditry, with analysts, trackers, and armchair pundits trying to guess what the weekend's box office will be, is NOT anything more than a game. It is a fun game, one which I've partaken in for nearly twenty-years. But my predictions are not news. They are not measures for which to judge whether a movie opened successfully or poorly. They are a game. Taken any more seriously than that, box office pre-release punditry can be a dangerous tool for one studio to spread a narrative of failure based on nothing more than a random prediction. It's the same game that gets played in politics. For example, the GOP sells a narrative that Kerry or Obama will go up 15 points after the convention. The media bites, they fail to do the math, and then the official story is that the Dems are flopping when they only get a 7 point bounce. If I'm a rival studio, would it not be in my best interest to spread word that Michael Jackson's This Is It was sure to gross at least $90 million in its first five days? Then, after said prediction becomes the narrative of choice in the entertainment press, would it not be in my best interest to exclaim shock that said motion picture did not open to my completely made-up predictions? And it would be pretty easy, since when one of the most widely-read columnists in the business lives and breathes by proclaiming and reveling in alleged failure at every turn.
This is something I've talked about for nearly a decade. I first noticed it during the run-up to Blair Witch 2, when the pundits inexplicably predicted a $30 million opening. The myth that this was a possibility caused the film to be rendered a flop when it opened to a reasonable $13 million (why would anyone expect a sequel to a half-loved/half-loathed cult film to open higher than the much-anticipated original?). It happened in May 2001, when rival studio execs sold the lie that Pearl Harbor could top $100 million+ in four days, and then called the film a flop when it did $75 million. And it wasn't Universal that sold the myth that Peter Jackson's King Kong was a genuine threat to Titanic's $600 million domestic gross. But they are the ones who got burned when the $200 million-budgeted film ended up being labeled an under-achiever despite grossing $550 million worldwide. And be sure to pay very close attention in the next two months as to who is hawking what box office predictions for James Cameron's Avatar. It sure won't be Fox tossing out pie-in-the-sky predictions of untold box-office glory. It will be 'unnamed studio execs' from Warner Bros (Sherlock Holmes opens a week later) or Universal (It's Complicated is the main adult-draw of the holiday season). Or it might be armchair pundits hoping to raise expectations so they can write juicy stories of failure when the movie doesn't live up to their arbitrary standards.
Under normal circumstances, this numbers game would be harmless fun. The problem is that, especially after Titanic, box office punditry has become a mainstream sport, not just the cult game played by insiders and film nerds like me. And when (at best) glorified educated guesses or intentionally misleading pronouncements are taken as serious mathematics, then there are serious consequences for the films in play. It happened to Dreamworks, when business analysts couldn't understand why Madagascar hadn't performed like Shrek 2 (their stock took a major hit after Memorial Day 2005). It happened when Charlie's Angels was inexplicably expected to open to $70 million (nearly double the first film's $40 million opening) or Watchmen was absolutely expected to open to at least $70 million just because it had the same director as 300. And it will happen to each and every new Marvel film because people who don't get it will expect every future Marvel film (Thor, Ant Man, etc) to perform like Iron Man. And it will have serious consequences because the opinions of said know-nothings will be taken as news and/or gospel.
That's not to say that those involved with This Is It are blameless in the potential 'under-performer' narrative now attempting to be sold. AEG stupidly proclaimed last month that the picture could gross $250 million in its first-five days based on pre-release online ticket sales. Of course, the rantings of a sports and concert company should have been taken every bit as seriously as sports predictions from Wolfgang Puck. This prediction was followed by the infamous 'unnamed rival studio exec' and his $90 million domestic prediction, which in turn led to stories about how every ticket would be sold out and every screening would be packed all weekend. I've always argued that the first five-day gross of Star Wars: Episode One: The Phantom Menace was hurt by know-nothing commentators swearing that every seat would be sold out over opening weekend. Little surprise that many of the casual fans did in fact attend during weekend two, contributing to a mere 20% drop. Yet it's 'underwhelming' first weekend ($64 million in three days, a then-record $105 million in five-days) led to the overall narrative that The Phantom Menace was a box office disappointment, despite eventually grossing $431 million. We saw a similar narrative with This Is It and, I'd argue, similar consequences.
So now, having grossed $101 million in five days, Sony pictures must now fight the fiction that the picture was a relative disappointment. The most amusing part is that there was absolutely no way that anyone could have reasonably predicted how much this thing would gross. Yes, I'm sure lucky guesses abounded in the Box Office Mojo weekend derby, but anything other than gut-level intuition was impossible as there was no precedent to base this picture on. How many other 'hastily-edited-together 110-minute documentaries containing raw rehearsal footage of a concert that never happened released in order to cash in on the unexpected death of its star- arguably the most famous entertainer on earth' have there been? I'm not saying those who correctly guessed $32 million in five days and $21 million in three don't deserve a high-five, but there was no excuse for anyone trying to build any 'reasonable expectations' for this once-in-a-lifetime type situation. It's fine and dandy to have your own guesses, but it's quite another when random guesstimates are taken as actual news and/or the bar for minimum perception of success. Point being, any number that comes in before the actual opening day estimates is a guess, a prediction hopefully based on math or history, but often just based on either random thoughts or intentional misinformation.
OK, enough with that mess, how did the rest of the box office do? Paranormal Activity grossed another $16.3 million, ironically showing its first (meager) signs of weariness over Halloween weekend. The Paramount acquisition that could has now amassed $84.6 million. If it makes it to $100 million, it will be the first R-rated horror film to cross said milestone since Hannibal back in February 2001. Expect a terrible sequel by next Halloween. Alas, one not-terrible sequel failed to gain any traction over the Halloween weekend, as Saw VI plummeted 62.7% for a $5.2 million second-weekend and a $22.5 million ten-day total. Amazingly, the sixth chapter of the long-running series may fail to match the opening weekend of the previous sequels ($30-33 million for parts II-V). While direct competition from Paranormal Activity was likely the fatal factor, I must admit that the series has become so intertwined in its own continuity that one must absolutely have seen, followed, and vividly remembered each prior Saw film to actually comprehend this superior sixth chapter. Where the Wild Things Are cemented itself as a one-weekend wonder, as it dropped another 57.7% in its third weekend. Its new total is $62.6 million and now even $85 million is a pipe dream. Still, as I've said before, those that love this film really love it so it'll be a major player in the home theater arena. Couples Retreat has held up reasonably well as the second-choice of casual moviegoers, although the $70 million comedy won't get much farther than $100 million. Amelia added 200 screens and fell only 22.3% from its soft opening last weekend. The $40-million, critically-reviled Oscar bait has now grossed $8.3 million. The painfully stupid but occasionally fun Law Abiding Citizen (my two-year old knows more about the legal process) also held on strong, grossing $51.4 million mark by the end of its third weekend. Movies for grownups having legs? Lets not learn anything from this.
There's not too much else to report. After this one-week respite from openings galore, the holiday season kicks off in full-force with FIVE major openings. We've got A Christmas Carol 3D (review coming Tuesday), The Box (which was supposed to open this weekend, and bloody well should have), Men Who Stare at Goats, and The Fourth Kind. Plus we have the limited release of Precious, the Tyler Perry/Oprah Winfrey pick-up that's already been proclaimed an Oscar front-runner and been denounced as victim of a backlash before a single paying audience member has seen it. Well, as my high-school journalism teacher always liked to say 'if we can't break the news, we'll make the news'.