Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Explaining the allegedly slow start to 2011 box office: A fluke is not a trend.

It's the movies stupid. Stephen Zeitchick is proclaiming that a somewhat slow start to 2011 is a sign of doom to come for the box office. I can make this one really easy for you. January/February 2009 had perhaps the mightiest block of new releases for the first two months of the year in recent memory, if ever. January/February 2010 was boosted by the biggest movie of all-time, plus some awfully strong holdovers from 2009. Would you like to know more? brief look back:

At the start of 2009, you had Taken and Paul Blart: Mall Cop, the only two brand-new January releases (ie- not expansions of Oscar bait from the previous year or a release of a 20-year old classic) to ever cross $100 million (they both did about $146 million). You had solid hits with in January with Bride Wars ($58 million), Hotel For Dogs ($73 million), My Bloody Valentine 3D ($51 million), and the massively successful wide-expansion of Gran Torino ($150 million). In February, you had Coraline ($75 million), Friday the 13th ($65 million), He's Not Just That Into You ($93 million), Madea Goes to Jail ($90 million), and the slow-rolling expansion of eventual Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire ($141 million).

But this mass of break-out January/February hits came at a price, as the late-December releases that usually would have bloomed after the New Year got kneecapped by the onslaught of popular January releases. So Marley and Me made $143 million off a $50 million four-day start, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ended with just $127 million after a $40 million four-day start, Valkyrie failed to top $85 million, Adam Sandler's Bedtime Stories just crapped out at $110 million, and Jim Carrey's Yes Man just missed the $100 million mark (it ended with $97 million). None of these films were flops, but if you know anything about traditionally long holiday-season legs, you know that the studios were all banking on a relatively dry slate of 2009 releases.

So now we're into January/February 2010. Anyone remember what happened in 2010? Anyone remember a big movie opening at the end of 2009 and just breaking every longterm box office record in the book? Yeah, now you remember. Avatar grossed $476 million of its $760 million domestic total in the early months of 2010. One movie grossed nearly half-a-billion dollars over the first chunk of the year, and you don't think that will tip the scales a little bit? Ok, say you can't blame everything on Avatar. Fine, let's also blame the strong and leggy performances of Sherlock Holmes ($209 million), Alvin and the Chipmunks 2 ($219 million), and The Blind Side ($255 million). Point being, you had some pretty massive movies from the prior year that made a large chunk of their grosses in the new year. That's what traditionally happens in January and February, and that's what didn't happen in 2009.

As for new films in 2010, there were pretty slim pickings, just like there usually are in the first months of the new year. You had one bonafide January smash in Denzel Washington's The Book of Eli ($94 million), one big Super Bowl release in Dear John ($80 million), one massively huge opening weekend over Valentine's Day with Valentine's Day (natch and just $110 million from a $63 million four-day start), a too-expensive franchise non-starter in Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief ($95 million), and a massive mid-February hit (Shutter Island with $128 million) that was supposed to open in October of 2009. We're forgetting about the usual dump releases that either failed to ignite or were moderately-budgeted success stories. Films like From Paris With Love, Leap Year, When In Rome, or Legion do not a quality box office year make.

And what do we have this year? We have possibly three $100 million films (The Green Hornet, Just Go With It, Gnomeo and Juliet), a $30 million thriller that just opened to $25 million (Unknown), a $75 million romantic comedy hit (No Strings Attached), possibly the highest-grossing concert film in domestic history (Justin Bieber: Never Say Never 3D), and a handful of small-budgeted minor successes (The Roommate, The Mechanic, Big Mammas: Like Father Like Son). You could argue that there's not a lot of quality at the moment, but that's another story (cough-Cedar Rapids-cough).

What's missing from this equation is a strong slate of late-2010 releases that buffer the first two months or so. The Tourist, Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of Dawn Treader, Little Fockers, and Tron: Legacy were mainly played out by the end of the year. That left True Grit alone to represent 2010 in the opening months of 2011 box office. Just as Barack Obama is taking the blame for a recession started under George W. Bush's watch, and (to be fair) just as George H.W. Bush lost re-election due to a recession that was arguably the fault of Ronald Reagan, the 2011 box office is taken the heat for a pretty shallow pool of big 2010 holiday releases.

But is that really a bad thing? As Zeitchick correctly points out, the positive side effect was the strong grosses of the mainstream Oscar bait. Thanks to a lack of mighty holiday 2010 releases, Black Swan and The King's Speech both crossed $100 million, while The Fighter might just get there if Melissa Leo and Christian Bale win in their respective categories. I think we film pundits should spend more time celebrating those triumphs than whining about why The Dilemma or Season of the Witch didn't set the box office on fire. After all, if we conclude that much of the 2011 output is so-far lacking, then we should be applauding, rather than decrying, the lack of initial box office oomph. So, in closing, the January/February runs of 2009 (uncommonly strong opening releases) and 2010 (the huge run of Avatar) were flukes, and should not be taken as trends. And, since bad movies are generally flopping and good movies are succeeding, why exactly are we complaining? As always, it's the movies, stupid.

Scott Mendelson

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