Tuesday, March 22, 2011

There as no slump then, there is no slump now! Why comparing cumulative weekend box office makes no sense and hurts our desire for better movies.

Brandon Grey at Box Office Mojo called the weekend box office 'listless'. Nikkie Finke at Deadline Hollywood called it 'a soft weekend'. And Brent Lang of The Wrap called it 'sluggish'. 'Weak' was the word as three mid-to-low budget films opened with both solid reviews and decent box office. Also on everyone's mind was the fact that this weekend was down this year by about 10% compared to this weekend in 2010. We've been hearing that talk quite a bit this year, as each weekend is considered a quasi-disaster because it didn't equal or surpass the respective weekend from last year. There is a reason I never discuss how well a respective weekend performed compared to the same weekend last year or the year before. It's irrelevant. Every year brings different movies and those movies perform in vastly different ways from the year before or the year after. More importantly, it feeds into the absurd 'this year must be BIGGER' mentality, even if the product doesn't justify that. Want to know why this year's first few months have been down compared to last year? A) Avatar and B) Alice in Wonderland.

Avatar made $760 million, much of it during the first few months of 2010. Alice in Wonderland opened with an astonishing $116 million and displayed a token amount of legs by reaching $334 million in domestic sales. Is there anyone in their right mind who thought that the combined might of The Green Hornet, Just Go With It, Battle: Los Angeles, and Rango were going to somehow equal that unbeatable one-two punch? Did anyone honestly think that Red Riding Hood was going to make even a fourth of what Tim Burton's classic-lit adaptation pulled in? Different movies provide different box office results, and they are generally budgeted accordingly with expectations. It's the whole 'oh my, this year's normal-performing movies aren't performing as well as last year's phenomenons' that gave way to that whole ridiculous 'slump of 2005' talk. If you recall...

Every weekend in 2005, we were told that 2005's cumulative weekend sales were below those of 2004. And every weekend, few bothered to point out that 2004 had huge dollars coming from the late-2003 release The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King while 2005 had the late-2004 Lemony Snicket: A Series of Unfortunate Events (just as early 2011 had to deal with Tron: Legacy instead of Avatar). Few if any pointed out that the summer of 2004 had the inexplicable over-performance of Shrek 2 ($441 million). Few bothered to point out that two once-in-a-lifetime movies released in 2004 (The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11) accounted entirely for the difference in ticket sales for the year ($9.3 billion in 2004 versus $8.8 billion in 2005). Two films brought over $500 million worth of people who generally don't go to the movies at all. There was no slump, it was just different movies performing at different levels, combined with two stunning over-performers that could only be called flukes.

Will they still be screaming 'SLUMP!' in June, when the May summer line-up for 2011 (Thor, Bridesmaids, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The Hangover 2, Kung Fu Panda 2) likely slaughters the comparative May 2010 grosses from Iron Man 2, Robin Hood, Prince of Persia, Sex and the City 2, and Shrek Forever After? Probably not, but they were screaming WORST SUMMER BOX OFFICE EVER! in mid-June just before The Karate Kid, Toy Story 3, Twilight Saga: Eclipse, Despicable Me, and Inception righted the ship (as I correctly predicted). But aside from just idiot pundits making their proclamations of doom, there is a hidden danger to this kind of talk.

You'll notice that this weekend's offerings were all mid-budget adult-driven and well-reviewed genre fare. There was an old-fashioned legal thriller for grown-ups filled with adult movie stars, crusty character actors, and twisty plot turns, at a cost of just $40 million. There was a sci-fi tinged suspense thriller that starred Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro and cost just $27 million to make. And there was a over-25-skewing R-rated sci-fi comedy starring Simon Pegg that cost just $40 million. All three films were generally embraced by critics and audiences, contained a minimum of explosions and/or car chases and (I presume since I haven't seen Limitless) contained a combined body count in the single digits. This is just the kind of big-screen entertainment that we all claim we want. Yet we pundits and commentators cry foul when none of these films reach the blockbuster-levels of the likes of Battle: Los Angeles, which allegedly represents the very kind of thing that we don't want.

You can't have it both ways, entertainment journalists. If you want bigger and bigger opening weekends on a consistent basis, the only option is a steady and strict diet of big-budget fantasy fare and animated spectacles. This weekend's respective box office numbers were a bit down because Hollywood took a break from the whole 'all-blockbusters, all the time shtick'. That is something that should be celebrated, not fretted about. If we want actual 'films' intermixed with our big-budget franchises, remakes, and reboots, then we have to stop hyperventilating when The Lincoln Lawyer doesn't open to $35 million.

Scott Mendelson


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