Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The 2011 movie year in box office trends part III: The box office and attendance was down, but the films were cheaper and leggier too.

I generally dislike trend pieces. I'm a strong proponent of the idea that how well a film does is specific to the movie itself.  That having been said, there were a handful of interesting patterns that did rear their ugly or not-so ugly heads this year.  These pieces will be more about box office trends and what they may mean for the future.  Without further ado, here we go...

Box Office was down, but so were the Budgets!
This was yet another year with pundits and armchair critics whining about 'SLUMPS!' and/or complaining about how 'This weekend's total box office didn't equal the total box office of this weekend last year!', as if no one realized that different films make different amounts of money.  Because this needs to be said again, we can't whine about a steady diet of franchise pictures, animated films, and reboots but then complain when smaller pictures don't gross as much on opening weekend.  But putting that aside, total box office was down around 3.8% compared to 2010.  That's a difference of $494 million, or two or three massive unexpected smash hits (a Passion of the Christ) or a handful of major tentpole films not making quite as much as they might have been expected to make.

As I discussed in the first essay, there were a number of sequels that didn't quite equal their predecessor's domestic gross, which is pretty much where the difference lies.  But even factoring that the total box office was down, even factoring that a weak first four months (which had smaller films that couldn't compare to Avatar or Alice in Wonderland) led to a mighty summer season which gave way to a smaller fall/holiday season (again, smaller films = smaller total box office), what is not being discussed is that costs generally went down as well.  I don't have total numbers, but if you've been following the year in box office (or at least reading my weekly pieces), you'll notice that there were an uncommonly large number of somewhat cheaper films that had wide releases this year.  Moreover, and this trend arguably started in late 2010, studios once again realized that there was a real market for adult-driven genre pictures as long as they didn't cost above $45 million.

So instead of Fox spending $65-85 million on the Justin Timberlake/Amanda Seyfried political parable In Time, they spent just $40 million, which made the film a massive hit when it earned $140 million worldwide.  Relativity produced the Bradley Cooper/Robert De Niro sci-fi thriller Limitless for just $27 million, which makes it a massive hit with its $161 million worldwide gross.  Insidious cost just $1.5 million, but Film District fashioned a winning ad campaign and led the movie to not only open with $13 million, but sustain a leggy run all the way to $97 million worldwide gross ($54 million on that came from domestic).  The year was full of smaller pictures of that nature.  Paramount may have wanted to capitalize on 1980s nostalgia with their Footloose remake, but they only spent $24 million to do it.  Thus, when the film didn't quite explode Karate Kid-style, they still walked away winners with a $62 million worldwide take, including a $51 million domestic haul.  Disney/Dreamworks may or may not get a franchise out of Real Steel, but the robot-boxing drama served as a prime example of 'doing it right'.  By putting the emphasis on the human story (Hugh Jackman's relationship with his son) and using the robots on an 'as-needed' basis, the film came in at around $80 million, which makes the $227 million worldwide take a pretty big win.  

Don't forget the countless moderately-budgeted R-rated comedies (Horrible Bosses, Bad Teacher, Friends With Benefits, etc) that dominated the year.  Bridesmaids's $288 million gross is all the more impressive when you remember that it cost just $26 million to produce.  Not every R-rated comedy was a hit.  But even What's Your Number? qualifies as an eventual break-even film since its $30 million worldwide gross comes from just a $20 million budget.  The only genuine flop comedies were The Change-Up ($73 million worldwide) and Your Highness ($24 million worldwide) which not-coincidentally were the only two that cost $50 million or more (on a cheaper budget, even The Change-Up would have been profitable).  For those starved for R-rated entertainment, the comedy boom of 2011, with its relatively small production costs (and, I'd argue, the ability the edit out R-rated content in respective foreign territories) are a salvation after a decade of 'PG-13-or die' studio releases.  Ironically, it was the few major PG/PG-13 comedies (Tower Heist, Crazy, Stupid Love, Jack and Jill) that struggled to get into the black due to their $50-80 million production costs that generally didn't 'end up on the screen'.

Even when you look at the higher end of the spectrum, we saw some surprisingly efficient tent-pole film-making that paid off.  Sure you had the runaway budgets of Green Lantern ($200 million+), Cowboys and Aliens ($165 million), and Conan the Barbarian ($90 million), but you also had 'big' movies that cost arguably less than you'd expect.  Fast Five may have cost $125 million (a record for the franchise), but it damn-well looked like it cost $200 million and was also coming off a shockingly successful fourth installment.  Captain America was easily the biggest-scale Marvel Comics production yet, with globe-trotting action and many worthwhile set-pieces.  Yet the Joe Johnston World War II adventure cost $140 million, making it the cheapest Marvel film on record and one of the cheapest such tentpole comic book adaptations in recent years.  Fox gave us groundbreaking motion-capture performances for just $93 million with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which made its surprising $493 million worldwide gross all the sweeter.

And if you watched Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Transformers: Dark of the Moon back-to-back, which one would you say cost more?  Yet despite being the first film in the franchise where Michael Bay didn't feel constrained about how much robot fighting he could have, where the robots actually existed as genuine supporting characters, Transformers 3 actually cost $5 million less ($195 million) than Transformers 2.  Even films that would have cost $100-200 million just a few years ago, such as Battle: Los Angeles ($70 million) and Sucker Punch ($82 million), were budgeted at a reasonable-enough level to justify the artistic gamble.  The former was big hit ($211 million worldwide) while the latter was not ($89 million worldwide), but both represented a surprising case of getting maximum visual splendor for your buck.    

Even the year-end franchise pictures exhibited a refreshing financial sanity.  Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol actually cost $10-20 million LESS than Mission: Impossible III, while Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows cost just $30 million more than the mere $90 million Sherlock Holmes (so the sequel will be enormously profitable even if it only makes it to $400 million worldwide).  Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson dove headfirst into motion-capture animation for just $130 million with The Adventures of Tintin (A Christmas Carol cost nearly $200 million in 2009), which makes its $350 million-and counting worldwide take a solid success.  But then Spielberg has often been a master of fiscal discipline, so it's not too much of a surprise that War Horse cost just $70 million.  David Fincher spending $90 million on his remake (or adaptation of the novel, beside the point) of the $15 million Swedish adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was the exception this year, rather than the rule.  Had it too followed the 'don't go over $50 million if you're targeting adults' rule, it's $90 million-and-counting domestic take would already be on the way to profitability, instead of having to wait until foreign box office and/or home-viewing dollars to break into the black.

As the industry moves forward, with its prime franchises ending and no guarantee of successfully establishing new ones, it's movies like The Lincoln Lawyer, Drive, Our Idiot Brother, Real Steel, Limitless, Horrible Bosses, and The Help that will hopefully pave the way.  None of these films cost and arm-and-a-leg, none were a 'one film to serve them all' type would-be blockbuster, and all of them were able to make a profit without setting opening weekend records or doing 80% of their business in the first ten days.  They were simply mid-to-low budget films that put their worth as a film above their worth as spectacle.  So before we all scream about the end of the world because box office and attendance was down, remember that movies are also getting cheaper.  And if Hop doesn't have quite the all-quadrants appeal of How to Train Your Dragon, we should also remember that Hop was substantially cheaper to produce.  And if we claim we want more movies targeted towards different portions of the audience, then we can't complain when more niche-specific entertainments don't reach blockbuster levels.  What we say we want, a mainstream film industry that targets adults of both genders and all races, plus young girls as well as the standard blockbuster-hungry young male, is something that more-or-less transpired this year.  Whether we see these films in the theaters or at home, they are still being made, and mostly at a price that will encourage more of them.

Scott Mendelson    

1 comment:

Nicholas said...

A nice write up to balance the "toldja!" hysterics that have sadly become the standard on the net. It's been fascinating to read all the other movie blogs and reporters emulate each other (going so far as using the same words and catchphrases). It's nice to come here and read a more reasoned and dare I say adult take on the industry.

One question though, is your report taking into account the cost for promotion? Doesn't that usually double the budget of a film?


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