Monday, April 9, 2012

Box Office Speculation: With few real competitors, why The Hunger Games will likely end 2012 as its second highest-grossing film.

I made an offhand comment in yesterday's box office write-off stating that The Hunger Games was all-but certain to end the year as among the top-three grossing films (domestically) by the time 2012 ended.  To be fair, it inspired more chit-chat on Twitter than it did here (my twitter followers really ought to comment here more often), but there were a number of 'what about THIS film?' and what-not.  So let's take a few moments to really examine the theoretical box office potential of the would-be box office giants of summer 2012 and the Thanksgiving/Christmas season.  This will be focusing on the biggest-of-the-big, so films that will merely be solid hits (Battleship, Snow White and the Huntsmen, anything and everything released between July 21st and November 9th) need not apply.  What is the plausible box office verdict on these films, and what real chance do they have against the likely $375-$400 million final domestic cume of The Hunger Games?  To put it bluntly, with one obvious exception, the odds are not in their favor.

The Avengers (May 4th)  The theoretical box office potential for this one is quite a bit more of a wild card than people think.  The biggest Marvel Comics production opening weekends were both for Iron Man films, with the first debuting with $100 million and the second debuting with $128 million on this very weekend in 2008 and 2010.  That was a jump of 28% between sequels, which is actually a bit low in the era of X-Men/Austin Powers/Twilight-style bumps.  But even if The Avengers plays like Iron Man 3 *and* bucks the current trend of slightly lower openings for sequels (and three-quels), a 28% bump still ends up with a $163 million debut, which is the best-case scenario.  But other than Iron Man, the three other Marvel productions have all opened in the $55-65 million range.  Thor and Captain America both debuted with $65 million while The Incredible Hulk opened with $54 million.  And while we nerds may enjoy the idea of all of our 'favorite' Marvel superheroes together in one film (well, except for Spider-Man, Wolverine, Daredevil, The Thing, Dr. Strange, etc), will the same general moviegoers who thrilled to Tony Stark's relatively plausible real-world geopolitical adventures flock to a movie where several costumed superheroes fight off an alien invasion?

Remember, this isn't Transformers, with Michael Bay's 'movies for regular guys and jocks!' mentality or even Jon Favreau's first Iron Man, which sold 'respectable' adult movie stars Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, and Gwyneth Paltrow in a somewhat politically-relevant, adult-skewing action drama that happened to involve a metal suit.  This is Joss Whedon, beloved patron saint of the geeks, delivering a relatively small-scale (lots of bickering, one massive third-act set piece) Comic-Con porn movie of (we hope) the highest-order.  This one is strictly for the hardcore fans, but if we look at the box office grosses of the likes of Thor, X-Men: First Class, The Incredible Hulk, and Fantastic Four, the 'fans' constitute a box office gross of around $165-185 million.  And the 'regular moviegoers' who flocked to Transformers 3 but not Thor will have their movie two weeks later with the debut of Peter Berg's Battleship.  That doesn't mean I honestly think that The Avengers is going to open with $70 million and top out at $190 million.  But it does mean that I think the ceiling is capped somewhere along the lines of Iron Man+, so a massively-front-loaded $150 million debut with a finish along the lines of $325 million is both not out of the question and shouldn't be considered by anyone to be anything resembling a disappointment.  But that also means that the film supplanting The Hunger Games is not a guarantee.

Brave (June 22nd)
Toy Story 3 was a long-awaited sequel to the crown jewel in the Pixar portfolio, hence its $415 million domestic gross.  Finding Nemo was one of its very best films, arguably the 'ultimate' Pixar movie, and capitalized on a terrible June 2003 movie slate as well as the bad aftertaste left by the now-underrated Matrix Reloaded two weeks earlier, hence its $339 million domestic gross.  But other than those two outliers, Pixar films generally gross around $215-275 million in the US, give or take an outlier (Up, Cars 2) or two.  Just going off the last ten years gives you an average of $268 million a pop, and discounting Toy Story 3 and Cars 2 (the high and low points) gives the average Pixar film about $258 million.  That's a fantastic batting average, but it's presumptuous to think that Brave will somehow become the second-highest grossing Pixar film ever during a crowded summer with massive competition left and right. Even putting aside the challenges of marketing not-only a female-centric cartoon but one explicitly about gender roles (cue countless essays discussing its relevance in the current GOP War on Women political season), the film doesn't look or feel all that different from Dreamworks' recent How to Train Your Dragon.  Pixar and Dreamworks are both known for hiding much of the movie during the marketing (and kudos to them for that), so it's possible that the film will work on a primal level that has not yet been hinted at.  But Pixar movies, even beloved ones like Up and Wall-E, don't generally get to $300 million.  So it is all-but irresponsible to presume that Brave, even if it kicks ass, will get anywhere near The Hunger Games's final domestic gross.  Point being, don't be the one who screams 'SLUMP!' if Brave 'only' grosses $225 million in the US.  

The Amazing Spider-Man (July 3rd)  Spider-Man became the first movie to open with over $100 million ten years ago this May, while Spider-Man 3 became the first film to open with more than $150 million five years ago this May.  The first three Spider-Man films have grossed $403 million, $373 million, and $336 million respectively.  The $500 million-question is whether or not we should use the box office figures of the Sam Raimi trilogy when discussing this new Marc Webb-helmed reboot.  If we treat this film as a quasi-Spider-Man 4, then precedent says that the film will drop about $30 million and The Amazing Spider-Man will end up with $306 million, with much of that earned over its seven day (!) opening weekend starting on Tuesday July 3rd.  But if audiences treat this second-coming of Spider-Man with the same level of anticipation and excitement as the first film, then we could be looking at a replication of the first film's performance, adjusted for ten years-worth of inflation and 3D-price bumps (the first Spider-Man has an adjusted-for-inflation gross of $544 million, while Spider-Man 3 has an adjusted gross of $382 million).  But let's be honest... that's not gonna happen.

The first film was heavily-anticipated for twenty years by the geek community, and it was the big-screen debut of the country's most popular comic book hero (anecdote - whenever there were no major movies on the horizon back in the 1990s, Spider-Man dominated 'favorite superhero' polls on every episode of Family Feud) that was enough of a 'real movie' that general audiences could flock to it without shame.  The Amazing Spider-Man may be a slightly different film, and it may even have a solid trailer, but at the end of the day the same audiences who raced to Spider-Man in 2002 are merely asking "What, they're rebooting it already?".  A likely best-case scenario is a extended opening along the lines of Spider-Man 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, or Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince ($160-180 million), followed by an absolute decimation of interest come July 20th.  Again, it won't bomb, but anything over $250 million is a big win for Sony, so don't be the one to scream 'FLOP!' if it tops out at $315 million.

The Dark Knight Rises (July 20th)  Okay, here's the exception that proves the rule.  Even if the whole film is as bad as the IMAX prologue (highly unlikely), I can't see this one doing under $350 million in the end.  So assuming it's just pretty good, it's just a question of whether it opens like a sequel to The Dark Knight or whether the opening weekend excitement over The Dark Knight really was about the Batman vs. Joker dynamic, with the free publicity over Ledger's death (which put the film in tabloids for months prior to release) being the tipping point.  But let's split the difference and presume that while the success of The Dark Knight had a certain amount of 'lightning in a bottle' qualities, The Dark Knight Rises will certainly be greeted with more fanfare than Batman Begins.  There will be time to discuss this new film, the four-year old film (which has actually improved with repeated viewings, as I now consider it the essential film for the post-9/11 decade), and the whole Nolan Bat-trilogy.  But for now, let's not kid ourselves. Barring some kind of inexplicable variable, The Dark Knight Rises will open to at least $160 million without breaking a sweat and, depending on how much general audiences want to see a Batman film without the Joker, may flirt with $200 million in its first three days.  Even if it collapses by then (for reasons unknown... summer is basically over after July 20th), a 2.5x multiplier off a $175 million weekend gets the film to $437 million.  So yeah, grumblings about records and quality and the many obnoxious 'Here's how The Dark Knight Rises is for/against Occupy Wall Street and/or Barack Obama' essays that will litter the blogosphere aside, The Dark Knight Rises will all-but-certainly be the highest-grossing film of 2012.

Skyfall (November 9th)
I wasn't even going to include this one, but I had a number of people referencing it as a possible contender, so I'll make this quick.  No James Bond movie has ever grossed $200 million in the US.  The highest grossing films are the last two, as both Daniel Craig entries grossed about $168 million.  Die Another Day grossed $160 million in 2002 while the next-highest grossing entry is The World Is Not Enough with a mere $126 million.  What?  Inflation you say?  Well, sure, Thunderball and Goldfinger would have grossed over $500 million domestic if adjusted for inflation, but after that, the highest-grossing entry is You Only Live Twice, which has an adjusted-for-inflation gross of $281 million (you know, back in the 1960s when there were no other ways to see movies outside of theaters and television airings and the 007 series was the only blockbuster franchise in existence).  So yeah, Skyfall isn't going to magically double the domestic gross of any prior 007 film.   Best case scenario is that the four years of anticipation and strong marketing allows the film to open to a franchise-high of $80 million (Quantum of Solace rode the wave of post-Casino Royale goodwill to open with $67 million four years ago) and earn a solid 3x multiplier for a record $240 million finish.  That would be a HUGE success for the franchise, but don't expect anything better than that folks (nor should we expect anything approaching $250 million from Live and Let Die 2.0... err The Bourne Legacy).

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn part II (November 15th)
Yes it's the series finale, but this probably isn't another round of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II.  From what I've been told, the final Twilight book does not have the kind of 'battle to end all battles' or 'astonishing revelations and emotional confrontations for all your favorite supporting characters' that the final Harry Potter book had.  It's also somewhat disliked even among the fan base, which is partially proven by the lower domestic cume of the last picture. The previous film (Breaking Dawn part I) had a noticeably smaller domestic gross than the prior two sequels ($281 million vs $296 million and $300 million), suggesting a lack of expansion among the fan-base.  The series is past its prime and only the cachet of 'see how it ends' will keep the grosses from dropping further this time around.  There certainly could be a token series finale uptick, but this series is pretty much frozen at its current fan-base.  Of course, no one should call $300 million a loss, especially as these films are comparatively cheap ($100 million for the last two) to make.  But again, it's not going to be competition for the The Hunger Games box office crown.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (December 14th, 2012)
This one is easily the biggest wildcard on the list.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy, along with the Harry Potter series, brought about eleven years of big-budget, fantasy-centric all-audiences worldwide franchise tentpoles.  They remain among the very best films of the prior decade and make up perhaps the finest film trilogy of all-time.  But while the 'hardcores' certainly care about this first of two films centered around the 'prequel' to the War of the Ring, is there any reason to presume that general audiences haven't moved on long ago?  I hold the original series in the highest possible esteem, and will defend it tooth-and-nail against blockbuster-backlash at every opportunity.  But I'd be lying if I was all that excited about The Hobbit.  Yes it looks like a piece of the same world (something that Lucas tried but mostly failed with the Star Wars prequels).  And yes at least some of the popular actors from the first trilogy (Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom, Elijah Wood, etc) are returning.  But this could very well be a mega-budget version of the sort of 'thanks, but I've moved on' reaction experienced by the likes of Scream 4 and American Reunion.

The original Hobbit novel isn't nearly as inherently cinematic as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, with fewer epic battles or conventional heroes (there's a reason the marketing emphasized Viggo Mortensen ten years ago).  Frankly, my general dissatisfaction with The Hobbit is the main reason I kept putting off reading the Lord of the Rings books until after the films came out.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy each grossed over $300 million in the US back when that was still somewhat of a rare accomplishment.  It could very well be that pure inflation could push The Hobbit over $300-350 million even if the fan-base is smaller and more geek-centric this time around.  I hope it's great and if it's great I hope it is a massive hit.  But the original trilogy became sensations because they were unlike anything that had been seen on the big screen and were accessible and crowd-pleasing to the most general of audiences.  Right or wrong, I don't see that happening again this time.  We've been on this journey and back again.  The Lord of the Rings films, like the first Spider-Man, got that extra box office oomph because they were relatively high-quality films (obviously Lord of the Rings is superior to all three of the Spider-Man films) that spoke to a recently shattered post-9/11 populace in a way that didn't feel patronizing or simplistic. Nine years later, The Hobbit and The Amazing Spider-Man are respectively just another big-budget fantasy film in a sea of them.  It will be interesting to see if Peter Jackson can recapture not just the artistic quality of the original films, but the mainstream wonder of audiences around the globe nine years after Frodo came home.                

It's odd that I've spent ten paragraphs explaining why some of the year's biggest films will merely be big hits rather than record-breaking smashes, but that's the inflated box office world we live in ten years after Spider-Man did the unthinkable on that early May weekend.  The costs are so high and the expectations are so exaggerated, that mere financial success is no longer acceptable barometer of success.  There are big-budget films this summer and this holiday season that I believe may flop or not justify their production costs (Men In Black 3, Total Recall, 47 Ronin).  But none of the above films are destined for anything less than smash-hit status.  I just don't think that the vast majority of them have the box office might to compete with a genuine sensation, especially one that somewhat qualifies as a surprise.  I don't have any profound conclusions to draw from all of this, merely that one should always keep their box office expectations within the realm of plausibility and precedent.  Flukes and happy accidents happen enough to be optimistic, but don't be the one wringing your hands when a would-be tentpole merely props up the tent instead of holding up an entire house.

Scott Mendelson


corysims said...

Agreed on all fronts but one, Scott. As much as I dislike Jackson's Ri gs Trilogy compared to the Prequels and the Matrix Trilogy, the Hobbit is going to be huge. The demographic for that franchise expanded as the trilogy went on. I think it'll be the number two box office film of the year domestically behi d Rises.

But, if Hunger Games remains number two behind Rises, that's some feat for a newcomer.

I don't see Rises being the first film to hit 200 million in a weekend. As you said, it'll flirt with it. But, I think Carching Fire is the one that will. If not that one, maybe Avatar 2 or Mockingjay.

Dominique said...

I'm one of your twitter followers who have never commented on your blog so I guess it is about time.

I never really get into speculating box office numbers but I think Avengers will do better than expected. I know people who have never read a comic in their life and are not part of the geek fan base that still want to see it. When it comes to Batman, I hear mixed thoughts on it. And as for The Hobbit, I know a lot of people who don't want to see it because in their mind it is just LOTR Part 4 and they didn't care for the first 3.

It will be interesting to see how the year turns out.


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