Why Is Hollywood So Focused On A Movie’s Opening Weekend?

“IF” isn’t exactly a box office bright spot. But Paramount’s kid-friendly fantasy about imaginary friends has ambled along in the time since its soft $33 million debut. Its current tally — $93 million domestically and $160 million worldwide — is decent for an original live-action PG film.

Actor Patrick Schwarzenegger (who has no discernible connection to the film) prophesied this staying power when “IF” fell short of initial projections. “Give it a few weeks,” he wrote on X. Shortly after, as Universal’s “The Fall Guy” suffered a similar fate, he shared, “I know I’m a broken record … but … ‘Fall Guy’ continues to have crazy legs,” while conceding that the “budget was still too high.”

Especially in this dismal summer season, some box office watchers have questioned the need to pay attention to opening weekends at all. A recent Vulture article opined that obsessing about them helps “propagate the idea that opening weekends is all that matters.”

Is it fair to fast and furiously brand a movie? Detractors like Schwarzenegger argue that so-called smash-and-grab labels don’t offer nuance. Worse, they say, those descriptions — Variety categorized “The Fall Guy” as disappointing with $28 million or “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” bleak with its $31 million start — elicit negative headlines and unfairly judge the health of the movie theater business based on short-term fluctuations rather than trends over time.

“It would be lovely to say opening weekends don’t matter,” says Stephen Galloway, dean of Chapman University’s film school. “Unfortunately, based on the cost of movies and inflation, reliance on opening weekend is Hollywood’s only strategy. There is no alternative.”

Movies don’t always live and die on their debuts. Sony’s rom-com “Anyone but You,” Pixar’s “Elemental” and Illumination’s “Migration” are recent examples of movies that didn’t have splashy debuts but kept selling tickets for weeks thanks to word of mouth. But other than the rare “Greatest Showman”-shaped exception, opening weekends carry outsized importance for a reason: Those first few days tend to dictate a film’s entire theatrical run. By Sunday of opening weekend, studio executives can predict with great accuracy what a movie will earn by the time it leaves the cinema.

“The domestic theatrical performance is the locomotive pulling the train, and the opening weekend sets the pace,” says David A. Gross of Franchise Entertainment Research. “I don’t see it changing.”

Although films begin as creative endeavors, Gross continues, “the movie business is just that — a business.” Paramount spent $110 million to produce “IF” — a significant portion of which went to the voice cast of Steve Carell, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Bradley Cooper and George Clooney. It will struggle to generate the roughly $275 million needed to break even in its theatrical run, according to individuals familiar with film finances.

“IF” isn’t the only summer release bogged down by a hefty budget. “The Fall Guy” cost $140 million and has grossed $165 million worldwide. But sources suggest it has to reach $275 million-$300 million to turn a profit. The Warner Bros. sci-fi prequel “Furiosa,” which carries a $168 million price tag, has generated $144 million. Yet insiders say it requires roughly $350 million to $375 million to get into the black. (A Warner Bros. spokesperson disputes this, saying “Furiosa” has a lower breakeven point.) At this rate, “The Fall Guy” is estimated to lose $50 million-$60 million in its theatrical run, and “Furiosa” is estimated to lose $75 million-$95 million. Even “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” the year’s fourth-highest-grossing movie with $360 million worldwide, needs to keep swinging at the box office to justify its $160 million price tag.

Budgets have skyrocketed because the cost of everything — including travel to film locations, labor costs, paying talent and reshoots — has gone up. And, of course, there’s the many millions in marketing or other expenses related to putting a movie in theaters. All the while, the box office is retracting: Domestic revenues are down 26% from 2023, according to Comscore.

“It’s almost impossible that movies will get less expensive,” says Galloway. “It’ll only go up.”

Hollywood since COVID has figured out new ways to wring riches after a film’s theatrical life. Domestic box office revenues, however, determine how lucrative a licensing deal a movie can get from streamers, cable TV or other downstream sources. And cinema owners still get to keep about 50% of box office ticket sales. So the rule of thumb is that studios need movies to gross 2.5 times their production budgets to climb out of the red.

Many movies eventually, over the course of generations, break even from ancillary revenues. Even Elaine May’s infamous 1987 flop “Ishtar” clawed its way into the black by the early aughts, according to leaked emails from the 2014 Sony hack.

So then what’s the big deal about ticket sales? Box office reporting is a rare moment of transparency for a business that prefers to operate opaquely. Newer players like Netflix and Amazon Prime tout baseless viewership metrics for titles they deem a hit and avoid scrutiny of underperforming streaming-first movies by never revealing the data. Even traditional studios draw the curtains as soon as a film leaves the big screen. They certainly don’t reveal how much their movies make from licensing fees, on-demand rentals or the handful of DVDs they’re able to sell. Though streaming has helped, nothing has replaced the collapsed DVD business, which salvaged many underperforming blockbusters.

“Studios and producers look at the entire pie — all revenue streams, including merchandise and theme parks. They do not look at theatrical profit/loss in isolation,” says Gross. “The pieces are more complicated now, and they fit together in different ways.”

And a little patience goes a long way. If “Ishtar” is any indicator, this crop of summer blockbusters will break even by 2040.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top