6TH UPDATE: The staggering grosses turned in this weekend by The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Frozen, and the collective strong box office that will likely result in a record five-day Thanksgiving weekend come along at a fortuitous time for the movie business. Why? Because fear has ruled the roost lately, and these numbers on a diversity of mostly smart films shows clearly that if you give an audience a story well told, they will show up.
The performance of Catching Fire and Frozen are all the more remarkable if you consider that both of these films are squarely driven by female heroines. Conventional wisdom is that the marketplace could never support more than one female-driven film, because while gals will see guy movies, it doesn’t work the other way. Well, it worked big time — both films crushed the 5-day Thanksgiving domestic gross record – and it happened shortly after another female driven film, Gravity, crossed the $600 million mark in global gross this weekend. That movie would not have been made if not for a maverick advocate and you could make the same argument for a drama about Somali pirates, Captain Phillips, which has passed the $100 million mark domestically and will crack $200 million worldwide on a $55 million budget. You can look at The Best Man Holiday and Last Vegas (CBS Films’ biggest grossing film ever) and find similarly encouraging signs; good movies made for a price, finding crossover audiences.
This is important, coming just on the heels of that Sony investors meeting held on the Culver City lot. It was a powwow that on the surface seemed to be a capitulation to cranky shareholders like Daniel Loeb, who, as George Clooney said, whined about two summer flops but betrayed a complete lack of understanding of how the movie business works. This weekend was a good reminder that, few legal businesses are capable of creating cash as quickly as blockbusters do. The people who make those bets are like shrewd riverboat gamblers, and if the current climate makes them fearful, they will not make good films. They are only good if they’ve got swagger and cockiness, and it would be nice to imagine a weekend like this serves as a reminder of what happens when smart risks are taken and good movies are the result.
When Sony responded to Loeb’s criticism by announcing plans to shed $100 million in overhead and trimming back its film slates to instead put more chips on TV projects, some in town wondered if Japan was planning to sell its showbiz division. Nonsense, say insiders I trust. Sony’s consumer electronics business is not doing well, so they need entertainment. Right after Sony announced its TV intentions, Harvey Weinstein told The New York Times he was going hard and heavy into television. These things tend to spread, as other studios begin to feel insecure.
But the results this Thanksgiving weekend show that features is a good business. While I am as big a fan of pay and basic cable TV series as anyone right now, a big reason we are seeing a TV golden age in cable is that studios abandoned the mid-budget drama several years ago, and the feature writers and directors and producers of smart projects that don’t feature robots and 3D had to find work. They went to cable. The tube is now flush with amazing series projects, and if studios are looking at that as a better business, they’re probably going to find themselves in an over-saturated market.
Sony’s announcements, I’m told, were little more than a re-dedication to sound business practices, and also an effort to placate analysts and institutional investors (and boost share price) based mostly on window dressing. So they won’t have a big 2014 slate; some of the planned pictures fell by the wayside and after it releases Monuments Men and RoboCop, Sony just didn’t have anything until the next Amazing Spider-Man. They probably released too many films the last two summers, anyway. Initiating a wider ranging green light committee and making director deals with compensation based on meeting budgets and delivery dates, and practically eliminating first dollar gross, are all understandable strategies. Also smart is Sony’s courtship of Jeff Robinov (and possibly Graham King), and bringing in John LaViolette and Joseph M. Singer’s Blue Anchor Entertainment to co-finance its slates. What Sony and no one else can do anymore is make films they don’t believe in ( the Will Smith passion project After Earth seems to be one of those) because of longstanding relationships with talent that had made those studios money in the past.
What bothers me is that Sony’s film team had to bow their heads largely because of the summer failures of White House Down and After Earth. I haven’t seen the latter, but I caught up with the Roland Emmerich-directed action film over the weekend. I have seen films a lot worse do a lot better, let me tell you. If anything, this was a distribution blunder; as soon as it became clear that the same subject Olympus Is Falling had completely delivered the goods in its late March slot, how could Sony possibly release a clone just three months later? Why didn’t they make an excuse and move to spring or summer 2014, where White House Down would have fared much better and probably launched a franchise? Paramount got away with that on both World War Z and G.I. Joe: Retaliation and both films fare much better. I’ve heard that Emmerich stomped around a bit about staying in the summer corridor, and who can blame him given his summer success resume. But whatever the reason, this was a bad call, and we wouldn’t even be talking about Sony’s bad summer had this been handled more smartly.
These kinds of decisions make or break hits, and it’s easy for me to look back and be critical in hindsight. Imagine being part of the conversation that Universal brass is having right now, trying to figure out how to salvage its most valuable film franchise, The Fast & The Furious, after Paul Walker died so tragically in a car crash. I’ve seen reports that shooting won’t resume tomorrow; well, duh. Would Universal re-start production on a movie filled with stunts by speeding cars when cast and crew are so traumatized by the death of one of their own, even before he is buried? I don’t think Universal and the filmmakers have a plan yet, but more than likely the studio will hit the brakes hard here. I’d be shocked if they shoot another frame of footage this year, and don’t be surprised if Fast & Furious 7 misses its July 11 release date. They’ve got to figure out whether to keep Walker in the movie, as the memory of how he died colors the subject matter. This is a dilemma that faced the makers of Game Of Death did when its star Bruce Lee died during shooting, or when his son Brandon Lee perished during shooting of The Crow; or when the makers of Brainstorm carried on when Natalie Wood died during production, or when Terry Gilliam decided to recast several actors to replace Heath Ledger in The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus, or when they digitized Oliver Reed after he died on Gladiator. Walker’s situation is as challenging as any of these. He’s woven through the story and they can’t finish the existing script without him. Hope scribe Chris Morgan gets the time to do this gracefully. But first, people on the film need the chance to mourn their friend, who, by all accounts, was an incredibly nice guy.
Whatever they decide, it would be nice to imagine that Donna Langley and her team make the decision not at all based on the Comcast or shareholder consequences of not having a July movie to slot; they’ve got some serious thinking here to find a way to deliver a film that honors its fallen star and doesn’t make it feel creepy to see a movie rooted in speeding cars, when one of its signature stars died in one. This is why they pay these execs the big bucks.
But here is what studios should be examining in other areas that are costing them money:
* They’ve cut development budgets and producer deals so drastically over the past few years that quite often they have to fill slots with picture packages assembled by talent agencies; or they acquire films made by indie financiers, who also don’t develop but often build packages based on scripts discarded by studios trying to recoup development costs. Imagine drug companies cutting to the bone on R&D and embracing concoctions hatched by freelancers; how many miracle drugs would they generate? The same is true for movies. Audience reaction this weekend and through this fall has demonstrated that audiences will show up for quality. If you want to hatch micro-budget horror films, fine; but these aren’t the films studio execs will want to be remembered by.
* Stop turning summer into a tent pole slugfest and December into a prestige film slugfest. Catching Fire and Frozen prove that films with summer revenue ambitions can work outside the summer corridor. The lineup of prestige films coming by year’s end is very strong, and there will be casualties as a result. Is there no way these films can be parceled out over the year? And last summer, audiences seemed to suffer from blockbuster fatigue and business fell off right after Man of Steel. Is there no way big films can perform outside a calendar battleground where they get one open weekend to perform? This weekend showed that indeed they can.
* Find a way to shrink the theatrical windows with the big three theater chains. Studios spend tons of P&A to launch a film, and then have to spend generously six months later to remind audiences of DVD titles audiences have forgotten. TV has proven nimble in making sure audiences have more than one way to see shows. Theater owners have a lot at stake; after all, they are the ones who built and maintain multiplexes. So, cut them in for a higher percentage and make them partners in what has to be an inevitable evolution of the movie industry.
For this weekend at least, there is reason (except for the Walker tragedy) to feel good about the film business. The business has set year over year worldwide box office records in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012, and 2013 may set another record. Even if it doesn’t, the year was strong. Home entertainment has stabilized, digital delivery continues to reduce costs, new platforms are throwing off new revenue, international TV deals are still robust and are paying premium prices for studios. Even though it might cause grumbling from talent, studios have dramatically reduced talent costs, are saving by not manufacturing prints, and by reining in spending on TV ads. The DGA just came to terms on a new deal, and most don’t think the Writers Guild membership has the stomach for another labor dispute when contracts expire next year. Working writers are still bearing the brunt of the last strike. After it was over, they saw their quotes thrown out the window for take it or leave it offers, and all the studios embraced one step writing deals and sweepstakes pitching. And then all of those punitive measures became institutionalized after the economy cratered. All of this is anathema to films that aspire to have a sense of authorship. Just like the Amy Pascals and Donna Langleys of the world, writers need to regain some of that swagger, too. It would be nice to see some of this year’s windfall trickle down to them.
5TH UPDATE: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has blown past expectations once again, and has earned $573 million in worldwide gross. This after a $28.5 million Saturday night. Lionsgate estimates the film will finish with a record $110.2 million domestic gross, but I think it will be higher, because that film company’s estimates have been conservative all the way through, even as it was clear there was no stopping this sequel. The film broke the record for 3-day and 5-day Thanksgiving weekend, and it now has an international gross of $276.5 million through Sunday. It played huge all over the world, and the question becomes, will it finish the weekend at $600 million?
As for the other Turkey Day weekend juggernaut, Frozen did $25.4 million on Saturday and that puts the film on course for $92.6 million for the 5-day weekend. While that isn’t as strong as Catching Fire, it is $10 million better than the previous record holder for that holiday, Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone.
The total 5-day weekend haul is expected to hit $294 million, which will barely beat last year’s $289.6 million mark, when the top films were Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2, Skyfall and Lincoln. That’s much better than 2009’s $266.6 million, when the top films were Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, Tangled and Megamind.
More to come. (Scroll down for Top 10.)
4TH UPDATE, Saturday 9:15 am PST: The record smashing performances of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire as well as Disney’s animated Frozen keep looking better and better. Late last night, indications were that Catching Fire would reach $31 million, but it instead did $31.8 million. Frozen looked to do $25.8 million Friday and it did nearly $27 million. Both films will blow past the 5-day weekend record set by Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone‘s $82 million, but it now looks like Catching Fire might reach $113 million. So Catching Fire‘s domestic cume is now $253.25 million, to go with an international gross of $229 million as of Friday. That puts the film already at a $482.25 million global gross and that might get to $500 million by the close of the weekend, and now the talk will become whether this film can get to $1 billion in global numbers. It gets a lot less compelling after that, but the movies are playing, and it certainly looks like this weekend in total will break the $291 million 5-day weekend record, fueled mostly by the top two juggernauts. Thor: The Dark World did $4.5 million Friday; The Best Man Holiday did $3.38 million last night; Delivery Man did $2.7 million Friday; Homefront had a $2.6 million Friday; The Book Thief did $1.9 million Friday; Black Nativity $1.6 million; Philomena $1.3 million and Last Vegas $1.1 million.
3RD UPDATE, Friday, Nov 29,10:42 pm PST : The weekend numbers continue to flatter Lionsgate’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Disney’s Frozen. Both had torrid Friday grosses and both are on pace to shatter the five-day Thanksgiving holiday record of $82 million that was set by Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone. Catching Fire’s $31 million Friday puts that film on course to exceed $110 million for the five-day weekend, which would put the film near the $300 million domestic gross mark after its second weekend. Frozen looks like it will land at $25.8 million, positioning the film for a shot to crack the $90 million mark for the long holiday weekend. The other surprises are that Black Nativity has pushed into the Top 10 and so has Philomena. All this gives the box office a chance to do close to $300 million for five days. Previous holiday record is $291 million. Here is how they stack up. More to come tomorrow.
1) Hunger Games: Catching Fire
PG13/ Lionsgate / Week 1/ Runs: 4163/ Wednesday $21.5 million, +34%/ Thursday $15.39, -28%/ Friday $32.25 million + 110%/ Saturday Projection: $29.1 million -10%/ Sunday Projection: $16 million -45%. Total 3-Day weekend: $77.4 million/ Total 5-day weekend $114.2 million. Domestic Total: $300.6 million.
PG/ Disney / New/ Runs: 3742/ Wednesday $15.3 million/Thursday $11.1 million, -27%/ Friday $26.9 million, +144%/Saturday $25.4 million -6%/Sunday $13.9 million -45%. Total 3-day weekend: $66.3 million. Projected 5-day weekend gross: $92.6 million. Domestic total gross: $93 million.
PG13/ Disney / Week 3/ Runs: 3286 (Down 427 screens)/ Wednesday $2.4 million, +21%/Thursday $2 million, -13%/ Friday $4.5 million, +119%/Saturday $4.5 million, -1%/Sunday $2.2 million, -50%. Projected 3-day weekend gross: $11.2 million. Total 5-Day weekend: $15.6 million. Domestic total gross: $186.8 million.
4) The Best Man Holiday
R/ Universal/ Week 2/ Runs: 1785 (down 256 screens)/ Wednesday $1.2 million, +21%/Thursday $1.37 million, +13%/ Friday $3.38 million, +145%/ Saturday $3.4 million, -1%/Sunday $1.5 million, -55%. Projected 3-day weekend: $8.2 million. Projected 5-day weekend gross: $10.8 million. Domestic total gross: $63.1 million.
5) Delivery Man
PG13/ Disney/ Week 1/ Runs: 3036/ Wednesday $1.3 million/ Thursday $1.43 million, +10%/Friday $2.7 million, +90%/ Saturday $2.75 million, +1%/Sunday $1.37 million, -50%. Total 3-day weekend: $6.8 million. Total 5-day weekend: $9.56 million. Domestic total gross: $19.3 million.
R/ Open Road / New/ Runs: 2572/ Wednesday $1.4 million/Thursday $1.4 million, -2%/Friday $2.6 million, +88%/ Saturday $2.67 million, +3%/ Sunday $1.46 million, -45%. Total 3-day weekend: $6.7 million. Total 5-day weekend $9.52 million. Domestic total gross: $9.52 million.
7) The Book Thief
PG-13/ Fox / Week 3/ Runs: 1234 (up 1164 screens after platforming) / Wednesday $710K, up 749% with higher screen count/ Thursday $808K, +14%/Friday $1.89 million, +134%/Saturday $1.87 million, +1%/ Sunday $1 million -45%. Total 3-day weekend: $4.79 million. Total 5-day gross: $6.3 million. Domestic total gross: $7.76 million.
8 ) Black Nativity
PG/ Fox Searchlight/ New/ Runs: 1516/ Wednesday $436K/ Thursday $675K, +55%/ Friday $1.55 million, +131%/ Saturday $1.49 million, -4%/ Sunday $894K, -40%. Total 3-day gross: $3.9 million. Total 5-day gross: $5 million. Domestic total gross: $5 million.
PG13/Weinstein Company/Week 2/Runs:835/ Wednesday $377,000/ Thursday $434,000, +15%/ Friday $1.3 million, +207%/ Saturday $1.44 million, +8%/ Sunday $1 million, -30%. Total 3-day gross: $3.78 million. Total 5-day gross: $4.6 million. Domestic total gross: $4.7 million.
10) Last Vegas
PG13/ CBS Films / Week 4/ Runs: 1963 (down 963 screens)/ Wednesday $461,325, down 22%/Thursday $580,000, +26%/ Friday $1.1 million, +90%/ Saturday $1 million, -2%/ Sunday $543K, -50%. Total 3-day gross: $2.73 million. Total 5-day weekend: $3.77 million. Domestic total gross: $58.7 million.
2ND UPDATE, FRIDAY, 6:20 AM: Early numbers are dribbling in on Black Friday. Box office on Thanksgiving dipped predictably on a family holiday. Still, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire did $14.9 million, and it now looks like it could reach $103 million for the five-day holiday. Its Thanksgiving haul broke the record for that holiday, passing Toy Story 2, which grossed $13.1 million that day. Hitting near $103 would far surpass the previous record for this 5-day holiday, which was formerly held by Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone, which conjured $82 million. Frozen turned in a $10.8 million Thursday and the film could reach $90 million or slightly better for the five day period, a very strong start for a picture that ought to play through the Christmas holiday. Thor: The Dark World did $1.9 million and is looking at a $13.5 million holiday take; Delivery Man did $1.4 million and is looking at $9.6 million and Homefront did $1.43 million and is looking at $8.8 million for the long weekend. The Best Man Holiday did $1.3 million, The Book Thief $725,000 for a $6.2 million five day total; and Black Nativity did $686,000 for a $4 million 5-day gross. More as the numbers come in.
1ST UPDATE, THURSDAY, 7:33 AM: In my short tenure pretending to be a box office expert, I’ve come to learn that what our readers want today is 1) turkey, 2) gravy, 3) stuffing 4) cranberry sauce 5) a helping of projected holiday weekend grosses. Couple of changes since I first posted. Looks like Gravity is defying that, and could once again hit the Top Ten. At least it hit that last night, tying Last Vegas. I’ve included the new film I thought would hit that mark, the Kasi Lemmons-directed Black Nativity. As for Spike Lee’s Oldboy, it did $212,826 for FilmDistrict on 583 screens, to finish 17th place. The long weekend projections here will likely fluctuate based on weather and other variables. This ranking is based on Wednesday numbers. As for other numbers to chew on, it took Catching Fire only six days to cross $200 million domestic. The list:
1) Hunger Games: Catching Fire
PG13/ Lionsgate / Week 1/ Runs: 4163/ Wednesday $20.7 million, +34%. Early projection for five day weekend: $100 million.
PG/ Disney / New/ Runs: 3742/ Wednesday $15.3 million. Projected five day weekend gross: $85 million.
3) Thor: The Dark World
PG13/ Disney / Week 3/ Runs: 3286 (Down 427 screens)/ Wednesday $2.4 million, +21%. Projected five day weekend gross: $16 million.
R/ Open Road / New/ Runs: 2572/ Wednesday $1,4 million. Projected five day weekend gross: $9 million.
5) Delivery Man
PG13/ Disney/ Week 1/ Runs: 3036/ Wednesday $1.3 million. Projected five day weekend gross: $11 million.
6) The Best Man Holiday
R/ Universal/ Week 2/ Runs: 1785 (down 256 screens)/ Wednesday $1.2 million, +21%. Projected five day weekend gross: $12 million.
7) Free Birds
PG/ Relativity / Week 4/ Runs: 2287 (down 784 screens)/ Wednesday $781,099, down -16%. Projected five day weekend gross: $4.9 million
8 ) The Book Thief
PG-13/ Fox / Week 3/ Runs: 1234 (up 1164 screens after platforming) / Wednesday $709.703, up 749% with higher screen count. Projected five day weekend gross: $5.8 million.
9) Last Vegas
PG13/ CBS Films / Week 4/ Runs: 1963 (down 963 screens)/ Wednesday $461,325, down 22%. Projected five day weekend gross: $3.7 million
PG13/ Warner Bros/ Week 8/ Runs: 1016 (down 829 screens) / Wednesday $442,372 (down 1%). Projected five day weekend gross: $3.7 million.
11) Black Nativity
PG/ Fox Searchlight/ New/ Runs: 1516/ Wednesday $435,594. Projected five day holiday gross: $3 million.
PREVIOUS, THURSDAY 2:40 AM: From early estimates, it looks like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire will stay hot through this five day weekend, though Disney’s family animation film Frozen will give it a run for its money. Catching Fire should finish the five day weekend as high as $90 million or slightly better, while Frozen will land in the $80 million range for the same period. Catching Fire landed between $19 million to $22 million Wednesday while Frozen grossed between $15 million to $17 million after last week’s stellar one-theater debut at the El Capitan. That film got an A+ Cinemascore and strong reviews. Despite the formidable new entry, the weekend will be hard pressed to top last Thanksgiving, which had the final Twilight Saga and 007 film Skyfall as well as Lincoln, Life Of Pi and Wreck-It Ralph. There isn’t as strong a group this year behind Catching Fire and Frozen, as some of these films are close to being played out.
I’m talking to you, Thor: The Dark World. That film hung on to third place with near $3 million for Wednesday night. In a surprise, Delivery Man is showing some staying power and could turn in a $10 million holiday haul to finish near $20 million. That would still make it a disappointment. After that comes the Jason Statham action film Homefront, another new opener which should finish near $7 million, based on a $1.4 million Wednesday evening. After that it’s Best Man’s Holiday, which finished Wednesday around $1.2 million and should get to $10.5 million; Free Birds, which grossed just under $1 million and projects to a $6.5 million weekend. Right after that is The Book Thief, which has opened wide to 1234 theaters and grossed $800,000 for Wednesday and will finish the weekend at $5.2 million. Finishing ninth will be Last Vegas, which grossed $600,000 for Wednesday and should do around $4.8 million. Rounding out the Top 10 is another new entry, Black Nativity, which did $500,000 Wednesday and should finish the holiday weekend near $3 million. Finishing out of the money is the Spike Lee-directed Oldboy, and maybe the image of Josh Brolin whacking people with a hammer isn’t necessarily what you want to see on Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. The original is one of the craziest, most depraved films I’ve seen, and there is a twist in there that leaves you reeling. Not sure we needed an encore. More when the numbers really begin rolling in.