(Note: The was mostly written on Saturday.)
Box office writing continues to hurt my poor little head this year. It has become more and more myopic, even as Anthony at Deadline has added 20 and 30-year-old, utterly irrelevant comps to his mix of almost-meaningless attention-seeking data companies like CinemaScore and RelishMix.
It’s not that I care about the failure of real analysis as much as it is that the consistency of themes in the trades leads to similarly thoughtless coverage in the New York Times and beyond, leading to a general misunderstanding of the industry at this time, particularly theatrical.
I know that the truth is boring and repetitive. It’s not that small movies and “Oscar movies” are somehow failing the market. It’s not that old people or young people or whatever group of people being blamed for failed marketing this week refuse to return to theaters. It sure as hell isn’t COVID.
It’s the lack of movies, stupid. And the lack of a range of movies.
The “big opening” obsession - which unlike the alleged already-troubled pre-COVID theatrical business that was breaking records started in media over a decade ago - is the most dangerous phenomenon of the moment. But it isn’t how a healthy theatrical eco-system works.
48 weeks in the box office year, we have had only 17 weekends with $100 million or more cumulative box office gross. We have had 7 movies that opened to over $75 million.
This is not a sustainable business model.
I really like Anthony at Deadline… as a person… thoughtful, smart guy. But sweet jose mariba!, his lede on the box office Saturday morning is INSANE. He is moaning about not getting a Glass Onion expansion when Netflix whispered box office without reporting it and had only one goal with the stunt theatrical for the film… hype. There is nothing evil about what Netflix did and the box office was not negatively affected. But please get a fucking clue, man. Netflix did less in a week with the media-thick Glass Onion than the $30 million budgeted Violent Night will do and it cost $225 million to make. (And let’s not forget the conflicting reports that Netflix spent 400% what a “normal” limited release would spend and then also is reported to have spent $4 million on TV ads… which ain’t 400% of nothin’.)
I don’t really care what sidebar movie companies like Netflix, which in the great tradition of Donald Trump keeps telling us what they are while people stick fingers in their ears and refuse to listen… that they aren’t a theatrical movie company and have no interest in becoming one. Yes, they spend more than anyone on more shit than anyone… and yes, occasionally terrific stuff, like everyone else. But the mindset that wants to trash the $40 billion a year theatrical business because the television business is in transition and is currently less profitable than Legacy TV and/or pre-COVID theatrical and Netflix comes in addition to 4 or 5 movies a year that are at a level worthy of consideration for Oscar is INSANE.
I am not saying that Netflix should be banned from Oscar or that they don’t make some movies I m really thankful are getting funded. I just continue to say that all the streamers should be competing for Oscar based on adjusted Academy rules that emphasize theatrical and not streamers that do 1-week qualifying runs. That is living in the past. That is sticking with a set of rules that was built for a time before streamers were chasing Oscar with 8-figure budgets (though ironically, using the same old techniques).
If 25 years ago, HBO started qualifying their movies and invested 10s of millions in marketing for Oscar with only qualifying runs in theatrical, The Academy would have changed the rules to reflect the change in the market. And The Academy - particularly in docs and international - did change some rules along the way.
Yes, it looks like between Netflix, Amazon, and Apple, there is only one - maybe two - candidates for major nominations this year. This is not because voters have changed their attitudes. It’s because the streamers just haven’t had the movies to make it happen this year. It can easily go the other way next year. Love Guillermo and Pinocchio, but had he made a live-action drama for Netflix, it would be a lot more likely to be a Best Picture nominee… the bias being against animation, not against Netflix.
But this issue is a distraction. The Academy is not home to The Emmys. Streamers should be required to play for Oscar on the same field as the other MPA companies do and have, based on the reality that television-first movies are being made and promoted for Oscar. 4-weekend (24 day) minimum theatrical (at least promised, allowing for December releases that want to wait to go wide in January) in at least 10 markets before subscription television release and reported - not whispered - grosses. That’s it. Not some onerous burden.
Everyone who has ever been a parent or guardian of a young child understands setting boundaries. This is fundamental. And one of the things killing Oscar is lack of boundaries. And when there are boundaries set, The Academy apologizes for them or dances away from them with and emphasis on music and movies that are popular but barely nominated when it comes to promoting The Oscars.
I didn’t really expect to go off on this today… but there I went again. I see it all as a wide-ranging eco-system, where individual achievement is indescribably important… but that the health of the entire industry matters even more.
I don’t know the future. But I do know that if we keep going this way - looking away from the reality of how the film industry is being undermined by an overemphasis on the television industry - Streaming IS Television - parts of the industry will die. Maybe they will become marginalized forever. Maybe they will be resurrected out of simple audience demand and the obvious financial benefit of the clear willingness on some to pay more to go to one movie than for a month of the most expensive streamer. But I don’t want to see the industry de-theatrical-ed before speaking up after I figure out global industry warming 20 years after it became a real issue.
But back to box office…
I told you so.
Sorry. Just had to say it. Not so much to stroke my own ego, but to be clear that nothing that is currently happening at the box office is a surprise, which is the impression you would get reading “the trades.”
The Glass Onion stunt was not some breakthrough or savior for theatrical or for Netflix. The soft first weekend of December has been the norm for 30 years with 1 or 2 exceptions. And Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which has been underhyped, will be the #1 movie of the year before Avatar: The Way of Water opens.
The openers of note next week are Empire of Light and The Whale. Riddle me this… was anyone expecting either of these films to do over $8 million on opening weekend… ever? In 2018, Olivia Colman starred with Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz in The Favourite. More commercial than Empire. Never had a 3-day weekend over $2.6 million. 10 Oscar nominations, inc Picture, Director, and all 3 actresses. Went wide in its 9th weekend when it had less than $25 million in domestic box office. That is how small awards movies roll. This is not some shocker.
Then, Avatar. Big number.
The entire wide-release commercial output though the second half of December? A Man Called Otto, Babylon, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, I Wanna Dance With Somebody.
How much are YOU expecting?
In 2019, the $100m+ domestic grossing movies in December were Star Wars: Epsiode IX, Jumanji: The Next Level, and Little Women. Big holdovers were Frozen II with $160 million and Knives Out with $80 million. And there was 1 week of Spies in Disguise, adding $30m to December’s domestic total.
See the difference?
Avatar and Star Wars are, we hope, a wash. After that, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever had a huge drop-off Friday-to-Friday this week. Looks like it will add something more like what Knives Out did, rather than Frozen II.
Can Babylon do Little Women level business?
Back to this weekend… the dreaded post-Thanksgiving 1st weekend of December… top new release… 2019, Playmobile, $656k… 2018, The Possession of Hannah Grace, $6.4m… 2017, The Disaster Artist, $1.2m… 2016, Incarnate, $2.5m… 2015, Krampus, $16.3m.
This weekend, Violent Night will gross between $11m and $13m. (Sunday morning estimates have it just over 13.) That’s a real win. Oh, you have an example from 7 years ago that did better? Congrats. The history is not complex. This weekend, year in and year out, tends to suck, in great part because it is underprogrammed. This weekend, a win.
We need to get back to reporting news in the context of the moment… not the constant state of either blaming the market or covering for marketing departments. And God knows, Anthony from Deadline is working his comp game hard these days. But some of these comps are just weird and irrelevant.
“The genre Mark Mylod directed title is running 2% ahead of Midsommar through its first four weekends (final total on that pic $27.4M), and 11% behind Searchlight horror movie Ready or Not which finaled at $28.7M.”
Midsommar dropped 44% and 57% in its 2nd and 3rd weekends. The Menu’s been off 39% and 35%. Very different. And very different markets. And Midsommar was in mid-summer and this is the holiday season. Midsommar lost 59% of its sceeens in Weekend 4. There’s no reason for The Menu to take that route next weekend. The Menu us also playing better during the weekdays. This is not a real comp. And the genres are not really a match. Even if The Menu’s drops increase to 40%, the domestic total will be over $30 million. Midsommar capped at $27.4m. So what is the point of the comp? To expect less? To suggest The Menu is near the end when there are signs it is playing really well? I don’t get it. (P.S. I love Midsommar and it was a breakthrough hit for A24.)
I am not calling for cheerleading. But I am calling for less of a weekly need for clickbait headlines and narrative.
Unless it is a massive opening (or Netflix), the tone seems be negative. And that leads to people in the industry continuing to spin the false notion that audiences are not looking to go to the movies.
Any smart, experienced marketer can sell massive IP movies. Just don’t get in the way of the movie. Selling new ideas and making new high-value IP is the big challenge. Living endlessly off the same successful IP and nothing else is the global warming of theatrical. Every IP smash started as someone’s idea that no one wanted to make and couldn’t figure out an easy way to market.
In the pre-CG and early-CG era, Marvel was a mediocrity… which is why $4 billion seemed like a massive price when Disney bought the company. Paramount did a great job with selling Iron Man and since the distribution shifted to Disney, they have mostly done a great job. But Iron Man was an expensive risk. No Iron Man, no Marvel as we know it today… certainly delayed. If you aren’t taking risks in theatrical, you aren’t building the eco-system. Some of those risks cost a fortune, but many are more the risk on marketing dollars than the movies themselves.
But that is how you make an omelet.
Apologies to Anthony D'Alessandro for piling on him here. He is not one note and he often finds good, smart answers. But sometimes, the habits of leaning negative just leave me shaking my head.
What is the comp on a Hot Button subscription?
Love your rants. Do not get why awards content needs to be driven by platform. A movie is a movie no matter where it is seen. Since most academy voters watch screeners on their home TVs, it is especially meaningless whether Netflix or a theater releases the movie. Academy rules are old-fashioned. There I've said it.
Don't ever change, David! :)