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The Connection Between Big Opening Weekends and Good Reviews

Criticwire By Matt Singer | Criticwire March 27, 2012 at 3:49PM

Investigating the claim that critics can positively impact a movie's opening weekend grosses.
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"The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1"
"The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1"

Now that "The Hunger Games" is the biggest movie since "Sliced Bread: The Movie," the time has come to figure out what that means.  How will the success of "Hunger Games" affect Hollywood, other than guaranteeing they're going to make a lot of movies about teens fighting to the death ("Coming this Christmas: 'The Famished Competition!")?  At Movieline, S.T. VanAirsdale suggests what he hopes it means: that critics actually impact a film's opening weekend box office.

"The Hunger Games" earned $152 million last weekend, the third best domestic opening of all-time -- and the best ever for a non-sequel -- behind "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2" and "The Dark Knight." Besides "Spider-Man 3," these films are the only members in an exclusive club: The $150 Million Opening Weekend Club (I hear they get cool varsity jackets and everything).  VanAirsdale finds something else they all have in common: good reviews.  Of the movies that make up Box Office Mojo's List of the All-Time Biggest Opening Weekends, "HP7," "Dark Knight," and "Hunger Games" are the three with the highest Rotten Tomatoes ratings (96%, 94%, 85% respectively).  He sees that as evidence of a positive critical influence on a film's opening weekend box office:

"Not to declare [Rotten Tomatoes] any kind of objective barometer of a film's quality. Still, its documented regard for 'Deathly Hallows - Part 2,' 'The Dark Knight' and 'Hunger Games' harmonizes with public tastes here in a way that implies something a little more than coincidence. First of all, it is extremely hard to gross more than $150 million in three days, even with the benefit of 3-D premiums -- which, of the three, only 'Deathly Hallows - Part 2' enjoyed (all three had IMAX releases of varying sizes). The only other film to do it, 'Spider-Man 3,' was met with decidedly more mixed reviews but still remains ranked "fresh" at RT. Despite all you've heard about their decline, in both the art-house realms and the rarefied upper box-office echelons, the evidence suggests that critics indeed do still matter. Even the most cynical observer (I'm looking at you, Armond White) who regards the critical establishment as a legion of pliant, hype-sensitive 'shills' would need to acknowledge the success of their mission -- largely as a service informing readers about new releases worth considering (or not) -- and be encouraged by signs of influence and relevance."

Okay so there's a correlation there, but what about causation?  That's a lot tougher to prove. True, the three biggest opening weekends of all-time belong to three well-reviewed movies.  But just below that tier are some none-too-critically admired movies with some pretty hefty grosses.  "Spider-Man 3"'s Rotten Tomatoes score is more than 20 points lower than "The Hunger Games,"' but its opening weekend was just a million and a half less.  The fifth highest grossing opener of all-time, "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" made $142.8 million in one weekend despite an abysmal RT score of 28%.  True, "Spidey 3" and "New Moon" earned less than those more beloved movies; but not much less.  And if we adjust for inflation, the gap closes even further.  In 2012 dollars, "Spider-Man 3"'s opening weekend becomes $165.91 million, second only to the last "Harry Potter," and "New Moon"'s becomes $151.5, nearly identical to the far more respected "Hunger Games."

Let's crunch some more numbers.  Take the disparity between the reviews and openings of the third and fourth films in the "Shrek" franchise.  "Shrek the Third" currently holds the tenth biggest opening weekend ever ($121.6 million), more than $50 million better than "Shrek Forever After" ($70.8 million).  But the fourth "Shrek" had much better reviews than the third (58% versus 41% on Rotten Tomatoes)?  If critics' reviews provided that much of a boon, all other things being equal, wouldn't "Forever After" have out-opened "Shrek the Third?"

Though good notices certainly don't hurt a movie's chance to rise into the stratosphere of financial success, other factors may play a bigger role -- audience anticipation, studio marketing, marketplace competition -- particularly in its opening weekend.  In the case of the final two "Shrek"s, which both opened on the same May weekend three years apart against similar levels of competition, I suspect the relative crumminess of the third film rubbed off on the box office performance of the fourth.  People were burned by "Shrek the Third" so they didn't come out in as high numbers for "Forever After," even though critics generally thought it was a better movie.

"The Hunger Games" got very good reviews, but it also had the benefit of a rabid fanbase, a lengthy ad campaign, and a weekend in which its biggest competition, in terms of new films, was a pro-life drama that premiered on 390 screens.  VanAirsdale's ultimate point -- that good movies do better than bad ones, so Hollywood studios should trust in talented filmmakers rather than focus groups and brands -- is a valid one.  I don't know if he's right about critics' impact.  But I definitely want him to be.

This article is related to: The Hunger Games, S.T. VanAirsdale


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