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Three Top 10 Box Office Takeaways: Why Studios Neglect Labor Day, What Studio Won the Summer & More

Thompson on Hollywood By Tom Brueggemann | Thompson on Hollywood August 31, 2014 at 3:57PM

With the dearth of strong new openers typical of Labor Day, several holdovers were aided by a pre-holiday Sunday bump, seeing strong holds led by the meager five-percent drop for "Guardians," in first place for the third time since it opened five weeks ago.
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Guardians of the Galaxy

The easy top story this weekend is "Guardians of the Galaxy" (Buena Vista) in first place for the third time since it opened five weeks ago. It's now the top grossing film of the year so far. $300 million now seems likely, with the off-chance that it might rise some distance higher. With the dearth of strong new openers typical of Labor Day as discussed in-depth below, several holdovers were aided by a pre-holiday Sunday bump, seeing strong holds led by the meager five-percent drop for "Guardians."

New entries "As Above, So Below" (Universal), a horror film typical of the kind of genre that gets play this time of year, and Relativity's "The November Man" showed weak response, even compared to other new films in past years. Fortunately the strength of other holdovers managed to salvage the totals, although at $80 million -- down from a low-end $85 million last year -- the Top Ten looks like the weakest Labor Day in many years.

Just below the Top Ten is "Cantinflas" from Lionsgate/Pantelion, a Mexican biofilm about the great comedy actor. It grossed $2,625,000 in only 382 theaters. More analysis of this and other specialized films in our Arthouse Audit.

Also, Sony re-released the classic "Ghostbusters" on its 30th anniversary, with $1,650,000 in 784 theaters. Not the worst way to spend a lazy holiday afternoon.

The Top 10

1. Guardians of the Galaxy (Buena Vista) Week 5 - Last weekend #1
$16,313,000 (-5%) in 3,462 theaters (+91); PSA (per screen average): $4,712; Cumulative: $274,610,000
2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Paramount) Week 4 - Last weekend #2
$11,750,000 (-30%) in 3,543 theaters (-321); PSA: $3,316; Cumulative: $162,406,000
3. If I Stay (Warner Bros.) Week 2 - Last weekend #3
$9,260,000 (-41%) in 3,003 theaters (+96); PSA: $3,084; Cumulative: $29,822,000
4. As Above, So Below (Universal) NEW - Cinemascore: C-; Criticwire: C+; Metacritic: 36
$8,342,000 in 2,640 theaters; PSA: $3,160; Cumulative: $8,342,000
5. Let's Be Cops (20th Century Fox) Week 3 - Last weekend #4
$8,200,000 (-24%) in 3,010 theaters (-130); PSA: $2,724; Cumulative: $57,322,000
6. The November Man (Relativity) NEW - Cinemascore: ; Criticwire: C-; Metacritic: 38
$7,660,000 in 2,776 theaters; PSA: $2,759; Cumulative: $9,351,000
7. When the Game Stands Tall (Sony) Week 2 - Last weekend #5
$5,650,000 (-33%) in 2,673 theaters (unchanged); PSA: $2,114; Cumulative: $16,320,000
8. The Giver (Weinstein) Week 3 - Last weekend #7
$5,253,000 (-18%) in 2,805 theaters (-198); PSA: $1,873; Cumulative: $31,526,000
9. The Hundred-Foot Journey (Buena Vista) Week 4 - Last weekend #9
$4,603,000 (-14%) in 1,918 theaters (-26); PSA: $2,400; Cumulative: $39,398,000
10. The Expendables 3 (Lionsgate) Week 3 - Last weekend #6
$3,500,000 (-46%) in 2,564 theaters (-657); PSA: $1,365; Cumulative: $33,139,000

TMNT

The Takeaways:

Why Labor Day Is Shunned by Distributors - And Why They Might Reconsider

Holidays are catnip to studio distributors, with playdates around Christmas, Memorial Day and Thanksgiving often claimed years in advance. President's Day, Easter, July 4th and Columbus Day are also considered desirable (in some cases because of the Monday day off). The one exception is Labor Day -- no other holiday is as avoided for releasing important new films.

There is some basis for this: it is the last blowout of the summer for outdoor activities for much of the country. It remains, for some places, the last weekend before school starts (although that has significantly changed as more open in August). College football starts. And with September starting the "serious" season where movies cater to adults, many of the wide releases appearing in forthcoming months are held back to premiere at Toronto, Telluride or New York. And then there's the sense that the following weeks -- with heightened traditional competition from the start of the new TV season as well as the NFL openers the following weekend -- are unrewarding.

Yet at some level this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and an example of risk-aversion when studios make big decisions. It's just not done for an expensive film with hopes for a long run. Whatever the potential -- and with basically an open playing field, as this weekend once again showed and less competition over the following two-to-three week period -- the new films are usually genre/quick-playoff-oriented and/or from smaller companies. This year Universal has a horror film, and Relativity has a film it acquired for a modest sum. Next week has been virtually abandoned, with Freestyle releasing "The Identical" in under 1,500 theaters (some of which might not even have been available to them on a normal weekend).

What ends up happening, as with strong showings of "Guardians" and "Mutant Ninja Turtles" this weekend, or "The Help" and "The Butler" in recent years -- this was the third week for those two last films -- is that the bounty ends up going to strong August openers that have gotten good reactions. And that might be the heart of the matter: go early-to-mid-August and they benefit from weak competition ahead. But looking at some of the films that fell short over the last few weeks and are no longer in the top ten, from the "Sin City" sequel in its second week to "Into the Storm" to "The Expendables 3" barely hanging on in its third, it doesn't seem radical to suggest that they could have opened bigger had they waited. These films could have been more competitive in the following weeks (and more importantly, played longer). 

The biggest four-day opening for the weekend remains Rob Zombie's revamp of "Halloween" in 2007, which grossed $30.6 million, which would be several million more today. That's a respectable opening figure for most films. I doubt any studio will risk this any time soon, if ever, but in a year when March, April and August openers have become the biggest hits of the year, rather than the more typical May-July ones, maybe someone should give it a shot.

And it doesn't have to be without adult appeal. The big takeaway from this week's Arthouse Audit was the turnout for a variety of wider releases of specialized films with older audiences contributing to over $6 million gross spread out over seven films, with a number below that also showing interest. 

Apart from the risk involved, distributors also likely will point out that Labor Day has a value as a "catch your breath" weekend that allows current films to add to their totals, and it's the best use of the weekend. But my guess is that if someone really analyzed the opportunity, this could be a much stronger weekend at a time of, at best, stagnant grosses otherwise. 

Angelina Jolie in 'Maleficent'
Angelina Jolie in 'Maleficent'

And the Winner Isn't... Disney

I was about to proclaim Walt Disney/Buena Vista the big winner of the summer -- until I looked at the data. They had two of the top three films: "Maleficent" is third along with top-grosser "Guardians of the Galaxy," along with a big hunk of the gross of April opener "Captain America."

But it turns out someone did better: Twentieth Century Fox had a stellar season, with four openers grossing over $100 million ("X-Men: Days of Future Past," "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," "How to Train Your Dragon 2" and "The Fault in Our Stars") and another, the current hit "Let's Be Cops" also outgrossing the rest of the Disney slate. "Cops" actually was Fox's lowest-grossing film, and looks to approach $80 million on a $17 million production budget. Meanwhile, Disney had three more modest performers ("Planes: Fire and Rescue," the current sleeper "The Hundred-Foot Journey" and the more modest "Million Dollar Arm").

There is no denying Disney's stellar ongoing performance. Between Marvel and their animation wing and knack for original films like "Maleficent," they usually maximize their mostly strong-potential lineup. But Fox looks headed to top studio share for the whole year. They have a great-looking Fall and Christmas ahead, while Disney, though its three films look promising (particularly its first Marvel-character animated project "Big Hero 6" in November), likely won't challenge them for the lead. 

As of now, Fox leads studio share with 17.3%. With Lionsgate's "Hunger Games" entry, Warner's "Interstellar" and other major new entries ahead, that will likely fall before year's end a bit, though Fox will likely stay ahead. That's a huge turnaround: the last three years they placed sixth with an under 10% share, and haven't been higher than third since 2005. Give chairman Jim Gianopulos some points.

Do Lower-Budgeted Films Get Too Much Credit?

It's to decry the heavy outlay studios make for their tentpole films, coupled with a call for more modest budget films. Then when they open to adequate but unsensational grosses, they get credited for how these compare with their initial costs. Both openers this weekend fall into that category.

"As Above, So Below" typifies the hard-to-assess results. The production budget for this European-shot horror film is reported to be somewhere in the range of $5 million. It will gross around $12 million for the week, then likely under $8 million additional the rest of its run. So is it ahead of the game?

Maybe not -- though Universal reports that they partnered with PewDiePie, a major YouTube figure, to create promo spots that had very high viewership, standard costs, even at the low-end for a short-run film, still likely exceed $15 million. So Universal is at least $20 million in the hole before they start counting receipts. They'll accrue something around $10 million from domestic rentals. Making back the $10 million elsewhere -- foreign, where in limited showings it has done marketing (and each of these entails marketing expense), later streaming, DVD and cable sales -- looks possible and even likely, unless domestic marketing was much higher than what the conservative low-end amount I guessed.

"The November Man" is a bit different to calculate. Relativity reportedly acquired the domestic rights for $3 million plus, if conforming to normal practice, a guarantee of a certain amount in marketing expense, which also should be at least $15 million. They too should gross around $20 million, with around $10 million in film rental, But they don't have foreign rights, so need to make back the difference from the future home viewing venues. It could be a close call.

The Top Ten at the moment has five other films with $25 million or under budgets -- "If I Stay," "Let's Be Cops," "When the Game Stands Tall," "The Giver" and "The Hundred-Foot Journey." These all will likely have more standard $30 million or higher marketing costs. "Let's Be Cops" is clearly the stand-out success, even if it has minor foreign prospects (something it may share with most or all of these, although "The Giver" and especially "The Hundred-Foot Journey" might gain some traction).

But this is the reality of what studios face when they green light films, particularly those that on paper seem somewhat interchangeable and lack either the stars or the directors that make them stand out (they like to minimize risk by sticking to formulas, with too much originality normally frowned upon). Each is something of a niche film (particularly with older appeal) but most face challenges still before they become profitable. It's those marketing costs that keep getting in the way.


This article is related to: Box Office, Box Office Top Ten, Box Office


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