Friday, May 24, 2024

Opening Weekends, Box Office Bombs, and Tea Leaves

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Friends, we have to talk. For a while now I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. It’s not a new trend, necessarily, but it seems to be only getting worse. Our obsession with weekend Box Office numbers, specifically the opening weekend’s haul, has garnered depressingly large importance. 

Box Office numbers have always been a big deal, with studio’s chest-thumping about their returns. Trade papers such as Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Deadline, along with financial magazines such as Forbes, have long reported with breathless excitement the final tally on Monday morning. But these have always been in relation to the business side of movies. For a long time now the business side has been bleeding into the artistic side, the side we sit on.

Last April, Avengers: Endgame debuted and went on to be one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. As those who read me may know, I was not a fan. Most of you were and it showed in a big way. Except I began to see people, pundits and critics online say asinine things in defense of a movie that was dominating the Box Office. They were saying it was objectively a good movie because of its Box Office receipts.

“Objectively good”. Dear reader, if movies were objectively good my job would be so much easier. I regret to inform you that one of the only objective things in my line of work is how much we undervalue Alexandra Daddario as an actress.

I’m old enough to remember when Micahel Bay movies ruled the Box Office. As much as I may miss his polished style, by no means did anyone ever pretend his movies must be great simply because they made bank. I’m willing to admit the people online saying this was a small deluded few, fine. Anecdotal evidence is no substitute for cold hard fact.

But we can not deny the increasingly all-consuming importance of an opening weekend. YouTube and social media have given birth to something altogether terrifying, the grifter critic. The grifter critic is someone who makes five-hour videos ranting and raving about movies they haven’t seen or talk about how a film’s poor Box Office returns are the mark of Cain. I’ll be devoting a second article to the grifter critic, who they are, and what their impact is, but for now, I want to focus on how they shape this discussion around the Box Office hullabaloo. 

A perfect example of this mentality would be Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey. A film that has its detractors and its defenders. But within the critical argument, you’ll notice no one gives the tiniest damn about how much money it made its opening weekend. Incidentally, if we’re counting worldwide Box Office numbers the movie, which costs roughly $87 million, it made back its production budget in the first week. As we head into week three it has more almost doubled its budget with $173 million. 

Now, it’s important to understand what constitutes a “hit” by Hollywood standards. The rule being the film’s budget x 3. The equation is meant to calculate the hidden costs in filmmaking,  the marketing and other fees and services a film incurs during post-production and promotional tours. Why all of that isn’t included in the actual budget is for the likes of the Bob Igers of the world. Then again Iger once pitched an idea for a sitcom based on the Fountain of Wayne’s song, “Stacey’s Mom”. The plot of the show was a group of teenagers vies for the affection of the mother of the hot girl next door.  So maybe he doesn’t know squat either. 

So, if Birds of Prey cost, let’s inflate the budget and say $100 million, and the world wide week two Box Office estimate is $173 million; while not a runaway success it is also not a bomb. It’s not great. But it’s far from being some financial disaster, in fact, it’s on track for making it’s “times three” if it has the legs many in the industry think it has. Point is its Box Office story isn’t over yet, no matter what the grifter critics would have you believe.

Some will argue, “Yes, but we only care about the domestic Box Office!” To those, I say, “Sweet summer child, you are an idiot.” The studios don’t care where the money comes from. Much like the people who bought several versions of The Last Jedi only to rant about them online about how awful every version of it is and helped the movie’s home release sales soar; money is money. When a movie makes money they do not keep separate books, one for the “love money” and one for the “hate money”, and possibly a third for the “meh, it was okay” money. The only way they divide the accounts is by geography and that is more for the sake of stats than anything else.

None of that means if the movie is any good though. Box Office numbers do tell a story. They show us what’s popular which translates into what audiences want which translates to studios taking a keen interest in what flops and what soars. 

Lest we forget that unicorn of a movie, The Greatest Showman, which bombed opening weekend. It then went on to make Box Office history. Not by becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. 

No, it made history because its opening weekend was so low that each successive week it made more money. Each week Box Office analysts watched astounded as The Greatest Showman failed to falter and instead only gained speed. Word of mouth spread and eventually theaters held sing-alongs for the movie. Scott Mendelson of Forbes”, one of the few people on whom their opinions on the Box Office matters (IMO), called it “the leggiest movie in history”.

The grifter critics are not alone though. Online YouTube shows start off every Monday with a rundown of the Box Office tallies. But who really cares? I’m reminded of David Mamet’s State and Main, a movie where a movie crew comes to a small town and upends their way of life. Two old-timers sit and idly chit chat about the weather and local gossip. By the end, the two are reading Variety and discussing opening weekends The joke is why do these two care?

Why do we care? We have no vested interest in these movies. If a movie flops it is sad and in these weird and uncertain times, I’m happy when a movie does well. I’m not a fan of Joker but I’m kind of thrilled it made over $1 billion simply because it means at the very least studios were woken up to the possibility that there exists an appetite for movies without CGI and that attempt to deal with more real-world issues.

People make “predictions” and then come back Monday to see how right they are. Why? Because they need content and have precious little else to say. The real reason they do this is because it gets clicks. We click on them, we watch them, we devour them eagerly to prove a point online about our ideas and beliefs.

We’ve begun treating movies like sports teams. “I’m a Marvel fan.” “Disney sucks!” “DCEU rocks!!!” The first two are one and the same and the last technically doesn’t exist. 

Art is not a sport. No one walks into a museum and starts comparing Van Gogh to Kahlo in terms of how much they fetch at an auction. Compare their styles, themes, and whatnot, but who cares how much they fetch at the auction house?

It’s gotten to the point where people, smart people, have asked me in all seriousness, “Shouldn’t Birds of Prey be making more money than Sonic the Hedgehog since it’s been out longer?”

Which only goes to show good people are capable of monumental stupidity too. First, movies do not exist to “beat” each other. They do for the studios, but I don’t work for them nor do they pay me. 

Secondly, let’s humor the man. The question he’s asking is should an R-rated comic book movie in its second week with a cast of beloved but not that well-known actors along with a handful of recognizable names, based off a comic which is not familiar to audiences not steeped in comic book lore do better than the debuting PG-rated movie about a beloved video game character with at least two very recognizable names, one of whom is Jim Freaking Carrey, in a market which is currently starving for kids entertainment.

The answer is: shut up. 

The word “should” here is meaningless. It implies that one movie is “more deserving” than the other as opposed to what is really at play here; which is simply random chance and a myriad of other factors that come into why people do or don’t go to a movie. In the end, people chose a basic mediocre movie with okay CGI because the studio caved to fans over Rosie Perez being a BAMF in a wild and anarchic thing of cinematic beauty. Quite frankly, it’s going to be a while before I forgive y’all for that one. 

Dammit, look at what I just wrote. See? Even I’m susceptible to this trend. Part of the problem is the very basic human tendency to align with one piece of art over another. It’s fine to like one film over another. But to say one film is better or should be doing better financially is kind of silly sense, again, none of us will be seeing one red cent of those profits.

Still, Box Office numbers don’t mean Sonic is good and Birds of Prey is bad. Who quotes breathlessly from Avatar? Gone with the Wind is often quoted but how many people have actually seen it? Have you seen what is on the highest-grossing movies of all time list? Jurassic World is on there-Jurassic World people!

If that doesn’t prove how silly and meaningless Box Office numbers are in grading a film’s quality then I don’t know what does. The point is this, let the Box Office analyst handle the Box Office, they will be far more circumspect and less “sky is falling” than anyone on YouTube – except for Dan Murrell. Flops go on to be classics and hits vanish from our memory like streaks on an abandoned handrail. 

Granted Box Office is directly tied to representation and diversity. Disney did just unveil it’s first outwardly gay character a purple lesbian cyclops who is also a police officer. So, maybe that argument has some holes in it.

All of this is not to say Box Office numbers aren’t worth talking about, don’t have a place in the conversation, or shouldn’t have that information publicly accessible. My argument is not that they are meaningless, my argument is that in terms of whether the art is good, it has no bearing and indicates nothing. Avengers: Endgame may be the highest-grossing of all time but it does not make it the best movie of all time. If Birds of Prey ultimately fails then it has only failed financially and that is only part of the story. A part that we as audiences and consumers really shouldn’t be so emotionally invested in if only because, not to be so repetitive, we have zero finical stakes. 

Let the suits and the executives worry about that. For us, how about we let movies be movies, let them rise and fall, and not necessitate that our love for them be validated by bankers and hedge fund managers. It doesn’t matter, time washes away everything. In the end, all that survives is the art itself and everything else is just noise.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

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