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by Peter Knegt
November 3, 2009 3:19 AM
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Box Office 2.0: Snap Judgements and Great Expectations

A scene from Lars von Trier's "Antichrist." Image courtesy of IFC Films.

I've been writing indieWIRE's weekly box office column for nearly two years. It's basically second nature at this point. Every Sunday as noon approaches, I await an excel spreadsheet attached to an e-mail from our data provider, Rentrak. When it comes in, the next hour or so is spent racing to get the article up in a effort to beat out a variety of publications' similar reports. I choose a lead - usually the top grossing opening indie of the weekend - and then decide on six or seven other films that warrant some discussion. I quickly seek out relevant historical information about so-and-so director's other films, and break out the thesaurus to find new adjectives to describe a film's performance, essentially always versions of "great," "decent," "mild," or "poor." And then with a click, it goes up on the site, and out to our e-mail subscribers. A good majority of time I suffer from post-publish anxiety. In a very short period of time, I have had to make some serious snap judgements on a wide variety of films based solely on a few minutes of pondering three days worth of box office receipts. I am generally pretty confident about my ability to do so, but I can't always be right, and angry commenters occasionally make it clear this paranoia is not unwarranted.

Last weekend was a great example of this post-publish uncertainty. Lars von Trier's "Antichrist" had opened, and I had prematurely suggested based on its Thursday New York City midnight screening numbers that "Antichrist" could be headed for a per-theater-average in the $20-30K range. So I'll admit I was really surprised when the film's weekend estimates came in - roughly $12,500 per screen. I immediately tried to find some sort of comparative film to backup a judgement, but I didn't really know where to look. "Antichrist," a highly publicized but unrated and, to some, impossibly explicit film, is not exactly something that made sense comparing to anything else. But then after a few rounds of adjective tossing, I decided considering its small six screen count, its promising Thursday numbers, and its somewhat loud buzz, "Antichrist"'s $12,500 per-theater-average should receive the distinction of being "mild," and moved on with my Sunday.

When I returned to the internet later that day, I soon discovered that the article had been met with some disapproval.

"I think the $12,500 PTA is amazing—not 'mild,'" one commenter wrote. "Assuming that most of the potential audience for 'Antichrist' would read reviews/articles and thus be cognizant of its content—well, I think a lot of people are not going to want to subject themselves to what is a brutalizing experience. I think I can sit through just about anything (I found Noe’s 'Irreversible' to be a deeply disturbing but profoundly indelible experience that I’m still chewing on), but 'Antichrist,' for which I admire certain cinematic elements, was just about the bleakest downer imaginable (along with a few unintentional—or unwanted?—laughs). Of course, I was going to see it no matter what, but I think many will opt out on this one. I doubt that it will break a mill."

As I read the comment I thought to myself, "shit... I think I kind of agree with him." But by this point, the publish button had long been hit. According to the internet, I thought "Antichrist" had "scared up mild numbers," and there was no going back.

It was these series of events that led me to discuss with my fellow indieWIRE-ers the idea of introducing a second weekly box office column. One that gives us the opportunity to expand beyond the snap judgements and great expectations. That could mean giving deeper consideration to curious box office performances such as "Antichrist"'s (which, on an aside dropped quite substantially in its second weekend), or taking a look at recent trends or smaller films that might not report Sunday estimates (this weekend's box office column has a great example of a rare inclusion of the latter, as Aviva Kempner’s “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” crossed the $1 million mark after seventeen weeks in theaters and a fascinating release strategy).

A scene from Jane Campion's "Bright Star." Image courtesy of Apparition.

While this week's inaugural column is meant more as an introduction of what's to come, let's briefly look at another example. Two months back, I had an "Antichrist"-like situation when Jane Campion's "Bright Star" opened as the first release from Apparition, the new film distribution outfit from former Picturehouse chief Bob Berney and producer Bill Pohlad, from River Road. The film - which had received stellar reviews out of Cannes - debuted on 19 screens to an estimated $190,343, or $10,018 per-theater-average. Like "Antichrist," I had been expected an average closer to $20,000, though a few factors were at play: Rosh Hashanah, the typically underwhelming September box office, and an overcrowded batch of competitors. Though I emphasized these factors, and suggested its performance in the coming weeks would be more crucial to judging its potential, overall "Bright Star"'s opening weekend was discussed as a disappointment.

Numerous commenters again suggested otherwise. Apparition co-head Bob Berney himself chimed in, writing: "The tone of the article and characterization of the opening, comparing it to other Campion films on different screen counts and in different situations, is really harsh and unfair, especially for IndieWire. This is a tough time in the indie business and generally the arrival of a film like this, with the opening of a new distributor should be supported. I admit I’m totally biased, but Jeanne and I and our team have been working very hard on this film. Being on the road with Jane, Jan and the cast and seeing the hard work they’ve done to get the film out to the public makes me naturally very defensive about the project. We’re supporters of quality films and really believe this film will have a lasting impact on audiences, it really stays with you."

Let me just say now that I loved "Bright Star," and would have wanted nothing more than to say lovely things about its box office. I responded to Berney's comment by saying that "I hope very much that Bright Star’s performance in the weeks to come makes any negative suggestion in this article prove itself horribly misguided. In the meantime, I do stand by my hesitation in championing the film’s initial numbers, though I apologize if my tone came across as more harsh than hopeful, as I too am a supporter of quality films."

But I wondered if I had let expectations get the best of me. On one hand, "Bright Star" was a critically acclaimed Cannes alum from a high-profile director. On the other, it was a period drama without any big names, released in the midst of one of the year's most frigid box office months. Seven weeks later, the film has grossed $4,121,818. That actually makes it one of the ten highest grossing specialty releases of the year, considerably more than Miramax's "Cheri," another 19th century period film which, granted received lukewarm reviews, did have the benefit of big names like Michelle Pfeiffer. "Bright Star" is also likely to become Campion's highest grossing film since "The Piano," having already grossed more than "The Portrait of a Lady" and "Holy Smoke," and a few $100,000 away from beating "In The Cut." But I'd wager that if you asked most people in the industry, they'd say that "Bright Star"'s total remains disappointing. I'd probably be inclined to agree with them - I expected a final gross in the low eight figures, and I'd suspect so did Apparition - but we just have to wonder: Why is a $4 million-ish gross such a disappointment for "Bright Star" but a success for, say, Duncan Jones' "Moon"? Because of expectations.

indieWIRE's Sunday estimates column will remain as is - snap judgements and great expectations included. Its purpose is simply to give readers box office information as soon as it comes in, and with that comes those issues. But hopefully this new column progresses in the coming weeks to give readers a more substantial take on the box office. While I realize some of you might think such depth isn't possible in what is essentially just numbers. On Sundays my non-film industry friends always seem confused when I run off to spend two hours writing up the weekend estimates. "Aren't you just basically telling people about how much money a bunch of movies made," they'll ask. Which is true, but I attest that there is much more to it than that. I've been fascinated with box office numbers for years before I had ever joined the team at indieWIRE. Because it really isn't just numbers, it's a window into a whole whack of things. Demographic trends, regional differences, marketing successes or failures, or simply what it is that interests filmgoers at a given time. More over, it's the box office that keeps the film industry going, whether we like it or not.

In addition to this column, indieWIRE will be commencing a new weekly chart (not to be confused with our Tuesday iW BOT, which graphs final weekend numbers) this Friday that will run through the rest of the year. The charts will highlight the top grossers in various sub-categories of this past decade, which is now, unbelievably 59 days away from concluding. This Friday, in honor of the release of "Precious," we'll take a look at Sundance Film Festival jury prize winners. So check back.

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1 Comment

  • ATL365 | November 4, 2009 3:38 AMReply

    Peter, Your comment about "expectations" is spot on. It is all about perspective and positioning. Which is why the "Paranormal Activity" story has so much traction. Reflecting on this and Eugene's $1 million or $100 million column, I wonder what lies in store for "Precious." Will "Tyler Perry" numbers be considered a success or disappointment ($51 million for "I Can Do Bad...", "Madea Goes to Jail" at $91 million)? How about "Beloved" numbers ($22 million)? Is it another "Slumdog? ($121 million)" Or "Dreamgirls? ($103 million)"

    Food for thought. Could be apples and oranges, but I love the way TV columnist Robert Seidman (http://twitter.com/Seidman) forces the issue "It's time to play THAT'S SO RAVEN vs... where we look at how the Friday 11:30pm rerun of THAT'S SO RAVEN fared against cable favorites..." THAT'S SO RAVEN (2.116 million viewers) vs. MAD MEN (1.776 million). Don Draper has nothing on a Cheetah Girl...THAT'S SO RAVEN (2.116 million viewers) vs. STARGATE UNIVERSE (1.974 million).

    In other words, hip and trendy as MAD MEN or STARGATE may be, the dull, uncool, and dopey program THAT'S SO RAVEN regularly bests them in the ratings with little fanfare.