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by Peter Knegt
April 5, 2012 1:32 PM
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Indie Box Office 101: How Do You Measure Whether An Indie Film Has Done Well?

"Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" CBS Films

Understanding how the indie box office works can be a complicated process.  On a fairly regular basis, Indiewire's weekly box office column enrages a few commenters who don't get why a certain film is being deemed "disappointing" or why a film's "mild" per-theater average is notable. 

Sometimes they're simply right and our analysis isn't quite on the mark, which is in itself a symptom of the complicated and occasionally subjective way in which one measures indie box office success. But sometimes those commenters simply -- and reasonably -- don't understand how many variables are at play when it comes to analyzing indie box office numbers.

Why an indie film can be deemed a "hit" is not as simple as its opening weekend gross, as per most studio releases. There can be multiple reasons why our box office column might designate a film's performance as good, bad, or somewhere in between.  As a supplement to those columns, we've decided to offer a basic introduction to the specialty box office market via these 5 major factors for how to measure the success of a film:

1. The Per-Theater-Average: Because indie films play in considerably less theaters than studio films, the per-theater-average is often more important than the weekend gross itself.

For example, the film with the highest gross on this week's Indiewire box office chart was "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen," which took in $1,272,643 in 483 theaters. While that is a very good number, it's not necessary the most impressive on the chart. 

Look at "Bully" by comparison. In only 5 theaters, that film grossed $116,472, which made for a $23,294 PTA -- the second highest of any film so far this year. "Salmon" only averaged $2,635 per theater.

2. The Theater Count and the Duration of Release: It's not as simple as best PTA = most impressive performer.  One has to take into account how many screens the film is on, and how many weeks it has been in release.

While "Bully" might have had the highest average last weekend, it had two huge things going for it: a tiny theater count and the fact that it was in its first weekend of release. In those scenarios, averages above $20,000 (or even $30,000 or $40,000) are common and often less impressive than films on more screens later in their release.

Take "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" and "Footnote" this past weekend. Both in their fourth weekends, the films have expanded to 44 and 60 theaters, respectively. And each averaged just north of $4,000 per theater, which is a very strong number for specialty films in their fourth weekend on that many theaters. The $2,635 that the aforementioned "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen" grossed on 483 theaters is also very good, as another example.

TAGS: Box Office


  • Laure Parsons | April 5, 2012 4:10 PMReply

    I think the difficulty of analyzing indi BO vs. studio is that by and large, there are some pretty standard methods for a studio release. A movie that makes over 40 million in a weekend *almost* always has had a giant P&A spend and is in the same theatres as the other movies pulling in that kind of cash. For an indie movie, there are a lot of more interesting variables that are very diverse. How much the distributor paid for the film and what the terms are, what the backend or ancillary terms are, how many theatres and which theatres, what kind of campaign was done, etc. For me the most interesting thing is to try to figure out the producer's bottom line. A movie can make $5 million and make less for the producer than a $500K movie quite easily. That said, its a very different metric than if the film has "done well".

  • Sharon | April 5, 2012 2:16 PMReply

    Thank you, this is very helpful!