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Why This Weekend’s Box Office Ranks with the Worst Ever

Why This Weekend's Box Office Ranks with the Worst Ever

It’s bad — record-setting bad: this weekend’s box office grosses were the lowest they’ve been since 1998, and attendance sank to a record low we haven’t seen for over 25 years.

Yes, it’s exciting for “Guardians of the Galaxy” to keep soaring, but context is crucial. And yes, studios decided to take the week off from opening new films. But after hearing the rationalizations for the weak summer, industry voices keep promising that it is only temporary. A rebound might be forthcoming with a strong fall lineup. But that’s conjecture. The reality for the moment is something different.

The grosses

1. Guardians of the Galaxy (Buena Vista) Week 6 – Last weekend #1
$10,160,000 (-40%) in 3,221 theaters (-241); PSA (per screen average): $3,154; Cumulative: $294,567,000
2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Paramount) Week 5 – Last weekend #2
$6,500,000 (-45%) in 3,273 theaters (-270); PSA: $1,986; Cumulative: $174,647,000
3. If I Stay (Warner Bros.) Week 3 – Last weekend #3
$5,750,000 (-38%) in 3.157 theaters (+154); PSA: $1,821; Cumulative: $39,663,000
4. Let’s Be Cops (20th Century Fox) Week 4 – Last weekend #5
$5,400,000 (-35%) in 2,932 theaters (-78); PSA: $1,842; Cumulative: $66,598,000
5. The November Man (Relativity) Week 2 – Last weekend #6
$4,200,000 (-47%) in 2,776 theaters (unchanged); PSA: $1,513; Cumulative: $17,870,000
6. As Above/So Below (Universal) Week 2; Last weekend #4
$3,723,000 (-57%) in 2,650 theaters (+10); PSA: $1,405; Cumulative: $15,576,000
7. When the Game Stands Tall (Sony) Week 3 – Last weekend #7
$3,700,000 (-38%) in 2,766 theaters (+93); PSA: $1,338; Cumulative: $23,490,000
8. The Giver (Weinstein) Week 4 – Last weekend #8
$3,591,000 (-32%) in 2,576 theaters (-229); PSA: $1,394; Cumulative: $37,835,000
9. The Hundred-Foot Journey (Buena Vista) Week 5 – Last weekend #9
$3,200,000 (-33%) in 2,167 theaters (+249); PSA: $1,477; Cumulative: $45,699,000
10. Lucy (Universal) Week 7 – Last weekend #11
$1,950,000 (-29%) in 1,171 theaters (-122); PSA: $1,665; Cumulative: $121,207,000

When was it this bad? It has been a long time.

The post-Labor Day weekend — primarily because studios traditionally eschew major new films — often is the lowest of its year. So a downturn isn’t a surprise. But this isn’t just an off weekend — it ranks with the worst ever. Not adjusting for much higher ticket prices, the initial estimated total places it below all weekends I can find going back to Halloween 1998 (often weak if Oct. 31 falls on the weekend). And with adjustments, it looks like the number of tickets sold hasn’t been this low since 1988. Full weekend gross totals only go back to 1982, but if you add in population growth, who knows how long it has been since so few people were attracted to theaters (it looks like about six million went this weekend). That’s out of a population in the U.S. and Canada of about 350 million, with about 300 million over the age of 5. The net result was a Top Ten total of around $46 million, down a full third from a year ago.

Distributors/studios comes out better than exhibitors, who operate a 52 week-a-year business with fixed expenses and find cold comfort when distributors have reduced the costs of their releases (so the loss isn’t so acute) and have other platforms, including international, to make themselves whole. But what does a wholly vacated weekend symbolized? Something even worse. (Indie distributor Freestyle, which does a solid job handling films for producers who usually pay for their own marketing, opened the faith-based 1950s rock musical “The Identical” this weekend, but fell just short of the Top Ten despite little new competition).

The weekend was out there for a distributor to claim — as it has been in recent years by “Riddick” ($19 million), “Contagion” ($22), “Resident Evil: Afterlife” ($26), “I Can Do Bad All By Myself” ($23), “Burn After Reading” ($19), “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” ($30). With the strong turnout of older audiences both in the Top Ten and in a number of strong performing crossover specialized hits at the moment, there might have been an opening for one of the broader appeal/star driven films premiering at Toronto to have opened (the oxygen for attention there is intense and often dissipates before a film reaches the public). Might the struggling “When the Game Stands Tall” or “November Man” have opened better this weekend? Or to go more action, Weinstein’s major flop “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” couldn’t have done worse now. Horror films have been a staple in the past — “As Above/Now Below” should have fared better now. For an industry which has loudly proclaimed its belief that the business is strong, unanimously passing a weekend with a potential easy number one and a $20 million-plus initial gross, speaks volumes.

Who Benefited #1: “Guardians of the Galaxy”

“Guardians” is the first 2014 film to have a fourth week as the top gross (in its case, week six) since “Avatar,” which ended up with seven. That film’s fourth weekend though was $50 million, its seventh $31, so its not riding quite so high. It is a default number one. That isn’t meant to diminish its ongoing achievement as it approaches $300 million domestic (and $600 worldwide — strangely, this hasn’t soared internationally as much as at home). It will fall about $75-million short of last summer’s best (“Iron Man 3”) and about half of “The Avengers” in 2012 though. This should however be the end of its run at the top. Next weekend it projects to $7-8 million, and at least one of the two new wide releases (“Dolphin Tale 2″/Warner Bros.) should easily outpace it.

What Benefited #2: Most holdovers

Six of the holdovers in the Top Ten fell less than 40% from last weekend, despite Sunday last week having a big jump to Saturday-level grosses because of falling ahead of a holiday, and this week facing competition from NFL season openers. Only one film (“As Above/So Below”) dropped more than 50%. The overall range of drops went from 29 to 56%, far above average both for this particular weekend and year round. Again, films in the market and their studios were helped, even if the aggregate number and theaters suffer.

What’s with Forrest Gump in IMAX?

The last two weeks have seen significant reissue runs for two classics. Sony had “Ghostbusters” on 784 screens last weekend for $1,756,000 over three days. Now “Forrest Gump” is back in IMAX for a much weaker $405,000 in 337. Is this the start of some major new trend? Probably not. Both share a common reason in part for these showings – it’s a way to increase awareness for both films’ Blu-ray sets coming out this month. “Gump” had the help of an elevated experience with higher prices, but didn’t seem to have the same appeal of the older comedy classic. Curiously, IMAX took out two page ads last Friday in both the New York and Los Angeles Times with the tagline “IMAX Never Compromise” belittling the home viewing experience. With the results here, not sure we’re going to see a trend.

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