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6 Things Non-Record-Breaker ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ Reveals about the Current Box Office

6 Things Non-Record-Breaker 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' Reveals about the Current Box Office

Whatever its quality–writer-director Joss Whedon’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is no affront to cinematic aesthetics–the film’s marketing and distribution design is meticulous enough to guarantee a massive opening. So it’s no surprise that Disney delivered a $187 million weekend.

Among mixed reviews including both the New York and Los Angeles Times, critics understood that their views carried little relevance. This is simply a blockbuster juggernaut. So let’s parse the numbers. 

Top Ten Chart 

1. Avengers: Age of Ultron (Buena Vista) NEW – Cinemascore: A; Criticwire: B-; Metacritic: 66; Est. Budget: $250 million
$187,656,000 in 4,276 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $43,886; Cumulative: $187,656,000

2. The Age of Adaline (Lionsgate) Week 2 – Last weekend #3
$6,250,000 (-53%) in 2,991 theaters (unchanged); PSA: $2,090; Cumulative: $23,424,000

3. Furious 7 (Universal) Week 5 – Last weekend #1
$6,114,000 (-66%) in 3,305 theaters (-503); PSA: $1,850; Cumulative: $330,539,000

4. Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (Sony) Week 3 – Last weekend #2
$5,550,000 (-62% in 3,548 theaters (-85); PSA: $1,564; Cumulative: $51,186,000

5. Home (20th Century Fox) Week 6 – Last weekend #4
$3,300,000 (-59%) in 2,852 theaters (-459); PSA: $1,157; Cumulative: $158,132,000

6. Ex-Machina (A24) Week 4 – Last weekend #6
$2,231,000 (-59%) in 1,279 theaters (+24); PSA: $1,744; Cumulative: $10,868,000

7. Unfriended (Universal) Week 3 – Last weekend #5
$1,988,000 (-68%) in 2,221 theaters (-554); PSA: $895; Cumulative: $28,531,000

8. The Longest Ride (20th Century Fox) Week 4 – Last weekend #7
$1,700,000 (-60%) in 2,115 theaters (-1,025); PSA: $804; Cumulative: $33,240,000

9. Woman in Gold (Weinstein) Week 5 – Last weekend #10
$1,681,000 (-50%) in 1,126 theaters (-855); PSA: $1,493; Cumulative: $24,588,000

10. Monkey Kingdom (Buena Vista) Week 3 – Last weekend #9
$1,191,000 (-65%) in 1,465 theaters; PSA: $688; Cumulative: $12,482,000

Disney’s “Cinderella,” listed as Top Ten on some charts, earned most of its gross as the second feature with “Ultron” in many drive-ins, with the gross reported for both films. Nearly all the revenue will be appropriately applied to “Ultron” and including it in listing the Top Ten would be misleading.

6 Things “Ultron” Reveals About the Current Martket

Even adjusting for ticket prices, “Ultron” marks the second-biggest grossing opener ever, and the best since the first “Avengers” three years ago. (In terms of tickets sold, due to elevated 3D pricing, a half dozen or more recent films, including two “Dark Knights” and “Hunger Games,” drew bigger crowds). It is domestically initially a huge success. The number, even coming in at the low end of optimistic expectations, reinforces the current box office landscape. (While the big fight had some impact, it came for most of the country late Saturday night, and has been overstated as a factor.)

1. Domestic movie attendance is not growing.

Normally, the second entry of a blockbuster film opens and outperforms the original. “Avengers” had a A+ Cinemascore, a $623 million ultimate domestic gross. “Ultron” opened about 10% lower, even with maximum seating and less competition (the remaining Top Ten films in 2012 did 50% better than this week). We need another weekend at least, but it is doubtful this will hit $500 million, which would be more than a 25% fall. Keep in mind that a first sequel usually opens bigger, which is why based on the old rules a new record seemed possible. It didn’t happen.

2. The era of breaking all-time record opening weekends is past.

“The Avengers” 2012 mark is now three years old, and this was 2015’s best shot at topping it for a while. (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens a week before Christmas, and between a much more crowded release schedule and the usual pre-holiday slowness — even “Avatar” only opened to $77 million — it isn’t likely to claim it.) The last time there was a greater gap between records was the 2002-06 period, almost a decade ago. Record opening weekends, and even total gross, is only one gauge of the health of the market, but again this is another sign that we are past peak gross domestically.

3. Younger audiences are declining.

For “Avengers” the median age was 25. For “Ultron,” only 41% was under 25. That is consistent with the clear trend in the last few years, and remains troubling. Had the makeup been the same, the total gross would have been $210 million or more. (It’s not a gender issue — attendees were 60% male for both, a statistic that also suggests the fight last night wasn’t that huge a factor.)

4. Foreign markets continue to be the growth engine.

With its one-week earlier opening in much of the world (with huge China and Japan markets still ahead), international has taken in $439 million so far. It’s early, but with foreign likely to be substantially bigger (it might hit $1.8 billion, compared to $1.5 last time), the domestic share, with an estimate $450 million gross, would be 25% of the total, compared to 40% three years ago. That would only be slightly better than last year’s “Transformers,” which was more internationally-oriented in terms of all-action/less finesse and less story than “Ultron” or other Marvel films. It reinforces the seismic shift going on in the business.

5. 2015 is going to far outpace 2014.

The franchise and sequel heavy summer lineup will easily outdo last year. The question is by how much. Through this weekend, total business is now up 5.6% over 2014, and for the first time, 2015 to date is ahead of each of the previous five years. But whether it will become more profitable domestically is still in question.

This year’s line up is much higher budgeted than last year, which is less a worry for studios who have the rest of the world, as well as some of the theater chains, also invested foreign. But for domestic exhibition, the higher quality of the summer’s product also means an increase of box office revenue that ends up being turned over to distributors (in the normal course of affairs, the higher the gross, the higher the film rental). So a bigger box office haul is positive, but not as positive as it might appear on paper, particularly coming off a dismal 2014.

6. The Mayweather/Pacquiao fight drew a huge domestic tally.

Initially estimated at $400 million, with marketing costs far lower than the $200 million-plus for “Ultron,” that’s a gigantic payday money at less expense, and less shared revenue with other participants, going straight to home audiences. Four million customers (with multiple viewers) plopped down around $100 for less than one hour that started at midnight Eastern time. No one yet knows the formula to transition this to a big movie event (likely a sequel in an established series, and perhaps a bit further along the line in terms of improved home viewing experience). The two cable channels involved share ownership with two studios (Warner Bros. and Paramount, with Universal and Fox both major cable or digital carriers also profiting from the fight), so the people at the top who oversee long-term strategy can be expected to envision the potential for replicating this for certain movie events.

Sundance Directors Pop Up in Unexpected Places

Lionsgate’s “The Age of Adaline” dropped sharply as did most of the holdovers, though less than all but one in the Top Ten. It managed to rise to second place, outgrossing “Furious 7.” If it can stabilize its gross (iffy beyond next week, since “Pitch Perfect 2” will take most of its female audience) it might still have a chance to break even despite having little international draw, thanks to its thrifty pre-marketing $25 million cost.

The romance didn’t receive much media attention or acclaim. Director Lee Toland Krieger is the latest American director to first catch the attention of agents and then studios at Sundance. While some of the most acclaimed filmmakers advance to bigger specialized projects and festival/awards world attention, and others are leading creative forces in cable and other non-theatrical venues (the biggest source of employment), some others make sometimes surprising transitions into the tricky world of studios.

Krieger drew initial attention at Sundance with “The Vicious Kind” in American Spectrum in 2009, then “Celeste and Jesse Forever” as a Premiere in 2012, a subsequent Sony Pictures Classics $3 million specialized release. He wrote the first film, but “Celeste” and now “Adaline” were written by others. Neither was a critical success (59 and 51 respectively on Metacritic), but he drew young audiences, and thus Lionsgate picked him as a less expensive emerging talent for a project like “Adaline” where critical support is less vital.

The question for him and others is the very tough grading curve for studio films who seek predictable results from acquiescent tyros looking to “make the grade.” “Adaline” looks like a positive step for him, but not enough to guarantee a long career.

Sundance discoveries like Darren Aronofsky (from “Pi” to “The Fountain” and “Noah”) and Ava Duvernay (“Middle of Nowhere” to “Selma”) bridge the indie-studio gap with varying success. Brit “Kingsman” director Matthew Vaughn broke out with “Layer Cake” some years ago. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa went from “I Love You Phillip Morris” to Will Smith’s somewhat offbeat “Focus.”  “300: Rise of an Empire” director Noam Murro debuted with indie “Smart People.” Last year’s “Robocop” and “Endless Love” both had directors noticed at Park City with “Bus 174” and “The Greatest” respectively. And “The Lazarus Effect,” a Blumhouse Productions horror film released by Relativity, was directed by Daniel Gelb, best remembered for directing the surprise documentary fest circuit success “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.”

Holdover Recap

The devastation wreaked by “Ultron” took its toll on the holdovers, with nine titles sharing $30 million gross (compared to “Ultron”‘s $187 million). “Woman in Gold” (Weinstein) fared best, dropping 50% despite losing 855 theaters. “Adaline” was second best. The previously impressive “Ex-Machina” (A24) is holding close to steady in theaters (1,279, up 24 before next week’s planned bigger expansion), but dropped a disappointing 58%. The best rationalization is that its potential audience was primed this weekend to be early “Ultron” customers. Next week, with hoped for good word of mouth and increased ad buys, this could rebound. 

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