Box office misreadings

28May07

Yesterday I posted the TV ratings chart and tried to dispel some mistaken assumptions about how ratings work. So today when I read an article titled “Early summer movies underperform at box office,” I couldn’t resist another round of debunking. The premise of the article is that the (allegedly) weak performance of the first three big entries in the summer movie field, Spider-man 3, Shrek the Third, and Pirates of Caribbean 3, “have not kept pace with their respective predecessors,” which suggests that audiences are turning away from sequels and franchises.

As my British friends like to say, bollocks.

David Bordwell hosted a discussion about the role of sequels in Hollywood, debunking journalistic hand-wringing about this summer’s franchise-driven fare. So let me take a turn to debunk this claim that this summer’s performance is a referendum on sequels; in fact, I’d say that these three films are actually performing better than the average third entry in a franchise.

I did a bit of data-crunching from the franchise section on Box Office Mojo. I looked at the record of 21 franchises with at least 3 films, discounting long-running series like James Bond. Of these 21, 12 of the series peaked with their first entry, meaning that the most typical course of a trilogy is with the most successful results in the initial movie. This pattern can be a huge initial success (like both Star Wars trilogies), three similarly performing films with a slight initial edge (the Scream franchise), or a hit with dwindling returns (Fast & Furious or Beverly Hills Cop). Thus most sequels fall short of the original, but this article suggests that the failure of this year’s crop to reach such heights is evidence of some new audience trends; actually, it’s the norm.

Of the remaining 9 franchises, 6 peaked with the second entry – some were stealth hits with more buzz than box office and then growing its reputation on video (Lethal Weapon and Terminator). Only one franchise really followed the pattern that it would seem this article wants to assert – beloved film spawns a disappointing but successful sequel, leading to a 3rd film flopping (The Matrix). And then 3 have peaked with the third entry – Austin Powers follows the stealth video arc, but with the third film slightly outgrossing the second; Lord of the Rings, which seems exceptional due to its clear single story arc & yearly entries; and X-Men, which seems to have set the unreasonable expectations for a franchise constantly raising the stakes, something that almost never happens.

The average performance for a 3rd film in a franchise (not counting franchises whose initial entry grosses less than 1/2 of the sequel) is 83% of the original’s gross. How do this year’s films stack up? The numbers are still coming in, but I don’t see how any of these can be seen as failures. Spider-man 3 sits at 76% of the original right now; it will probably end up as the least successful in the series, but it’s already the 21st highest grossing film in history! Shrek 3 is already at 82% after 2 weeks, and will certainly pass the original; it probably won’t catch Shrek 2, but that is (unbelievably) the 3rd highest grosser ever. Pirates 3 just opened, but it’s already hit half the original’s gross in 3 days; it looks poised to mirror the arc of the Die Hard franchise, but with more than three times the grosses.

The point is that the entertainment press sets up ridiculous expectations and measures for success, and makes claims without resorting to evidence or precedents. The data (which I’ve reproduced below the fold) tells a different story that’s worth considering. I’d love to hear anyone else’s interpretations of these numbers…

Film / U.S. Gross / % of original film’s gross
American Pie $102,561,004 100%
American Pie 2 $145,103,595 141%
American Wedding $104,565,114 102%

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery $53,883,989 100%
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me $206,040,086 382%
Austin Powers in Goldmember $213,307,889 396%

Back to the Future $210,609,762 100%
Back to the Future Part II $118,450,002 56%
Back to the Future Part III $87,727,583 42%

Batman $251,188,924 100%
Batman Returns $162,831,698 65%
Batman Forever $184,031,112 73%
Batman and Robin $107,325,195 43%
Batman Begins $205,343,774 82%

Beverly Hills Cop $234,760,478 100%
Beverly Hills Cop II $153,665,036 65%
Beverly Hills Cop III $42,614,912 18%

Die Hard $83,008,852 100%
Die Hard 2: Die Harder $117,540,947 142%
Die Hard: With A Vengeance $100,012,499 120%

The Fast and the Furious $144,533,925 100%
2 Fast 2 Furious $127,154,901 88%
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift $62,514,415 43%

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone $317,575,550 100%
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets $261,988,482 82%
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban $249,541,069 79%
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire $290,013,036 91%

Raiders of the Lost Ark $242,374,454 100%
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom $179,870,271 74%
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade $197,171,806 81%

Jurassic Park $357,067,947 100%
The Lost World: Jurassic Park $229,086,679 64%
Jurassic Park III $181,171,875 51%

Lethal Weapon $65,207,127 100%
Lethal Weapon 2 $147,253,986 226%
Lethal Weapon 3 $144,731,527 222%
Lethal Weapon 4 $130,444,603 200%

Mission: Impossible $180,981,856 100%
Mission: Impossible II $215,409,889 119%
Mission: Impossible III $134,029,801 74%

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl $305,413,918 100%
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest $423,315,812 139%
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End $156,055,000 51%

Scary Movie $157,019,771 100%
Scary Movie 2 $71,308,997 45%
Scary Movie 3 $110,003,217 70%
Scary Movie 4 $90,710,620 58%

Scream $103,046,663 100%
Scream 2 $101,363,301 98%
Scream 3 $89,143,175 87%

Shrek $267,665,011 100%
Shrek 2 $441,226,247 165%
Shrek the Third $219,424,000 82%

Spider-Man $403,706,375 100%
Spider-Man 2 $373,585,825 93%
Spider-Man 3 $307,642,000 76%

Spy Kids $112,719,001 100%
Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams $85,846,429 76%
Spy Kids 3D: Game Over $111,761,982 99%

Star Wars $460,998,007 100%
The Empire Strikes Back $290,475,067 63%
Return of the Jedi $309,306,177 67%

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace $431,088,301 100%
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones $310,676,740 72%
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith $380,270,577 88%

The Terminator $38,371,200 100%
Terminator 2: Judgment Day $204,843,345 534%
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines $150,371,112 392%

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring $314,776,170 100%
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers $341,786,758 109%
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King $377,027,325 120%

The Matrix $171,479,930 100%
The Matrix Reloaded $281,576,461 164%
The Matrix Revolutions $139,313,948 81%

X-Men $157,299,717 100%
X2: X-Men United $214,949,694 137%
X-Men: The Last Stand $234,362,462 149%

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4 Responses to “Box office misreadings”

  1. 1 chutry

    Most of the smart film journalism I’ve read has suggested that this year’s sequels have fulfilled or even exceeded expectations. At the very least, they aren’t hurting this year’s profits. That being said, I do have one question about your number crunching: some of the sequels were made years after the original, making their percentages–when adjusted for inflation–even lower than your numbers suggest. This is probably especially true of the Star Wars films (which ran for nearly 25 years) and the Batman films (which have been running for nearly twenty years).

    I like your idea of the “stealth hit,” but you’re right to note that most films peak with the second film of a series. Interesting that the Scary Movie franchise seems to defy the model to some extent, with its numbers rising and falling relatively randomly.

  2. Chuck – thanks for the comment. I treated Star Wars as two separate trilogies for comparing the 3-film track records – both conform to the same pattern of peaking early, but rebounding for the 3rd film (which unfortunately means that arguably the best film of the series, Empire Strikes Back, is the lowest grosser). As for Batman, I really only looked at the first three, which were within a decade. But the larger point is true that the later entries in a series typically have an innate advantage with higher ticket prices – if we adjusted for inflation, these numbers would be much more skewed.

    And no logic can be used to explain anything about the Scary Movie franchise…

  3. 3 Jonathan Gray

    Of course, we could also look to the texts here — while, as you suggest, Spidey3 is wholly successful, it’s not as *good* as the first two (it’s fun, but the script is often laughably stupid at best), and though I haven’t seen it, Pirates3 looks kind of dire in plot too. Thus even *if* we allowed the dodgy assertion that the films are underperforming, all it would suggest to me is that crappy sequels beget less at the box office … or, rather, surprise-surprise, it shows that a sample of three doesn’t allow for meaningful social science, much as the entertainment press may want it to


  1. 1 Observations on film art and FILM ART : Live with it! There’ll always be movie sequels. Good thing, too.

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