Hugh Hewitt is betting that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe will beat King Kong both in total box office and--amazingly--on the weekend when Kong opens. I'd take that bet.
Narnia opens this Friday and Kong opens next Wednesday. They'll both have monster screen counts--I expect them each to be around 3,200 screens. But I'll be shocked--totally and completely blown away--if it's even close next weekend. The word of mouth on Narnia is fair to good, Kong is getting nothing but raves. The only thing Narnia has going for it in the context of Hugh's theoretical wager is that since it's shorter, it will probably get one more showing per day than the 3+ hour Kong. (I forget what the exact tipping point is, but I believe that once a movie crosses the 170 minute line, it loses a booking.)
Still, even if Narnia performs every bit as well as Disney hopes, next weekend it will face at least a 40% decline (and probably closer to 50%) from its opening weekend. So, just for the sake of argument: If Kong were to debut to $50 million, which is a pretty conservative estimate, even taking into account its disadvantage in play dates, Narnia would have to open to $70 million this weekend to even have a shot at beating it next weekend. If Kong opened to $60 million and Narnia declined a bit more steeply, it would have to open to $87 million even to be in the vicinity of Kong.
Two Notes: First, I'm not commenting at all on the artistic worthiness of either of these movies. I haven't seen them; I hope they're both great. I'm just trying to put the economics and the math into perspective.
Second, Hugh links to this Drudge story with various breathless expectations about Kong breaking the modern Titanic record. "Yes, I think this will do TITANIC numbers. It is going to be a huge movie," says one "Hollywood insider."
Don't believe him! For starters, Titanic's opening numbers were very good, but not great; they don't make the top 100 biggest opening weekends. How much do you think Titanic opened to?
Answer: $28 million. That's right. What made Titanic such a monster hit wasn't its opening--it was the film's crazy-small rate of decline. Titanic never did more than $36 million in a single weekend, but it did very big numbers for 18 weeks in a row--18 weeks!
The bigger point is that nobody can predict a Titanic-sized hit. Look at the list of All-Time Biggest Blockbusters and you don't find many movies that look like sure-fire, super-duper monster hits. The Sound of Music? E.T.? The Exorcist? 101 Dalmatians? The Graduate?
While you can predict with some degree of certainty opening weekends, you can never predict the type cultural moment that creates the insanely small week-to-week erosion rates that produce the most commercially successful movies. Some day a movie will break Titanic's domestic record, but when that day comes, it will be a surprise.
Final note: Hugh Hewitt's a great guy with a discerning movie palate, but he can occasionally allow his rooting interests in a film to distort his box office expectations.
Update, Wed. 7:25 a.m.: Please don't get the idea that I'm rooting against Narnia--I'm not. I hope it's good and if it is, I hope it makes a ton of money. Because when good movies do good business, we all win.
But commenters who are insisting that Narnia is going to open huge simply because "everyone" will see it don't understand how the industry works. Opening weekends follow the broad contours of seasonal movie attendence patterns, which is to say that, from year to year, the box office numbers for each month remain strikingly similar.
Remember that we've gone backwards and decided that in order to have even the slimmest of hopes of beating Kong next weekend, Narnia has to open somewhere between $70 million and $87 million this weekend. Look at the list of biggest December openings. Only one movie opening in December has ever fit into this range, and that was Return of the King, which squeaked by with $72 million in its first weekend. Only one other December movie, The Two Towers, opened above $60 million. Do you think Narnia is going to open bigger than either of these movies, which had the added benefits of being sequels? (Sequels earn a higher percentage of their overall gross on opening weekends than non-sequels do.) I don't.
We'll wait for the Amazing Gitesh Pandya to make his expert prediction later this week, but right now the Hollywood Stock Exchange, which has an uncanny gift for getting these things right, is predicting a $58.9 million opening for Narnia. That sounds pretty plausible to me.
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