Continuing our earlier discussion of the box office potential of United 93, we now have another data point: BoxOfficeMojo is reporting that United 93 will debut on roughly 1,700 screens.
That seems like a pretty modest number. If it holds when the screen count numbers come out later this week, it probably means that New Line is hedging its bets and willing to push wider if the response is good. But what does that mean for United 93's opening weekend?
For starters, it means that you can throw out any hope that it does Passion-like numbers. The Passion opened to $83.8M in 3,043 theaters. Even if United 93 did Passion's very formidable per theater average ($27,554), it would just crack $40M.
And even that would be asking a lot. A list of the top 200 per-theater averages on opening weekend has only two movies with averages over $28,000 per theater and opened on more than 100 screens.
So, as we keep sifting this data, it seems more likely that United 93 opens in the $17M to $25M range, with a shot at doing near $40M if it's a real phenomenon. The good news (for New Line) is that the weekend's big release RV shouldn't overlap with its audience at all.
Update: Is there a reason United 93 couldn't do Fahrenheit 9/11-type business? (It opened to $23.9M on 868 screens.) Nope. But that would be a real accomplishment.
Update 2: In comments, arrScott makes the smart point that the appeal of United 93 is exactly opposite that of The Passion and Fahrenheit 9/11--it seems to be a well-made, explicitly non-political movie. Very true. arrScott speculates that it may play similarly to Saving Private Ryan.
I'd considered Saving Private Ryan as a model, but ultimately I don't think it's the best one for two reasons: Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Spielberg is the only director alive today who serves as a significant box office inducement all by himself (Woody Allen is an inducement for a certain audience, but on a much smaller scale). And you could make the case that Tom Hanks is the most durable movie star of his generation. Look at the awe-inspiring numbers for Hanks and you'll see 12 of 14 movies topping the $100M mark between 1993 and 2002--that's Hollywood's version of the DiMaggio hitting streak. And what makes the numbers even more impressive is that not all of these movies were sure-fire hits. A League of Their Own? Forrest Gump? Toy Story? These are risky propositions. This streak wasn't built with flicks like Mission: Impossible 2 or Independence Day. Anyway, I'd argue that the presence of two gigantic stars makes Saving Private Ryan substantially different from United 93 in terms of how it will play on opening weekend.
(There are other differences, too: Remember that DreamWorks did an amazing roll-out for Saving Private Ryan, with packages on the covers of newsweeklies and tons of TV tie-ins leading up to the release. The roll-out of United 93 has been demure by comparison. Also, don't forget the budgets: Saving Private Ryan had a $70M budget, while United 93 was made for $15M. That doesn't mean much except that it's a "smaller" movie, and smaller movies tend to open, well, smaller.)
All of that said, arrScott may very well be right that the cultural mood surrounding United 93 will be similar to what surrounded Saving Private Ryan, and the long-term graph of how they play over the summer may chart pretty closely. But for that to happen, United 93 needs to have a solid first weekend. The way the summer season works, it'll get moved out of theaters quickly if the audience doesn't show up the first two weeks.
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