Tuesday, April 25, 2006

United 93 Box Office (cont.)

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.


arrScott said...

I think Passion and Farenheit are the wrong models. At least in part because 93 looks like it might be a good movie, whereas Passion was not a good movie movie (a movie about perhaps the most important subject there is, yes, but a pretentious and overweening piece of Tarantinoesque work nonetheless) and because if 93 is a good movie, it will be good precisely because it is not a polemical or culturally conservative message film, some sort of mirror-universe Farenheit.

The movie seems to me to be more like Saving Private Ryan, both in terms of its artistic project and in terms of the way audiences are likely to approach and experience the film. Whatever the storytelling faults of the last third of Ryan, the Normandy landing sequence made the movie a socially cathartic experience. The summer of '98, you couldn't not see Ryan. You just couldn't. And all the combat sequences were difficult to watch, in some cases physically difficult, like watching an injured person at a car wreck or a house fire while you wait for help to arrive, if you've ever been in that sort of situation. But despite that, people were drawn back to the theater to see Ryan sometimes two or three times.

Ryan did about $217 million in domestic gross, but it was a slow and steady climb. It started on about 2,400 screens and a first-weekend gross of about $31 million. (Granted, in late July, right in the middle of summer blockbuster season.) Box office stayed solid for a month, then leveled off and did sustained business into the middle of September. Then it was rereleased for Oscar season and posted another $27 million or so in March and April.

I expect to see 93 do sustained business leading into summer on the strength of word-of-mouth, repeat business, and the quick achievement of "must-see" status. And if that happens, it might still be in theaters for the 5th anniversary in September, leading to a double-dip even before a prospective Oscar-season rerelease.

All of which is assuming it's actually a good movie. But if it is, I wouldn't be disappointed by a $20 million opening weekend. It's the second and third weekends that will be determinative of whether it's becoming the rare kind of movie where you can't sustain a conversation with another adult without having seen it, and that will be the test of the movie's significance.

arrScott said...

Re: Update 2.

Excellent points on Spielberg and Hanks, both of whom were still considered must-see elements for a movie when Ryan came out.

Another significant difference: Ryan opened in late July, so a solid six weeks got it to mid-September. April-opening 93 is going to have to do more sustained business, perhaps a first month more like Passion with a solid secondary plateau and weekly totals above $2 million through late summer, to still be in theaters in the second week of September, when it could get a huge anniversary bump. It is indeed a tall order to keep a late spring movie on a screen or two at first-run multiplexes until late August.

Ultimately, my only financial point was that Ryan had an impressive run with terrific staying power despite a $31 million opening, which by July standards is hardly impressive. It helped that 1998 was a crap summer for mainstream movies, though; Armageddon, The X-Files, and Lethal Weapon 4 conspired to make The Truman Show look like a great movie before Ryan hit the screens. But the cultural impact of the film seems to have been important in giving it box-office longevity despite a not overwhelming opening weekend, and 93 looks like it could be a candidate to follow that model.

TopCat said...

Assuming it turns out to be a very good movie that connects with the audience, I think better comparisons would be The Silence of the Lambs, or maybe The Sixth Sense. These were movies with second tier stars that opened early in the year. Why don't you project on those comparisons.