The current obsession over box office figures is a very recent phenomenon. Twenty years ago, I don’t think newspapers or magazines even bothered publishing them on a weekly basis. As with most pop culture obsessions, there’s a lot of bad information out there, and lots of misconceptions. The biggest misconception is that the box office take is what matters.
In ye olden days, Hollywood made its money entirely from the shares of sales of tickets to movie theatres, an mainly in the United States. That’s changed. Although the numbers that get tossed around are for the U.S. box office, the total revenues from foreign box office are much larger. For some blockbusters, domestic take accounts for less than a third of the total.
Then, Hollywood has expanded to new products. They make money off videos and DVD’s, they sell movies to premium cable channels and TV networks, they put in product placement advertising, they create media tie-ins (books and video games), they license their intellectual property for use by fast food restraunts and soft drink companies. I recall hearing that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe had already earned back its investment for Disney before it was even released. In short, box office is now less than 20% of Hollywood’s income. The executives surley pay attention to it as theatre performance is a bellweather for how a movie will do on DVD. But sometimes you have movies like Austin Powers that tank at the box office and then become megahits on video anyway.
The last misconception is just confusing studio hype with reality. When King Kong was released last December, there was a bunch of marketing BS about how it would surely be the biggest smash hit of the year. Then it earned ‘only’ 60 million dollars on opening weekend and many folks called it a flop. In fact, the movie earned substantial profit for the studio. There won’t be a sequel (I assume), but Peter Jackson shouldn’t have trouble getting funding for his next big project. Similarly with M:I-3 earlier this summer.
“Good” is still a relative thing, though. MI:3 made less in 11 weeks than Pirates did in its first 5 days, so even if it does make its money make, the perception is still not necessarily “good” (especially with Cruise’s new rep and the law of diminishing returns for franchises).
Similarly, Superman had more hype, better reviews, and a much bigger budget, but it still won’t make as much as X3 will. Even with foreigns and home markets, that still is seen as a disappointment. Yes, there will be another (and Singer’s likely to direct again), but you can bet WB is going to show a bit more discretion in watching the bottom line, based on the less-than-overwhelming numbers (currently, The Devil Wears Prada has a better screen average than Supes; that is not “good”).
I used to follow numbers at my old job as part of my work for clients to show value for my firm’s work with regards to the client’s intellectual property. I was told that $20M openning weekend was pretty good (I think I also heard it on ET). That was at least 7 years ago, so I wonder if it’s been adjusted for inflation. I still think $20M is a good number to hit, but as others have posted, “good” is relative, especially in relation to budget.
By Hollywood accounting standards, no movie is ever profitable. They tend to use something called a “rolling break” (or “rolling break point” or “rolling break-even point”). Essentially the dollar figure in income required to make a profit increases as box office gross approaches it.
Essentially, the studio charges fees that increase the longer the film is in circulation. One is the “Interest fee,” which is not a fee at all: it is a charge that amounts to the amount of interest the studio would have received if, instead of investing in the movie, they had invested it and earned interest. (Usuall this amount assumes a very high rate of interest for their money). In addition, they charge distribution fees – a number they take off the top that has no relation to their actual distribution costs. See this article for a full discussion (scroll down to find “Eli Horowitz”).