Daily Box Office Analysis
Terminator Salvation Has $13.4 Million Debut
By David Mumpower
May 22, 2009

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We are one day in on the box office of Terminator Salvation and an attempt is already being made to lower expectations. That is never a good sign. The official word for Thursday box office is that McG's take on the storied action franchise earned $13.4 million yesterday, including $3 million from midnight exhibitions. In other words, the movie did alright, but it's far from a blockbuster.

For perspective, let's look at the Memorial Day openers from the past two years. I'm not going back any further since X-Men: The Last Stand didn't open on a Thursday and the final Star Wars film is a phenomenon unto itself in terms of frontloading. The most relevant comparison film is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a movie that matched expectations every step of the way, no small feat for such a debated film. Its debut was also on a Thursday and the film earned $25 million that day on the way to a Thursday-to-Monday take of $152.0 million. You don't need to be a math genius to recognize that Thursday's take was right at a sixth of the total box office for the holiday period.

Were Terminator Salvation to follow that pattern, we would be looking at an $80 million debut, well short of the lofty expectations for this title. Generally speaking, a larger multiplier should be expected for a film with a deflated debut, but that presumes that demand isn't met. That issue is yet to be settled for Christian Bale's first film since The Dark Knight. What we can say for sure is that his last film didn't have a daily total this small until its 11th day in theaters. All ten days at the start of The Dark Knight's epic release behavior were larger than Terminator Salvation could manage right off the bat.

Before you write off all hope, however, consider the pattern of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. That title also experienced a disappointing Thursday debut of $13.2 million, even less than Terminator Salvation has managed. From Friday-to-Monday, however, it recovered wonderfully by spiking 224% (!) on Friday to $42.9 million on the way to $139.8 million over those four days. Its multiplier from Thursday-to-Monday was 11.6, almost double the 6 multiplier for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Do I expect that to happen? Probably not. Then again, nobody expected it to happen two years ago, either.

The cause for concern with regards to Thursday debuts for Memorial Day weekend films is that there is no rush to see them prior to the holiday period when consumers have so much free time to catch a flick. The end result is that we get a much bigger multiplier for any film that doesn't have opening day rush, and I'm inclined to say that Terminator Salvation qualifies. Splitting the difference between the five-day multipliers of the two films under discussion, At World's End and Indiana Jones 4, we would be looking at a 9 multiplier for Terminator Salvation against its Thursday total of $13.4 million, or roughly $120 million. Expectations from the studio have already been dropped to the $70 million range over the holiday period, which would reflect a multiplier much more in line with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. My gut tells me that is probably closer to being true, so I'm going to follow suit and say we're probably talking about $85 million through Monday, give or take a bit. As usual, basing several days of box office behavior off a single day of box office is a wildly erratic process, meaning anyone who claims to know exactly what will happen next is lying.

As you can see, the swing here is tremendous with a downside of $80 million and an upside of $155 million, just based on the past two years of behavior. The way you will know for sure what to expect is how much the film spikes on Friday. If it goes up only 25% or so, it's going to be a more like Indiana Jones. If it goes up into the $35+ million range, it's going to be much closer to At World's End. The final Pirates film soared from $13.2 million to $42.9 million on day two while Indiana Jones only went from $25 million to $30.6 million. In order to have a big weekend, Terminator Salvation needs a huge swing today. With lackluster word-of-mouth and horrific reviews, this won't be easy.

Also, there is already some defensive posturing that Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was poorly received and that's why the fourth film isn't doing very well. Don't buy that for a second. It's nonsense. That film is 70% fresh at RottenTomatoes and has a solid 6.7 rating at IMDb. Meanwhile, Salvation has only 41 positive reviews out of 133, a dreadful score of 31%. I liked the movie well enough on a personal basis, but most of my fellow critics have been much less satisfied by this result. What happens with the latest film is based on its own quality. This is particularly true when we factor in the box office upgrade from casting Nick Stahl to The Dark Knight himself, Christian Bale.

By the way, in case you were wondering, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines debuted to $4.0 million on a Tuesday. It had a unique six-day release window with a performance of $11.9 million on its first Thursday. Adjusting for inflation gives it a $14.1 million tally, meaning that in 2009 dollars, day three of Terminator 3 has surpassed first day box office of Terminator 4.

Summarizing day one, Terminator Salvation's fate isn't sealed yet, but it's off to a disappointing start.