Box Office Review: September 2008
By David Mumpower
September 30, 2008

Oh look, Shia is running from the law again.

When evaluating the final box office of a title, there are so many factors to be considered. Domestic receipts matter exponentially more than international revenue due to the precarious nature in revenue collection for locations far removed from North America. Tariffs, the US dollar's performance, additional subtitling/voiceover expenses, and unusual studio splits all impact the international takes. As such, domestic performance skews the picture more, which helps a film like Iron Man, whose international take wasn't that extraordinary, and hurts a film like Prince Caspian, which tore it up worldwide, but not in North America.

Similarly, films that open better help the studio more since they get a much bigger cut (generally in the 85-90% range) for the first weekend before falling into the 50/50 range after a month. So, a strong start is more beneficial than impressive legs in the final analysis. That's great news for frontloaded titles such as The Strangers and not so great news for leggy hits such as What Happens in Vegas. Don't get me wrong. Having legs is always great for a film, but it helps the distributor less if most of the money comes in later weekends.

1) Fireproof
In determining the winner for September, it all comes down to return on investment. The Christian-themed film starring Kirk Cameron and the only woman he will kiss onscreen (or, presumably, in real life) Mrs. Kirk Cameron (and Erin Bethea in the non-kissing scenes) cost a whopping $500,000 to produce. Okay, to most people, that's a lot of money and it's certainly more than Kevin Smith spent on Clerks. Or that guy who spent on his $70 zombie Facebook movie. But it's still pretty darned cheap (it would be wrong to swear in a Kirk Cameron discussion, no matter how I really feel about that evil harpy Tracey Gold) for a major motion picture in this day and age. Once we factor in that the title earned $33.5 million in domestic release, finished in the top five for one week, and in the top 20 for 11 weeks, it's a no-brainer. This is exactly the sort of grass roots title that is often imitated but rarely duplicated. In a month containing a pair of $150+ million worldwide performers, a much more modest box office earner is the biggest hit.

2) Burn After Reading
The surprise here is probably the fact that the September release that earned the most money, both domestically and worldwide, still hasn't been mentioned. This is again a situation where production budget expense matters. Burn After Reading was intended to be a nice change of pace for the Coen Brothers to cleanse the palate after the menacing air of No Country for Old Men. A slapstick comedy is something this creative duo has done and done well in the past, mastering their craft with the hilarious hijinks seen in Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou. They also made Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers. Let's forgive them their transgressions and focus upon the huge positive here. Thanks in large part to the re-teaming of Brad Pitt and George Clooney, Burn After Reading was a modest success domestically and a fine performer internationally. The film debuted at number one, stayed that way for a full week, and managed $60.4 million domestically against a $37 million budget. Factoring in the $90 million earned abroad, the title's revenue was almost exactly a factor of four against the initial investment. The title in third place received more hype, but it was less profitable in terms of actual revenue against cost than the latest Coen Brothers hit.

3) Eagle Eye
The only $100 million earner of the month, I consider Eagle Eye to be a perfect example of a film doing exactly what was expected of it. Shia LaBeouf was riding a tremendous hot streak with the sleeper hit, Disturbia, and a pair of $300+ million juggernauts, Transformers and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Eagle Eye was expected to be a slightly bigger title than Disturbia, and this is exactly what happened. The title earned about $19 million more domestically and became the young actor's fourth $100+ million hit as well as his third consecutive one (with a fourth waiting in the wings next month). An argument could be made that three out of those four would have happened independent of him, making Eagle Eye the first $100 million hit he can claim as his own. Even if he were not a part of two massive franchises, Disturbia and Eagle Eye alone would be enough to make LaBeouf one of the hottest actors in our industry. In terms of actual money, Eagle Eye is the biggest winner of the month, but its $178 million in worldwide revenue against an $80 million budget is less impressive than the two titles listed above it. Eagle Eye matched expectations whereas each of those films easily exceeded them.

4) Lakeview Terrace
Samuel L. Jackson loves roles such as this one that deal with slice of life misadventures. The similarly toned Changing Lanes earned a solid $66.8 million and he has covered some of the same ground about racial tension with Black Snake Moan, Coach Carter and The Negotiator. All of these films except for Black Snake Moan earned at least $44 million, meaning that Lakeview Terrace's $39.3 million domestic performance (with an additional $5 million worldwide) is right in line with past performances if a bit low. Lakeview Terrace has already earned another $20 million on home video, something that doesn't factor into its ranking but does demonstrate the themes have struck a chord with viewers. For a $20 million production, it's done very well on the whole.

5) The Women
This movie's overall performance is a good demonstration of why it is so important to go back after a reasonable period of time and offer some post-game analysis on films. Upon first blush, the film's $10.2 million debut, good enough for only fourth place, seemed modest at best. The only good news at the time was that the title carried a production cost of only $16 million, which goes a long way in showing the salary disparity between established actors and actresses in the industry. But I digress. The point is that The Women's $26.9 million domestic run was okay, but wouldn't have been judged a hit without its addition accrual of $22 million in foreign gates. Once those are factored into the equation, the title winds up with a worldwide take of $48 million, a factor of three larger than its budget. Sure, its marketing and foreign expenses probably wipe out most of its profit, but it's theoretically well into the black. For a month like September, that's a win.

6) Nights in Rodanthe
Most people don't realize it, but this is the fourth Nicholas Sparks novel to be adapted into a major motion picture. It performed much more in line with his first two films, Message in a Bottle ($52.9 million) and A Walk to Remember ($41.2 million), than his blockbuster, The Notebook ($81.0 million). While many would argue that a $41.9 million domestic run for a title whose romantic leads are a combined 103 years old is pretty darned good, I believe that "from the creator of The Notebook" should have led to a larger box office run. It's fine if you disagree with me, as long as you understand my thought process here. Nights in Rodanthe left theaters in the black, but it also left money on the table in terms of opportunity cost.

7) The Family That Preys
This is the last of the unqualified winners. Tyler Perry's out-of-nowhere ascension into mainstream box office draw was solidified long before this title came out. Its $37.1 million domestic performance is a bit less than Meet the Browns, but it was about the same amount ahead of Daddy's Little Girls, placing it squarely in the expected range for non-Madea films from the actor/director. Perry has become so powerful in such a period that if he wants a cameo in Star Trek, then by God, he gets a cameo in Star Trek.

8) Righteous Kill
I realize that your first instinct would be to call a $73.1 million worldwide performer against a $60 million budget a winner. This goes back to what is said at the start of the column. Domestic revenue is more important and this title's $40.1 million domestic is only two thirds of its budget, not factoring in other negative cost expenditures. The $33 million attained internationally helps some but it's not enough to view this as a title that was in the red when it exited theaters. It's at best a draw theatrically that will earn its money on home video, which it has already done to the tune of $15.4 million thus far. No one is getting fired over this one nor is anyone getting promoted.

9) My Best Friend's Girl
We have reached the dregs and let me say with emphasis that the dregs of September are the true dregs, particularly now that January somehow has become the new May. This ill-conceived Kate Hudson/Dane Cook "romantic comedy" proves that Hudson has the worst taste in scripts this side of Nic Cage and Cook's 15 minutes are gone, assuming they ever existed. It earned $19.2 million domestically and $34.8 million worldwide against a $20 million budget, making it a non-factor at best. Memo to Hollywood: Stop hiring Dane Cook. It didn't work with Tom Green, it didn't work with Rob Schneider, it didn't work with Jamie Kennedy, and it's not working now.

10) Ghost Town
I am quite possibly the only person in the world who loves British television yet doesn't find Ricky Gervais the least bit funny. Even so, I remain to this day surprised by how little marketing was given to this endeavor. I'm not going to make a play on words about the title or anything, but the next commercial I see for this will be, well, the third. And the people who cut the trailer couldn't find anything in the movie that was funny, remarkable when we consider it is 84% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes. In fact, I know about 25 people who have watched it. To a person, they at least like if not love the film. It seems destined to be a cult classic, but a $13.3 million domestic performance with double that in total worldwide sales against a $20 million budget is weak.

11) Igor
I still have only the vaguest idea what this is. I know it is an animated movie about a dude who looks like he should be hanging out at Notre Dame, unlike Jimmy Clausen (ba-da-bump). What I do know is that it made $26.6 million worldwide, $19.5 million of it domestically, against a $30 million production budget. So, it failed.

12) Choke
Notable only for how sexually sophomoric it is in content, my beloved Clark Gregg's directorial debut was just too far out there for mainstream consumers. Fox Searchlight made the unfortunate decision to pay $5 million for distribution rights to a film that went on to gross $2.9 million. Basically, they overpaid for mediocre performance, making this the equivalent of a New York Yankees contract.

13) Miracle at St. Anna
Anecdotally, when I saw this trailer, I was convinced it was going to be a hit. After talking to other people, I quickly realized this was not a commonly held belief as the convoluted story of a decapitated statue head seemed to alienate many. Apparently, when Bart Simpson does it to Jebediah Springfield, it's entertaining. When Spike Lee does it, it's creepy. Whatever the explanation for such circuitous logic, this title earned a whopping $9 million worldwide against a $45 million budget. It is one of the biggest financial failures of 2008.