Top 12 Film Industry Stories of 2009:
#7: Slumdog - The $140 Millionaire
By David Mumpower
December 31, 2009

We Americans just imagine people in India breaking out in song and dance all the time.

One of the problems in compiling a list of the biggest Film Industry Stories of a given year is that the ones that happen in the first quarter reach a saturation point. From that moment on, you get sick and tired of hearing about them. This is one of two stories on the list that fit such a description. By now, you know all about Slumdog Millionaire. We accept this going in and apologize if you find a lot of the pertinent details redundant and/or old news by now. Even so, the purpose of this ranking system is not to surprise you with the selections. It's to re-hash the greatest accomplishments of calendar 2009. This one undeniably applies.

Director Danny Boyle is an accomplished auteur whose movies challenge the viewer much more than they appeal to people on a commercial level. To wit, his first seven movies earned a total of $118.8 million domestically. Two of those, The Beach and 28 Days Later, comprise $84.9 million of that result. The other five titles each earned $16.5 million or less with four of them falling under $6.6 million. He's a daring filmmaker whose releases evoke passionate debate from arthouse aficionados. What he hadn't done prior to the end of 2008 was have a North American blockbuster. None of us would have bet any money that when he finally did have a breakthrough release, it would be a title originally planned to go straight to DVD that starred a group of street kids from India. Leonardo DiCaprio couldn't get Danny Boyle a $100 million movie, but the trio of Dev Patel, Freida Pinto and Anil Kapoor got the job done. Go figure.

Filmed on a budget that is the American equivalent of roughly $14 million, Slumdog Millionaire was a platform release that debuted with a modest $427,715 in its first five days of release. Keeping in mind that only ten theaters exhibited the title at first, it is still noteworthy that in this day and age, Slumdog Millionaire needed ten days to earn its first million dollars. Nothing about it was screaming blockbuster at the time; however, its second and third weekend per-location averages of $29,619 and $27,470 were good enough to justify further expansion. Interestingly, each small step along the way led to incremental weekend growth. From the weekend of November 28th until the New Year, each frame saw a slight improvement. The end result is that the title crept up from $1.3 million to $4.7 million. Unlike ordinary behavior for platform expanders, there was never a weekend of exponential growth. The largest weekend to weekend gain during this period was 55%. Slow but steady was winning the race more than enough to make the film a financial winner, though. After the first weekend in January, Slumdog Millionaire's box office tally stood at $28.7 million, making it a low budget winner. Amazingly, there was over $110 million of box office yet to come.

As 2009 approached and end of year awards were announced, Slumdog Millionaire gained tremendous momentum. It made several such lists and developed buzz as the small scale film critics were championing against the big dogs of the studio system. Ironically, their zealous support of this title turned it into exactly the sort of box office success its subject matter was expected to prevent it from becoming. On January 22nd, the film became Boyle's most successful release by surpassing 28 Days Later's $45.1 million total.

During the month of January, Slumdog Millionaire had a slight setback the second weekend in falling 19% to $3.8 million. Any concerns that its mainstream appeal was lackluster were quickly put to rest the following weekend. Its tenth frame became its most successful to date as the movie earned $5.8 million, but it's the following weekend when it gained new momentum. Fresh on the heels of ten Academy Award nominations, the Danny Boyle film gained another 83% from the prior weekend with a tally of $10.3 million. During its 28 weeks in theatrical release, this was one of only two times the film managed a double digits weekend, the rarest of box office feats for $100+ million earners in this day and age. After the $10.3 million, its running total had jumped up to $56.1 million.

Of course, Slumdog Millionaire's largest overall weekend total did not occur until its 16th frame. A still-modest $12.0 million three-day performance gave it a running total of $115.0 million. It also represented a 43% spike from the prior weekend's $8.4 million. What was the cause of this significant increase so late in the run of Slumdog Millionaire? People wanted to see what the fuss was about regarding the film that had just won eight (!) Academy Awards. It is currently tied for the eighth largest amount of Oscars wins in the history of the ceremony. It was indisputably the critical hit of the period between the start of 2008 and now. The current crop of awards contenders looks lackluster in comparison to the awards season domination that was Slumdog Millionaire's run.

By the time Danny Boyle's triumphant project had exited theaters, it had surpassed the combined domestic box office revenue of all seven of his prior over $20 million. The film with the modest $14 million price tag wound up earning over a factor of ten more in domestic revenue with a final tally of $141.3 million. And as would be expected of a film set in India helmed by one of the most popular English directors of all time, Slumdog Millionaire was a worldwide sensation as well. It earned another $222.7 million overseas, giving the film a global total of $364.0 million. While I realize that the revenue splits are much more complex than this, I cannot help but note the beauty of a $14 million movie earning $350 million beyond its price tag. In terms of awards success and revenue relative to budget, Slumdog Millionaire is aptly described as the perfect movie project.