A lackluster 2011 box office campaign has turned around in recent weeks thanks to stronger than expected showings from Fast Five, Thor and Bridesmaids. And this weekend sees the release of one of the blue blood franchises of modern cinema, Pirates of the Caribbean. Yes, Captain Jack Sparrow is back for the first time in almost exactly four years. The question is how many people missed him.
By David Mumpower
May 20, 2011
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is one of the greatest box office achievements of our generation. Prior to its theatrical release, the Disney property had garnered little media coverage to that point. In fact, many analysts at the time were convinced that this movie would bomb. There were many reasons to believe that possibility.
The first Disney ride adapted into a mainstream feature, The Country Bears, was a perceived bomb although no financial disaster. That release earned just under $17 million against a $20 million budget. The most devastating comment I can make about the project is that this may be the first time you have ever heard of it. It is almost never shown on television on the heels of pathetic box office performance. Disney pretends as if this title does not exist.
In addition, storied producer Jerry Bruckheimer had failed to deliver the goods on his most recent two summer blockbusters, Pearl Harbor and Bad Company. The former movie is technically a box office winner yet you would be hard pressed to find anyone who enjoys the film. The latter feature cost a whopping $70 million to create yet earned only $11 million on opening weekend. And let’s not ignore the fact that Johnny Depp looks and sounds ridiculous if you sample Jack Sparrow in small bites. On paper, Pirates of the Caribbean looked like disastrous $140 million expenditure for Bruckheimer/Disney, the same as Pearl Harbor.
Instances such as this are exactly why the industry maxim “Nobody knows anything” is repeatedly so frequently. On paper, the project may have seemed like a poor use of capital. In execution, director Gore Verbinski and actor Johnny Depp were a perfect match whose melded sensibilities entwined to create a damn near perfect action adventure, one that will still be played 50 years from now. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was an instant classic and the foundation for a franchise that has earned over $2.7 billion to date. That is the equivalent of 14 Pearl Harbors, 41 Bad Companys, or 159 The Country Bears.
Given that the Pirates franchise was only known for that stupid Disneyworld ride at the time, however, there was not a lot of opening weekend demand. Disney recognized this at the time and they sagely chose to release the film on a Wednesday in order to build buzz for the project. We see this several times a year. Pirates is the rare instance where it worked; I would go so far as to say that Pirates is the perfect implementation of this tactic.
The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl started with a solid $13.5 million on Wednesday before declining a modest 22% on Thursday to $10.5 million. With only $24 million in the coffers heading into the weekend, there was much debate about whether it would earn enough in its first frame to justify the then ungodly budget expense of $140 million. Its $46.6 million during those three days gave it a running total of $70.6 million in five days. This is a good number; still, you should keep in mind that Pearl Harbor earned $75.2 million on opening weekend yet somehow finished shy of $200 million.
This is the textbook example of how word-of-mouth impacts a movie’s overall box office performance. Pearl Harbor flamed out due to its negative stigma with consumers, managing a final box office multiplier (final domestic take divided by opening weekend revenue) of 2.54. Conversely, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl started modestly with $46.6 million ($70.6 million including the previous two days of buzz-building box office) yet it ended up with a staggering $305.4 million. After we remove the Wednesday/Thursday numbers from the equation, this total represents a final box office multiplier of 3.99.
I recognize that this number may not mean much on its own, so I will explain it in clearer terms. Pearl Harbor earned only $120 million after its ginormous opening weekend; Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl earned $235 million, almost double the prior Jerry Bruckheimer tentpole title. Jack Sparrow was the people’s choice.
What impact was there in the fallout of the summer of Jack Sparrow? Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of The Black Pearl was suddenly being championed as the performance of Johnny Depp’s career, a nice sentiment but nothing noteworthy from a box office perspective. A cursory examination of Depp’s pre-Sparrow life as a box office draw reveals that he was Sleepy Hollow away from a career of financial underachievement. Even the well-received Donnie Brasco finished just north of $40 million.
Chocolat, his trial run at piracy, was a much stronger performer with $71 million, yet we would be hard pressed to make 45 minutes. Films such as Don Juan DeMarco ($22.0 million), The Ninth Gate ($18.6 million) and From Hell ($31.6 million) demonstrate that nobody what type of project Depp attempted, he was just too strange for mainstream America. Suddenly with Jack Sparrow, everyone got the bit.
The divide between Depp’s pre-Pirates and post-Pirates box office performances is one of the largest disparities of our era. A man who had exactly one $100 million performance and one other $70 million performance on his resume suddenly became arguably the biggest draw in the industry. Depp’s first anchored a trio of smaller projects in Secret Window, Once upon a Time in Mexico and Finding Neverland. All of them finished around $50 million, a remarkable feat for such unheralded titles, particularly the one where Depp quite emphatically turned heel at the end. It was the sort of film Depp had always done yet more consumers were willing to give it a shot since Depp was on board.
Depp truly capitalized on his ascending popularity with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a project in which he embraced the role previously portrayed by Gene Wilder. Audiences lapped it up to the tune of over $200 million in domestic revenue. And after he did the matched pair of Pirates sequels, he found another pair of projects that matched his quirky sensibilities in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Public Enemies. Even a Depp character who fed people other people or murderously robbed banks did not dissuade consumers who had previously ignored Depp’s body of work.
Post-Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp could do no wrong, which is why audiences rushed out to see Alice in Wonderland, a kindred spirit to his prior work on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That project became a billion dollar global earner, one of only six titles in the history of the industry to accomplish this feat. It was Depp’s second film to do so. Peter Jackson cannot claim such a feat nor can Christopher Nolan. Yet. This is the exclusive company Johnny Depp keeps in the wake of Pirates of the Caribbean. He is in the rarefied box office air that only one other film artist, James Cameron, inhabits. When you are keeping box office company with James Cameron, your career is going well.
Circling the discussion back to Pirates of the Caribbean as a franchise, here is what we may chronicle. In July of 2006, Dead Man’s Chest, the sequel to The Curse of the Black Pearl, did the impossible (thereby making it mighty). That movie shattered Spider-Man’s existing opening weekend box office record of $114.8 million with a debut of $135.6 million. It didn’t just break the record but surpassed it by a massive 18%. In baseball parlance, this is the equivalent of not only matching Joe Dimaggio’s record 56-game hitting streak but also continuing for another 10 games. In the NBA parlance, you would be upstaging Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game by 18 points (i.e. half a dozen more three pointers). If you don’t follow sports, take my word here. That’s good.
Dead Man’s Chest went on to earn $1.07 billion worldwide, the third largest total in the history of the industry up until that moment. Only Avatar has surpassed this amount in the five years that have followed. The second Pirates film exceeded the global take of its predecessor by an almost incomprehensible $400 million, i.e. roughly $100 million more than The Curse of the Black Pearl earned in domestic box office.
Whereas Dead Man’s Chest coasted off the popularity of Black Pearl, At World’s End had a more difficult sales pitch. While I think the movie is a masterpiece, a lot of consumers were let down by Dead Man’s Chest. I don’t mean a lot, mind you, but it was enough to dampen their enthusiasm for another Pirates film so soon afterward.
Upon its release 10 months after its predecessor, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End debuted to $128.0 million, $13.2 million of it coming from midnight sneaks. Even if we do not adjust for inflation, it’s obvious that this is a bit worse than Dead Man’s Chest. I should note that this was Memorial Day weekend; if we include Monday box office, the two most recent Pirates movies both wound up around $153 million during their first four days of domestic release.
Where we can see the difference is after opening weekend. Dead Man’s Chest earned another $270 million, $35 million more than The Curse of the Black Pearl, despite the fact that it earned so much more on opening weekend. At World’s End managed only $156 million after its holiday four-day total, by far the worst performance of the three and really not a lot more than Pearl Harbor’s $120 million. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End simply did not live up to the hype.
Over the course of the past four years, we had all been operating under the assumption that the ending spelled out after the credits in At World’s End would guarantee a cooling off period for the franchise. Lead actors Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley’s characters were caught in a strange supernatural hoodoo that made him unavailable for land-based activities. Alas, we live in a box office era wherein franchise sequels are the safest plays in the industry. Even if North American/global audiences were not beating down Disney’s doors demanding a sequel, Disney’s numbers crunchers, especially the finest in our industry, soon to retire industry icon Chuck Viane, recognized that a franchise whose worst performer earned $660 million globally cannot sit on the shelf too long. If even a disappointment such as At World’s End is capable of a $960 million worldwide take, Disney has to be in the business of making another Pirates movie. So, here we are.
Jack Sparrow has been untethered from honorable Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann. He can now explore the world without having his unique brand of situational ethics challenged by pesky do-gooders. He also gets to flirt with new Pirates player Penelope Cruz, which means we could be seeing a bit of the saucy flair of The Mask of Zorro added to the mix. This would be a welcome turn of events as for all of his novel characteristics, Jack Sparrow has been largely asexual thus far other than a stray slap here or there.
In terms of box office, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides has plenty of reasons for a downturn in box office. Its predecessor was not well regarded and there were signs of franchise slippage prior to that. No one was begging for another Pirates film. Two of three leads do not return for this project and the new edition, while breathtakingly gorgeous, has never been a box office draw. The commercials to date offer the promise of Jack Sparrow and little else unless you happen to be a mermaid fetishist (and if you are, please keep it to yourself).
This is a blueprint example of a movie marketed on name recognition and franchise reputation. Given the popularity of Depp, I do not expect this movie to bomb yet I cannot say that I believe it will earn $300 million domestically, either. On Stranger Tides should debut to roughly $88 million while becoming the worst performer in the series in terms of domestic box office. It should still manage to become the third Pirates film to earn $900 million globally, however, which is a tremendous result for a $200 million budget outlay.