By David Mumpower
July 1, 2009
In an odd Leap Year-related calendar quirk, there has not been a July 4th that fell on a Saturday since 1998. For those of you too young to remember Armageddon's opening weekend performance, suffice it to say that there is a reason why studios have decided to release this week's blockbusters, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs and Public Enemies, on Wednesday. Rather than be negatively (and artificially) impacted by an unfortunate calendar configuration, Fox and Universal have both decided to claim five days worth of box office instead. It's a smart play that should make both films sound like big hits when weekend estimates are announced on Sunday whether they have proven successful or not.
Before we discuss the individual openers, let's flash back as to why the Wednesday debut is requisite. When the final day of 1998 ended, the top earning film of the year was Armageddon with a final gross of $201.6 million. Six weeks later, Saving Private Ryan would ride the Oscar buzz of 11 nominations to become the biggest grossing release of 1998, but that's not the point. Armageddon was on paper the most noteworthy release of the year and its box office performance largely bore this out.
Despite all of its success, however, Armageddon opened to a hugely disappointing $36.1 million during its first weekend of release. Why did that happen? Its first Saturday in release was also the July 4th holiday in the United States. The negative impact saw a title that earned $13.6 million on Friday drop 23% to $10.5 million on Saturday before rising 13% on Sunday to $11.9 million. Anyone following box office for any of length of time realizes that Saturdays are supposed to be the largest box office day of the weekend and they absolutely should not be outperformed by Sundays as a rule. Armageddon suffered exactly this fate for one reason and one reason alone.
A Saturday July 4th is bad for business at movie theaters. American people want to have cookouts and go see fireworks rather than go see a movie as is their usual wont on a Saturday. This is the reason why Armageddon opened on a Wednesday. The studio hyped the still-disappointing $54.2 million five-day result to anyone who would listen, because it sounded better. It was also more honest, something we all know is unnatural behavior for most studio spin doctors. This time, the folks at Disney had a legitimate gripe, and it was borne out by the fact that the film did almost four times as much after its first five days in theaters. Just to put that in perspective, if Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen behaved similarly, we'd be talking about an $800 million domestic performance, enough ticket sales to make even James Cameron envious. Armageddon's legs lasted forever, because A) that was the more characteristic box office behavior of the time and B) its first weekend sales were artificially deflated. Since studios cannot depend on A any longer, they have to beware of B as much as possible. And that's why we get the latest Ice Age film and Johnny Depp's next smooth criminal release today instead of Friday.