By David Mumpower
May 20, 2011
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.