5 Ways to Prep: The Box Office Inflation Game
By George Rose
November 30, 2018
That rancid smell in your nose isn’t last week’s holiday leftovers; it’s the post-Thanksgiving box office. That’s right, for every crowded blockbuster frame full of hits there is a weekend following it that serves as the dumping ground for Hollywood’s lamest titles. The holidays unofficially kick off with the first releases of November and chug along until Thanksgiving. For these first three to four weeks you get attempt after attempt at record-breaking glory. Week #1 gave us the $50+ million debut of Bohemian Rhapsody, Week #2 gave us a $60+ million bow for the latest attempt at a Grinch retelling, Week #3 was still big but underwhelmed with a barely $60+ million start for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find More Potter Connections, and Week #4 rocked the house with both Wreck-It Ralph 2 and Creed 2 proving to be the rare modern sequels that outperform their predecessors. It’s a lot to watch and a lot to take in, and Hollywood is ready for a breather.
The thing is, Thanksgiving is quickly followed by Christmas only a month later. What you’ll notice is that studios like to release blockbuster hopefuls within close proximity of a holiday so as to get some help softening the weekly declines ahead. After the buildup is complete, the holiday then blows the roof off the house and leaves nothing but ash in its wake. With no less than five $100+ million earning titles released within only four weeks, there simply isn’t enough room to keep the hits coming. A break is needed so that those recent money makers can start to lose some steam before pulling into the next holiday train station. If Christmas is a month away and Hollywood needs to get that batch of movies out within a week or two before the Christmas-to-New Years bonanza, then that leaves the late-November, early-December weekends a veritable graveyard of lost souls. This is the first of two of those weekends.
The only semi-wide newcomer this week is The Possession of Hannah Grace. Unfortunately, I don’t care enough about that movie to write about it and I’m pretty sure nobody cares to read about it. Instead, I’m going to use this empty week to write about something I’ve been obsessing about lately: box office inflation. I talk about it a lot and frequently fret about how it is ruining any and all movie related statistics. It’s not like I want to complain. I would love to rant and rave about how both Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War became two of the top five movies ever with about $700 million each. I really would but I can’t because… IT’S NOT TRUE! After spending years in college working towards a major in marketing I’ve come to realize one painful truth: marketing is the devil’s work. It’s just the worst. Some things are worth promoting while others take advantage of loopholes and half-truths to spin the story needed to get your butts into cinema seats and your wallets out for spending on concessions. It’s all a big joke.
Last week was intended for you to realize what you are thankful for before heading into the Christmas season and this weekend is reserved for hating the world again. We’re past the point of giving thanks and we’re not yet into the selfless, gift-giving year-end celebration. No, we are in that awkward lull between the two when no new movies come out and I have nothing but time to reflect on the year gone by. Records were broken, the yearly box office has reached heights far exceeding early expectations and there’s still so much to come. But I wouldn’t be me if I just sat here and let you enjoy what’s left of 2018 without taking a big steamy dump all over your parade. For all the praising of Hollywood that I have done and will continue doing the rest of my life, the occasional complaint must be addressed.
Sometimes you have to knock something down before picking it back up and that’s what I hope to do here. For those that have yet to click away from the page because you’re just TOO DARN HAPPY TO HEAR ME WHINE, I welcome you to join me on this quick journey down Depression Lane. After a few clicks on the web I have come to regard myself as an expert on box office inflation. I’ve learned some things, reaffirmed other beliefs and have generally come to think of the weekly box office chart as a load of crap intended to keep studio executives thinking the world is spinning in their favor. It’s not. The world isn’t ending, either, but records certainly are not being broken. Join me, friends, as we find 5 Ways to Prep for the Box Office Inflation Game.
#1) THE TOP TEN BIGGEST MOVIES OF ALL TIME… BECAUSE THEY SAID SO!
Let’s start from the beginning. Before you can get mad about the truth, you must listen to the lie. Here are the ten biggest blockbusters of all time according to every studio personnel that wants you to keep spending money at the movies:
#1) Star Wars: The Force Awakens = $937 million in 2015; #2) Avatar = $761 million in 2009; #3) Black Panther = $700 million in 2018; #4) Avengers: Infinity War = $679 million in 2018; #5) Titanic = $659 million in 1997; #6) Jurassic World = $652 million in 2015; #7) The Avengers = $623 million in 2012; #8) Star Wars: The Last Jedi = $620 million in 2017; #9) Incredibles 2 = $608 million in 2018; #10) The Dark Knight = $535 million in 2008.
Notice anything odd about this list? So after decades and decades of movies being released with a few hundred new films each year, I’m supposed to believe that three of the ten biggest movies of ALL TIME all came out this year? Of these ten movies, only one was not released within the last ten years - Titanic - and even that wasn’t that long ago. Man, Hollywood sure is crushing the movie game, right?! I mean, the ten biggest movies in the LONG history of cinema have all been recently released. That’s crazy! I guess people are learning from past mistakes and are starting to create products with stellar quality that are most deserving of our cash and praise. Or maybe someone in marketing is tooting their own horn and is falsifying the records.
#2) THE REAL TOP TEN MOVIES OF ALL TIME
I assume the idea of inflation is nothing new to most of you. Each year, the price of admission to a movie increases because the value of a dollar changes. Instead of holding any value in the number of tickets sold for each movie, we as a people have decided that only money matters. Who cares how many people saw a movie when we can talk about how much cash it earned?! Problem is, we wouldn’t have nearly as many broken records if we didn’t let inflation skew the perception of which movies actually attract the most people. If we flip the script and adjust each films total to reflect inflation, you get a much different Top 10 list. Let’s take a look…
#1) 1939’s Gone with the Wind = $1.85 billion (in 2018 dollars); #2) 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope = $1.63 billion; #3) 1965’s The Sound of Music = $1.30 billion; #4) 1982’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial = $1.30 billion; #5) 1997’s Titanic = $1.24 billion; #6) 1956’s The Ten Commandments = $1.20 billion; #7) 1975’s Jaws = $1.17 billion; #8) 1965’s Doctor Zhivago = $1.13 billion; #9) 1973’s The Exorcist = $1.01 billion; #10) 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs = $996 million.
You may notice only one of the previous Top 10 titles is on the “adjusted for inflation” Top 10 list. That movie is Titanic which, coincidentally, is the only Top 10 not-adjusted titles to be released outside of the last ten years. So, basically, that first Top 10 list is made up entirely of modern day liars. Sure, The Force Awakens is #11 on the adjusted list with $988 million but, still, we’ve been fed a load of crap. At this point, anything that earns less than $1 billion domestically just simply is not part of the ACTUAL Top 10 films of all time. Star Wars came close and we may never see a blockbuster of that proportion again, but I’m sorry, we’ve been played.
#3) BIGGEST DECADES OF ALL TIME
If no movie in the last ten years is part of the Top 10 movies of all time, where did they all come from? Well, back in the day before the internet and OnDemand, people could only see a movie at the theater. It’s hard to take movies for granted when there’s no way to watch them except at the cinema. This reason alone is my one cause for doubt when debating “the inflation game.” I mean, it’s not necessarily fair to say Avengers isn’t among the biggest movies because people have more ways to watch them now. Everyone saw Gone with the Wind in theaters in 1939 because nobody had a television. On the flip side, people don’t have to pay to see Avengers when they can wait three months to see it cheaper OnDemand, six months to see it cheaper on TV or anytime they want for free if they illegal download it. That still doesn’t change the fact that we haven’t actually had a colossal blockbuster since Force Awakens in 2015 or Titanic almost 20 years earlier in 1997. As it turns out, the biggest earners only pop up every decade or so.
The Top 10 movies were released in the following years: 1937, 1939, 1956, 1965, 1965, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1982 and 1997. What this tells me is the following: Hollywood shocked the world after they started making movies and two films in the 1930’s stole the show, kicking off an industry in incredible fashion. Things calmed down as the novelty wore off, but then advancements in technology (namely technicolor movies) brought interest back to legendary heights around the 1960’s. Hollywood really hit their stride in the 1970’s, which itself contributed three of the Top 10 films ever released. Just as technology was starting to peak at the end of the century, the novelty officially wore off. Not even the post-Millenium inclusions of IMAX and 3D could change that. Either people just stopped caring altogether or the cinema experience simply got pushed aside in favor of a good home-viewing party. Regardless, the blockbusters just aren’t hitting as hard as they used to.
#4) TWENTY YEARS MAKES TWICE THE DIFFERENCE
When the internet became a thing in the 1990’s is when I started following box office statistics. I read tons of articles and often read them multiple times. It was such a golden era of moviemaking with modern computer generated images (CGI) taking over special effects and bringing big screen experiences back to the forefront. I remember movies like Twister and Men in Black earning about $250 million, movies like Lion King and Independence Day crossing the $300 mark and even Star Wars: Episode 1 going light-speed past the $400 million barrier. Those were MASSIVE numbers at the time and, frankly, they still are. However, that was almost 20 years ago. In looking back at some of my favorite films, I’ve noticed that the 1996/1997 timeframe is where inflation doubles the numbers.
The #1 movie in 1996 was Independence Day with $306 million and the #1 movie in 1997 was Titanic with $601 million. In 2018 dollars those numbers jump to $633 million (just over double) and $1.17 billion (just under double). So in the time that the internet has made box office statistics available worldwide, everything has doubled. Movies I remember earning between $250-300 million are now $500-600 million blockbusters. Basically, Avengers isn’t really anything special because Independence Day proved Americans will regularly spend north of $600 million to see aliens attack earth. Conversely, it’s hard for me to get too excited when a movie like the latest Spider-Man (aka Homecoming) earns just over $300 million because that’s, like, $150 million in 1997 dollars. The original Spider-Man earned $404 million in 2002, which is $635 million today, which is… another Avengers. $600 million? Been there, earned that.
#5) KEEPING UP WITH PERSPECTIVE
For the uninitiated, every weekend of late has brought a record-breaking hit and another reason to KEEP SPENDING YOUR CASH!!! On the other hand, nothing anyone tells you should matter without you looking into it yourself. Sometimes records really are broken and amazing stories are actually happening. Despite inflation, Incredibles 2 actually earned the biggest opening weekend ever for an animated movie with its $182 million debut. That’s so cool!!! We got to witness an actual record happen. Just because the news said it didn’t make it true. Playing with inflation calculators proved it was true which then actually made it true. I say this because I feel the upcoming holiday season is going to try and play you for a fool.
Without a new Star Wars movie this year to steal the show, all eyes are on who will take the Christmas crown at the box office. Right now all bets are on Mary Poppins Returns with analysts giving it an early estimated goal of about $350 million. That would almost be as much as what Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle earned just last year. Another year, another $400-ish million earner. Except, is the news as good? The first Jumanji came out in 1995 and earned $100 million. Since it’s close to 1996, we know the total is really double with over $200 million earned in 2018 dollars. Knowing this makes what Jumanji 2 earned that much better, because $400 million is more than $200 million. YAY for the truly successful sequel!!!
Then we have Mary Poppins. The $350 million it might earn is great but what did the first Poppins earn? Oh, only $102 million?! That’s not a lot so the sequel should definitely BREAK THAT RECORD! Except, oh wait, that was in 1964 and after a few re-releases. $102 million is actually $714 million in today’s dollars. That’s twice what the new Mary Poppins is expected to earn and… is another Avengers. What this tells me is that $500 to $700 million is certainly a blockbuster release, but among the dime-a-dozen mega hits that each year should produce one or two of. The real trick is hitting that $1+ billion sweet spot. Only then can you truly break some records and only then will we find ourselves back in a Golden Age of Hollywood.
Until that day comes it’s up to us to stay on top of those marketers so we can find the truth of what’s really happening at the box office. As an avid numbers junkie, you can be sure I’ll be looking closely at the weeks ahead for the rest of this years new releases. Just because the stories we’re told are full of lies doesn’t make the hunt for the truth any less fun. The thing is, the real hunt is for the next billion dollar mega movie. If history has taught us anything is that’s we’re due for one every decade or so. With 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens the last title to rock the records books, we have some time before the next heavyweight. Until then, it’s up to us to enjoy those shanty little $600 million Avengers movies along the way.