God Save the Screen
By Ash Wakeman
May 12, 2004
Van Helsing was the only new release of any note this week in Great Britain. The arrival of the year’s first genuine blockbuster had a noticeable impact on overall totals. Van Helsing’s £5.4 million accounted for well over 50% of the top ten total BO. That’s a very rough 16 cents per cinemagoer here in the UK compared to 18 cents in North America; not much in it either way. While it’s a solid opening number, no one is rushing to the record books. It ends up in the mid-30s all time in the UK, just as in the US.
Other new releases fared less admirably. A lot of TV advertising didn’t help Laws of Attraction break half a million, debuting at number four below holdovers Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Eternal Sunshine had an impressive 22% drop-off from its opening last week to hold on to the number two spot.
The other new release, Confessions of a Teenage Something or Other, didn’t make much money but to be honest no one really cares, do they? At least I hope not. I know absolutely nothing about this film and would prefer just to remain oblivious to its existence if that isn’t a problem for anyone.
Harry Potter and the Incredibly Inflated Opening Weekend
Last week I briefly mentioned that despite the beginning its run on May 31st, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is not a May release. Harry Potter (oh I can’t be bothered typing all that out again, from now on I’ll just call it Harry Potter 3) actually opens on June the 4th. The four days leading up to that Friday are preview days. We’re not talking star-studded premieres or exclusive charity previews; these will be the equivalent of a fairly wide release in terms of screen counts and number of sessions. This is nice for Harry Potter fans in a rush to see the latest film I’m sure, but it also has another side effect.
When calculating box office returns, preview days gets added to the first weekend’s total in terms of reporting “opening” weekend receipts. This final number is that film’s official opening weekend. When we talk about record weekends, we’re talking about this number. So while Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets holds the opening weekend record on the UK charts, it’s rarely mentioned that it had a nice lengthy seven-day opening weekend. Of its record £18.8 million opening, a good portion of that amount -- around £8 million -- came from previews. Likewise, the first Harry Potter film, which sits at second on the all-time list, is also inflated by previews. However, in this case it was only a couple of days.
With no evidence to the contrary I have always assumed that Harry Potter 2’s seven-day opening weekend was an intentional ploy by the studio to make sure it performed close to or above the first film at the box office. The perception that the second film wasn’t as popular might cause damage to the franchise as a whole. If this is the case, then their ploy worked. The second film shattered records set by the first and the headlines wrote themselves, but they also backed themselves into a corner. They can’t realistically increase the preview period again for the third film. A seven-day opening weekend is a stretch, but any more than that and it’s just getting silly. Likewise decreasing this period could result in a box office take for the third film noticeably lower than the second. Once again, the headlines write themselves – “A Franchise in Decline!”
It’s probably not a big deal either way. I’m sure it doesn’t rank that high as a concern with JK Rowling and friends as they lounge about in a giant swimming pool full of money. It doesn’t stop at Harry Potter, either. While not on the same scale, extended preview periods are becoming more and more common for big UK releases. It irks me somewhat that something treated as a significant recorder of a film’s success, its opening weekend, can be manipulated to this extent. Comparisons and analysis begin to lose meaning when the playing field is so blatantly not level.
Although to be perfectly honest, deep down inside I’m probably just jealous of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for achieving what has been a lifelong ambition of mine - the seven-day weekend. It’s living the dream.