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2001: A Box Office Review

Part Three: March

By Walid Habboub

March has recently seen a steady climb in total box office generated. It has gone from average numbers in 1998 to very strong numbers in 2001. While by no means is it up there with the summer months, it has certainly shown in the past, and developed a reputation for, having the potential for a blockbuster movie.

1990, easily the most impressive year for this particular month, produced three of the top six highest March grossers of all time. The Hunt For Red October, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Pretty Woman combined for a total box office pull of $434.38 million, an average of just under $150 million per movie. These are numbers that are worthy of any summer month of any year. This unfortunately was followed by a severe dry spell where March didn't see another significant opener until 1996's The Birdcage. It wasn't until the year after that that March started raising eyebrows in terms of box office.

It is important to note that time of release has very little to do with a movie's opening potential. A movie that is well backed can open on any weekend to booming business. The significance of movies opening well in March is the continuing extension of the summer season. So as March continues to prove that it can accommodate a blockbuster, more blockbusters are scheduled for March.

It all turned around for March with the 1997 release of the ultra-hit Liar, Liar, starring Jim Carrey. Opening to a phenomenal $31.42 million and grossing a total of $181.41 million, Liar, Liar opened the floodgates for what was about to come. The following year saw solid hits such as The Man In The Iron Mask and U.S. Marshals continue the March success stories. '99 then saw a brief slowdown when the biggest hit of the month was Analyze This, but that only preceded the strong rebound in 2000 when Erin Brockovich, Mission To Mars and Romeo Must Die lit up the box office once again. 2001 only helped that trend continue

The big winner for March 2001 was the live-action children’s film Spy Kids. The film was a gamble for Dimension Films, which gave Robert Rodriguez a reasonable budget of $35 million to work with. The project was a risk because Rodriguez was untested in the field of children's movies and because the nature of the film (live action kids movie) was an unproven one. But the venture paid off big time as the film proved to be one of the biggest surprises of the year.

The month itself opened with bang as The Mexican, the second highest opener for the month, debuted in theatres, hailing another hit for Julia Roberts and producing the second biggest opener of Brad Pitt's career (after 1994’s Interview with the Vampire). Although it had lukewarm reviews and even worse crowd response, Roberts still drew fans in and made the film a hit. Combined with the surprisingly strong debut of See Spot Run and the ongoing (though severely declining) run for Hannibal made the first week a very strong one.

The second week didn't fare as strongly as the first one as 15 Minutes opened to a lukewarm $10.5 million. The Robert De Niro starrer, which had been through many a last-minute change, ended up dying a quick death at the box office. Of interest is the odd connection between Robert De Niro and the month of March. Including 2002, De Niro has had a March release in three of the last four years and this possibly could merely be an indication of the time of year that the star likes to work.

The third week of the month picked up again with net new business of over $32 million. This is the total for which Exit Wounds and Enemy at the Gates combined in a very strong double debut. Exit Wounds' success was not so surprising seeing as how its production, casting and especially marketing were almost identical to the previous year's hit Romeo Must Die. Exit Wounds almost exactly duplicated Romeo's debut of $18.01 million by pulling in $18.49 million. The less than favorable response to Romeo probably kept some away as Romeo actually had almost a $25 million weekend when the two-day lead-in is included. Nonetheless, Exit Wounds proved another hit for Joel Silver and DMX.

The other opener of the week was a bit more of a surprise. While Enemy at the Gates looked pretty, it was still a European production with very little star power and a less than favorable wide-release (1,509 screens). Its opening weekend pull of $13.8 million, which barely put a dent in the hefty $80 million budget, was a surprise to many. It is now one of many foreign films that destroy the theory that foreign produced films can't do well in the North American market.

The fourth week of the month again saw two very strong debuts in Heartbreakers and The Brothers. Both were surprises as Heartbreakers seemed to be a terribly marketed black comedy and The Brothers was a barely marketed black-audience targeted comedy. The debut total for both films was over $22 million which makes the month three for four when it comes to $20 million+ weekends; A very strong month indeed.

But where does Spy Kids fit in? Well, Spy Kids opened on Wednesday, March 30, 2001 so it is technically a March release even though the weekend fell in April. So not only does this boost March's numbers, it also deflates April's numbers (as will be seen in the upcoming April analysis). So can this look back to last year help us forecast this upcoming month?

The answer is yes and no. No, in that there really is not completely accurate way to forecast box office. What it does, however, is give us an idea of the potential of this month. It might not fall in the summer but it does have the precedent of seeing some excellent openers during its time. So we know studios can have a big hit during this time and we also can see that they can produce several smaller hits. So it definitely is wide open at this point. Looking ahead to the month, it would seem that the year-to-year upwards trend will continue and March 2002 should be one of the strongest ever.

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