Holiday Box Office Analysis

By David Mumpower

December 24,2003

An insider's view of an elvish sweatshop.

It is Christmas Eve, and that means something special to all of you. That’s right. BOP’s Holiday Numbers Analysis has returned.

As is the case with the initial holiday box office column each year, we will begin with a bit of back story on why the end of December is such an important period on the movie calendar. We will also offer some tutorial numbers analysis to help you understand the basic trending of this period. The presented data should go a long way in allowing you to recognize the underlying causality for the box office behavior you will see presented at BOP over the next 12 days.

The first point to be made about holiday box office is one that long-time readers of this site have seen presented a number of times. I apologize to those of you who have become jaded to the text, but we have to restate terms for those who until recently might have been frozen in a block of ice for the last several thousand years. It is hard enough to try to readjust to society without understanding box office trending. And indoor heating.

Movies are a relatively economical entertainment excursion. Those of us with disposable income are naturally inclined to spend a couple of hours in a movie theater watching the industry’s special brand of escapism. The modest price of eight dollars for an admission ticket (or whatever the cost is currently in your neck of the woods) is slight enough to make movies a reasonable option for most North Americans. Not all of the options are going to appeal to everyone as Ben Affleck or Jennifer Lopez is probably going to be in one here or there. But for the same reason that Baskin-Robbins is able to sell 31 brands of ice cream, a cineplex is going to generally have an offering that will appeal to every customer.

From a broader and more simplistic economic perspective, the studios producing movies supply a product. The customers of North America have a demand for the product. The prices are not considered unreasonable or off-putting to the majority of consumers. The income is financially rewarding enough for the vendors exhibiting the product, the movie theater. That means that there are plenty enough sunny days, rainbows and puppy dogs to go around. Everyone should be happy, and all films should do well. How then do we explain Gigli?

The fly in the ointment is that people do not always have the ability to conveniently get to a movie theater. There are clients to woo with dinner meetings, children to take to soccer matches, and strippers to load up with singles until the large men with full body tattoos come to politely suggest you leave the premises immediately. Effectively, there are outside events conspiring to keep people away from the movie theater. This is the obvious inference as to why movie theaters are more crowded on the weekends than they are through the week. There is more free time, so people have more opportunity to do whatever makes them happy.

The less considered notion is that this issue of convenience is also the driving force in theaters doing significantly more business on holidays. It is the hidden x-factor of time often referenced at BOP. At times when people are able to most easily attend a screening, box office goes up. This is not exactly rocket science of course, but keeping this simple theory in mind whenever you consider behavior always helps. Even on the nights before holidays, box office is up. Why? It is just like a Saturday night. People do not have to go to work or school the next day, so they can stay out as late as they want.

This notion is basis for late December’s box office explosion. With all students out of school, two major holidays in an eight day period, and many members of the work force taking vacation days in this timeframe, everyone has ample opportunity to see any and all films that interest them. The result is a staggering amount of business at the local cineplex, causing all films in theatrical release to receive an extensive amount of daily box office sales. Effectively, every day from here until the start of the new year will work like a Friday. We will demonstrate this with numbers from 2001 and 2002 before moving on to yesterday’s results.

In 2001, the big release was Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Its initial Sunday of release was December 23rd, when its box office income was $15.14 million. The calendar configuration is important here, because its first weekday was on Monday, December 24th. On that day, business fell to $7.33 million. Why did this happen if many people were on vacation? There is a competing phenomenon at work on certain holidays such as Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and Labor Day.

On these special days, people are less inclined to go to movies than on other holidays, because they have other events to attend. A movie is fun on New Year’s Eve, but so is a drinking game involving Dick Clark saying Rockin’ New Year’s and “special musical guest." On Labor Day, people are much more interested in BBQs at the lake, and Christmas Eve is generally a travel day as people go visit loved ones. These are the three main exceptions to the rule we have just learned. The fallout from this is that Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve box office will actually plunge from the day before then business will go up again on Christmas and New Year’s Day. This is important caveat for tomorrow’s update.

Here is how the phenomenon looks with some more numbers added in. As was said before, Fellowship of the Ring made $7.33 million on Christmas Eve of 2001. On Christmas Day, it earned $11.57 million. That is a spike of 58% from the prior day. On Wednesday, December 26th, FotR earned $13.96 million. Combining that number with its Thursday total of $11.11 million, the first film in the Peter Jackson trilogy made the same amount on Wednesday and Thursday ($25.07 million) that it did on with the combined Friday ($12.11 million) and Saturday ($13.42 million) total of $25.53 million. Needless to say, that is unusual box office behavior compared to any other time on the calendar.

A better way to demonstrate this behavior is to look at 2002. The Christmas Eve calendar configuration put the 24th on a Tuesday, so we can see how the films behaved on Sunday compared to Monday, then show the plummet from Monday to Christmas Eve followed by the spike on Christmas Day. This is how the box office will work this season, so it is a much better indicator of behavior. Please take a moment to study the chart below. The fact that there is little variation from the weekday to the weekend jumps off the page in this manner.

Christmas Week 2002 Box Office (in millions)
Sunday (12/22)
Monday (12/23)
Tuesday (12/24)
Wednesday (12/25)
Thursday (12/26)
Friday (12/27)
Saturday (12/28)
The Two Towers 20.03 13.51 7.79 12.38 15.46 16.87 17.23
Two Weeks Notice 4.26 2.93 1.82 3.74 4.71 5.25 5.72
Maid in Manhattan 3.34 2.16 1.07 2.44 3.51 4.35 4.58
Gangs of New York 3.15 1.60 1.28 3.11 3.25 3.55 3.98
Drumline 2.14 1.40 0.80 1.81 2.24 2.79 3.11

Now that you should have a complete understanding of the process, it is time to discuss this year’s box office. We will track the same data this week using the chart below.

Christmas Week 2003 Box Office (in millions)
Sunday (12/21)
Monday (12/22)
Tuesday (12/23)
Wednesday (12/24)
Thursday (12/25)
Friday (12/26)
Saturday (12/27)
Return of the King 23.33 13.94 12.79 x.xx x.xx x.xx x.xx
Mona Lisa Smile 3.34 2.31 2.18 x.xx x.xx x.xx x.xx
Something's Gotta Give 3.48 1.75 1.96 x.xx x.xx x.xx x.xx
Elf 1.88 1.55 1.85 x.xx x.xx x.xx x.xx
The Last Samurai 2.66 1.37 1.59 x.xx x.xx x.xx x.xx
Stuck on You 1.68 1.07 1.16 x.xx x.xx x.xx x.xx
The Haunted Mansion 1.34 0.95 1.02 x.xx x.xx x.xx x.xx
Bad Santa 1.72 0.84 0.85 x.xx x.xx x.xx x.xx
The Cat in the Hat 0.82 0.61 0.68 x.xx x.xx x.xx x.xx
Love Don't Cost a Thing 1.03 0.58 0.58 x.xx x.xx x.xx x.xx

As you can tell from the first three days, we had the normal behavior of the fall from Sunday to Monday. Return of the King fell a bit more this year both percentage wise and in total dollars from 2002’s The Two Towers, but still made more money on its first Monday than its predecessor. Everything else is falling right in line with expected behavior. What is important to note is that there will be a severe drop in box office across the board with tomorrow’s Christmas Eve daily numbers. You should know and understand the causality for that by now, so you should also know what will come next. The Christmas Day numbers will see a spike, and the day after that will be even better. If you don’t believe me, keep coming back to BOP for the next couple of weeks, and we will demonstrate it empirically along with offering up some running commentary about the various titles in release. See you tomorrow.



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