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Box Office Earnings, Explained: Why Showing Up Matters at the Movies

The almighty dollar.
The almighty dollar.

The accounting department at Disney is working overtime these days, burdened with tallying the ever-growing box office reports for the blockbuster superhero film, The Avengers. Since its April 25th release, the film has earned a reported $1 billion in box office sales worldwide; it also set the record for opening weekend box office with $207 million dollars in sales.

"Opening weekend" is a pretty self-explanatory term. But many people are asking themselves, "Why should I care, and why is this important?" To understand this is to understand the Hollywood machine, as well as the differences between the world of big-budget flicks and indie offerings. Film nerds and casual movie watchers alike should understand how their viewing habits this week impact what they will see next year.


So why are the opening numbers so important? Well, it's twofold. First, whoever tops the list of grosses in a weekend will get the

considerable media attention, which in turn drives even more moviegoers to that film. Are we smart enough to make decisions on our

own? Of course not! If you heard that everyone else in the world went to see, say, Dark Shadows last weekend, part of you would want to see what all the fuss is about. Hollywood

knows this, and works it to their advantage.

Word of mouth is the

best kind of publicity, but the other factor here is marketing. If a

film has a good showing in its first week, studios ramp up marketing

efforts in order to get more people in the theater the next week. If the news

is reporting it, if your friends are talking about it, and if you can't turn around twice without seeing a giant ad for it, chances are you're

going to go see it.

Big numbers also mean studios can expand into other

theaters and demand more screens at existing theaters where the film's

showing. This is why we've all walked into the Regal Cinemas South Beach and

been surprised that there isn't that much to see. The blockbusters often play in as many as eight of its 18 screens.

As moviegoers, we

often are frustrated that all we could find at the multiplexes is "the

same kind of movies over and over again." These might seem like the

complaints of a bored movie snob, but sadly, that doesn't make it less true. Movies get

made based on their income potential. And one surefire way to insure a film is mega-profitable is rehashing the same tired plotlines and characters, in sequels or

simply telling the same story over with different elements. (Big-name

celebrities can play into this too -- but that's another post.)

When

the box office receipts were announced on Monday, I guarantee that studios all over

Hollywood were looking around for anything that could

replicate The Avengers' success. The teams at Disney (which owns

Marvel) are already planning the sequel. The predicament here is that

if the sequel doesn't top the new records the original has set, it will

be deemed a failure. The bar rises even higher when these giant movies rake

in unheard of dough, and rather than tinkering with the recipe,

Hollywood tries to mass-produce it. So expect big-budget, superhero films

for the summer of 2013 and 2014 -- particularly if the new Spiderman and

Batman films do anywhere near as well as The Avengers. If they do (and

they'll do pretty damn well, I think), then get used to men in tights and

capes on the big screen for the next few years.

Frustrated with

their choices, many moviegoers have delved into the world of independent

movies where budgets are smaller, bigger risks are taken, and many films are funded by individual investors allowing filmmakers to

tell their unique stories with less meddling. The definition of

success is different here, too. The biggest "indie hit" of 2011 was

Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, which took in $56 million in the U.S.

Some would argue that Woody Allen doesn't necessarily qualify as

truly indie, and while that may be true, it's also worth pointing out

that was the biggest financial success of his career.

Another indie,

The Artist, grossed over $44 million, and the majority of that didn't

happen until early 2012 -- after all the raving film reviews, top ten lists, and the Academy

Award nominations and wins. Still, films by directors as

noted as Lars Von Trier and Pedro Almodovar made less than $4 million

domestically apiece, but still were considered respectable. One of the

biggest recent surprises here is the recently released The Best Exotic

Marigold Hotel, a ensemble comedy of big-name British actors (Maggie

Smith, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson) about a group of retirees who move to

a resort community in India. It's taken in nearly $5 million

in its first three weeks, making it a hit in indie terms. But compare that to any

of the mainstream films released, and you have yet another example of how

far removed the indie realm and Hollywood are.

All

of this is to simply say that at the end of the day, the power lays solely with the public. You can tell Hollywood what you want to see by what

you show up to see. I might be biased here, but why not give your

neighborhood art house a try? If you truly want to see something

different than big budget mainstream fare, then send a message -- and the

only way to do that is to vote with your feet. What you watch today dictates what you see tomorrow.

Kareem Tabsch is the co-founder and co-director of O Cinema.

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