Do We Worry Too Much About Box Office?

By Tom Beasley on at

This summer has largely been one of doom and gloom for Hollywood analysts. The black clouds of financial disappointment have been circling over the major studios, occasionally pouring icy downpours of failure over some of the projects for which those corporations had the highest hopes. Indeed, the foyers of multiplexes across the world are now a sort of elephant's graveyard, littered with discarded popcorn kernels and the skeletons of Godzilla, the Men in Black and all of the X-Men.

Sunshine, meanwhile, is beating down on the offices of Disney, with Mickey Mouse and Kevin Feige sharing a glass of bubbly while Kathleen Kennedy waits in the corner with another bottle ready for December. At the moment, the House of Mouse is in a cultural class of its own. No one can touch them, but the reasons for that are myriad and could be the subject of an entirely new article.

For now, it's worth considering whether box office is the most important and valid measure of a movie's success, and whether these things should be looked at on a case by case basis.

There's no denying that, in the world of blockbuster filmmaking, opening weekends, audience breakdowns and box office receipts are hugely important. If 2020's kaiju kerfuffle Godzilla vs. Kong falls on its enormous face in the same way that this year's Godzilla: King of the Monsters did, that will almost certainly spell the end of the MonsterVerse over at Warner Bros.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but not King of the Box Office

It's worth noting at this point that Michael Dougherty's film was not a box office “failure” in the strongest sense of that world, but it was a disappointment on a massive scale. Its global box office total of $384m is not unimpressive and hovers around the supposed box office holy grail of doubling its production budget – quoted on Box Office Mojo as $170m, but possibly as high as $200m depending on which reports you're inclined to believe. The film will not lose money. At this level of the Hollywood game, though, scraping over the break-even line is not enough. The studio fat cats want feeding, and all Godzilla served up was a little bit of gristle.

But are these numbers always as crucial as that?

There have been several smaller movies this summer that many have pointed to as viable alternatives to the under-performing array of blockbusters. Chief among them was Booksmart, which is the directorial debut of actor Olivia Wilde. The film is one of the best of the year – an energetic and fresh high school comedy, powered by two terrific central performances from Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever.

The film had a very quiet opening weekend, debuting against Disney's powerhouse Aladdin remake. This prompted Wilde to tweet that her film was “getting creamed by the big dogs out there”, adding that the film's failure could “give studios an excuse not to green-light movies made by and about women”. Much of the discussion focused on the decision by distributor Annapurna to open the film wide, in cinemas nationwide, rather than a slow rollout to build crucial word of mouth. Ultimately, though the film did totally okay, even if it didn't set the world on fire.


Importantly, though, Booksmart is a film that will have a life well beyond the month or so that it spent in multiplexes. The movie was immediately a favourite on social media – at least among the Film Twitter ecosystem – and became the subject of dozens of memes. Indeed, social media was a massive part of the Annapurna marketing campaign for the movie, hoping that widespread GIFs and memes would help the film find its teenage target audience. The Booksmart hype train hasn't stopped with its underwhelming cinema release, and it shows no sign of stopping.

Films like Booksmart do not make their reputation based on box office. Many of the best high school movies, including Heathers, failed to set the multiplexes alight on their initial debut, but subsequently grew in esteem as a result of re-releases, home media and the rising tide of cult appeal. Booksmart feels exactly like one of those movies – something that people will discover in a few years and wonder why they never heard about it when it made its way through cinemas.

The focus on box office also seems out of date during an era in which the teen audience simply isn't watching films in the cinemas. While the biggest of blockbusters still reliably rake in the cash – unless they're miserably self-serious stories about giant CGI lizards – there's very little real estate given to smaller movies. A film like Booksmart is the sort of project that a modern audience is happy to wait for until it arrives on home media.

Booksmart will be massively popular on Netflix. It's exactly the kind of easy-going entertainment that thrives on the platform, when the stakes are low for viewers due to the lack of financial risk. In 2019, it's one thing to ask viewers to part with £10 or more to take a pricey punt on a comedy with no star power at the cinema, but it's far more palatable to expect people to take a 90-minute chance on a film when it's available on a streaming platform they've already paid for.

This is a world in which 30 million people still want to watch an Adam Sandler comedy in the first three days of its release. The bar could not be lower.

Netflix's Murder Mystery

Indeed, there's an argument that Booksmart has already possibly done quite well on Netflix. One of the most under-appreciated elements of the movie's box office problem was that it was available on the French version of Netflix in tandem with its US and UK cinema bow. The tech-savvy young audience of this film would be more than willing to use a bit of VPN jiggery-pokery to access it, or get hold of one of the free HD copies circling on dozens of torrent sites immediately after the Netflix debut. International release gaps are completely incompatible with a globalised world. If a movie is available in one territory, it's available everywhere else too, and that's something distributors are going to have to open their eyes and realise.

The way we talk about box office simply needs to change entirely. Opening weekends, cinematic release strategies and worldwide grosses are now no longer the be-all and end-all of success for the vast majority of films. While the worlds of super-powers and giant monsters might continue to see a global billion dollars as a gold standard, other films have more additional revenue streams open to them than ever before.

For example, the Alex Lawther-starring TV series The End of the F**king World barely made a flutter in cultural discussion when it debuted on Channel 4 in October 2017. A few months later, however, it arrived globally on Netflix in early 2018 as a result of an arrangement that saw the streaming service co-produce the show. Suddenly, the programme was a widely dissected cultural moment, independent of its initial ratings. It now has a confirmed second season on the way.

The End of the F**king World

The prophecies of doom in the wake of this summer are obviously compelling, and the figures certainly make worrying reading for anyone not involved in The Lion King. However, the lesson to be learned is not necessarily that every film must either feature superheroes or photorealistic CGI carnivores in order to succeed. In fact, it's the metrics of success that need to change. Our perspective of what works and doesn't is limited, and is going to lead to far more terrific movies being miscategorised as failures before they've had a chance to spread their wings in the arenas in which they can thrive.

This coming week, though, there's an antidote to a summer of financial dystopia for those who don't run around with mouse ears on their heads. The bonkers action pile-up Hobbs & Shaw – or Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw if you love an unwieldy title – is crashing its way through cinemas with all of the grace of an elephant at the ballet. It has Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, Jason 'The Stath' Statham and Idris 'The Bond-in-Waiting' Elba at its centre and looks like it's as mad as a cartwheeling marmoset. It's going to make a killing. Mark my words.

But when more people want to watch a middling Adam Sandler movie on their phones, does it really matter?

Featured image: Unsplash