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Box Office Data Is Back, Baby

Nature is healing. The balance is being restored.
August 24, 2020
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The weirdest thing about the coronavirus debacle, at least for me, isn’t having to avoid eating out or skipping trips to the mall. It’s not the closure of schools and daycares, though that was probably the most annoying and mentally draining part. It’s not having to wear a mask to buy groceries or go to the liquor store to acquire the essential fortifying nutrients needed to endure this mess.

It’s that I’ve had no box office data to wake up to every Saturday morning.

I realize this is not the biggest thing in the world, but it has caused me some minor distress. In the before time, the long-long ago, I’d awake on Saturday and pull up Deadline’s box office category to see what numbers had come in from the Friday-night box office, to see if projections had increased or decreased from the Friday-night figures, to try to suss out whether word of mouth on the new releases was good or bad.

Obviously, this is not how most of you wake up and get ready for the weekend, and maybe—probably—it all sounds a bit silly. Really, what I’m talking about here is the disruption of routine, the loss of normalcy. The little things that work their way into your daily or weekly schedule that just kind of . . . vanish when the world collapses.

But the numbers are back, baby! With Unhinged hitting 1,800 or so screens across North America, we have box office data once again. Normalcy: on the way. Nature: healing. The balance: being restored.

So what do the numbers reveal? Well . . . it kind of depends on how you want to look at it! On an average weekend if you saw that the highest-grossing new picture took in just $4 million or so, you’d wonder if SMOD had finally fulfilled his campaign promise and destroyed all life on Earth. That would be a disastrous figure. A catastrophe.

But obviously we’re not in normal times! These times, they are very abnormal. A movie like this debuting on just 1,800 screens, in theaters with 30-to-50-percent capacity, depending on locales, is more like opening it on 600 screens. Fewer, really, since so many of the biggest markets—New York City and Los Angeles, most notably, but also the rest of New York and California, along with D.C., Maryland, Arizona, the Pacific Northwest—are closed. Indeed, according to Deadline, only “12 of the top 28 DMA markets are open.”

Looking at it through this lens, then, $4M is actually . . . pretty good! A cumulative gross of $5M or so, including a $1M run in Canada last weekend, combined with the fact that grosses rose from Friday to Saturday—suggesting either word of mouth on the movie is good or word of mouth on the cleanliness of theaters is good; it’s hard to say which factor is more important to people right now—is all good news for Solstice, the studio behind Unhinged.

The real question is how frontloaded all of this is. Is the demand for movies—for any movie—a deep or a shallow phenomenon? What sort of drop are we going to see on this movie weekend-to-weekend? How well will it hold? The folks at Solstice seem to believe this sort of opening is what they needed to get to $30M domestic, suggesting a multiple* of six or seven—at least double what a movie like Unhinged would normally see.

All of which is to say that this is a strangely exciting time to be a box office observer. We’re seeing something we’ve never really seen before, working through all the kinks in real time as we try to settle on a new normal. The only thing we really know for sure: We’ve seen the last $100M opening weekend in America for a long time. The real question is whether or not we’ve seen the last $200M domestic grosser for a while as well.

Only time—and Tenet—will tell.

*Remedial box office lesson: the “multiple” refers to the total gross vs. the opening weekend. Movies with large multiples are movies that have held very well; movies with bad multiples are movies that did not hold very well. They are sort of like a proxy for word of mouth: if a movie is popular, the box office will grow over time; if it’s unpopular, the multiple will be be closer to two. Titanic, for instance, had a multiple of 23. Suicide Squad, on the other hand, had a multiple of 2.4.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association