fear not, screenwriters

Scott, over at Alligators in Helicopters, was depressed recently by the box office takings for Doom, a film that received terrible reviews, and yet had a strong opening weekend. Video game adaptations are an easy way for film studios to establish “brand familiarity” to sell a film, but thus far I’ve yet to be impressed by any film that has been generated from a video game. Most of them are dire, to be honest.

So Doom‘s success looks depressing… but let’s analyse it a bit further.

A big opening weekend is not all you need for a film to be successful–you have to sustain sales, especially if you have a huge budget to recoup.

Doom is a great example of this. On its opening weekend it made $15.5 million across 3,000 screens in the USA. Its budget, however, was $60 million. On its second weekend it made a paltry $4 million! At this rate the studio will be lucky to make back half the cost of the film at the box office, and will have to depend on foreign box office and DVD sales to pick up the tab.

For comparison, Saw II has just opened in the USA, and made $30 million at the box office. Its budget: $4 million. It’s also the biggest grossing Halloween movie (or should that be gross-out?) ever. If you compare it to the original: Saw made $18 million in its opening weekend, and went on to take $102,917,772 worldwide–that’s for a film that cost a mere $1.2 million to make! I haven’t seen Saw II yet, but I will, since I was impressed with the first one. I’m equally impressed that they kept the budget low for the remake, and didn’t fall prey to the Matrix syndrome.

Most of the current critically acclaimed films are going to make their budget back at the box office, or will have a shortfall that will easily be picked up by foreign box office, and DVD sales. For instance, George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, which has been shown in far fewer theatres across the country, has made $7,236,000 in ticket sales, which means it is now set to make a profit. Capote has made back over half of its budget, and again, it had a relatively small release. These two films will definitely do well in Europe when they arrive here.

What is the hard economic lesson from all of this? If I was a studio, with an eye on the financial bottom line, I would invest in smaller budget films, with a solid cast, and a good script. It doesn’t have to be art films: you can make horrors, actions, thrillers, etc. on a lower budget if you try. Serenity was made with a reasonable budget (in LA!) of $39 million, and has taken back over half of the budget in the USA, and with strong overseas box office is on the threshold of breaking even ($33 million so far). The Exorcism of Emily Rose cost $19 million to make, and thus far has made $80 million worldwide (and it hasn’t opened in UK/Ireland yet).

Doom is a 100 metre dash sprinter. It’s fast off the blocks, but the longer the distance it has to run the more it will flag. It made money from the video game aficionados, but once they watched it no one else wants to sit through a bad movie in the theatre when they can rent it for half the price a couple of months later.

From watching the box office this year I think the lesson is clear: if you invest in a big budget movie then you need something to carry it through the marathon at the box office, and that usually means a strong script and a rock-solid cast. Notice that the mediocre Legend of Zorro made $16 million in its opening weekend–a decent start for most–but it has a budget of $75 million to claw back. I suspect that its box office will be slashed next weekend, while Saw II will probably continue to dominate.

So, don’t despair. The audiences are not as stupid as some claim they are. They want a well-told story that’s worth the cost of a trip to the cinema. With surround-sound theatre set-ups in the home, cheap rentals, decent television shows, and a massive back list of DVDs, the studios have to entice people from their houses.

If they’re smart they’ll return to a back-to-basics approach to filmmaking. If not, then they’re at the mercy of the box office. It is a cruel and fickle beast, and it gets grumpy when fed a diet of crap.

(All statistics are from the fantastic Box Office Mojo.)