Stop the madness

Reports of B.O. death greatly exaggerated

Is the sky really falling at the box office?

Despite a steady drumbeat of dour diagnoses — spurred by this past weekend’s weak summer start — a closer look at the numbers shows the movie business has been surprisingly healthy so far this year.

While fewer wide releases have bowed in 2005 — and none of them has been “The Passion of the Christ” — they are performing on average much better than the 2004 crop.

Also, many think a lot of the talk about the shrinking audience is going to be difficult to square with next week’s expected monster opening for “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith.”

“The sky isn’t falling,” said Warner Bros. distrib prexy Dan Fellman. “It’s important to look at where we are going.”

Through last Sunday, receipts for 2005 stand at nearly $2.6 billion, according to Nielsen EDI. Over the same period last year they were almost $2.8 billion, meaning 2005 is running 6% (or $178 million) behind last year.

But it is impossible to talk about early 2004’s box office without mentioning “The Passion,” which, with $367 million in grosses before summer, was responsible for 14% of the entire spring and winter total.

At the time, some argued that because “Passion” had brought in so many people who hadn’t been to the movies in years, its grosses weren’t a good measure of the overall health of the marketplace (Daily Variety, May 19).

In fact, if it weren’t for Mel Gibson and his crucifixion pic, 2004’s winter and spring grosses would have been down 8% from 2003. Likewise, if you compare the 2005 winter and spring receipts to a “Passion”-less 2004, this year’s box office is running 8% ahead of 2004.

The other big difference between this year and last year is that there have been far fewer wide releases thus far. In 2004, 52 pics were launched at 1,000 or more theaters in the winter and spring. This year there were just 39.

And this year’s crop of pics has performed, on the whole, far better. Of last year’s wide releases, 29 — more than half — opened lower than $10 million, and among them were some clunkers no studio would wish to repeat: “The Alamo” (which went on to cume only $22 million), “Envy” ($13 million), “Connie and Carla” ($8 million), “The Big Bounce” ($6.5 million) and “Against the Ropes” ($6 million).

Still, taken together, those low-grossing films (not every pic that opens below $10 million is a bomb) combined for a pretty big chunk of biz: Just their opening weekend grosses total $181 million — or more than the entire gap between 2005 and 2004.

This year, only 10 of the 39 wide releases have failed to open bigger than $10 million. On the whole, the early wide releases in 2005 already have an average gross of $48 million per title. Last year, the eventual cume per pic was $45 million — or $36 million not including “The Passion.”

It doesn’t matter much to theaters owners which movies people show up for — tickets and popcorn cost the same at hits as they do at flops — so studios see the bigger average gross per picture as a positive sign.

“It’s better for the studios that those films didn’t come out,” said Revolution partner Tom Sherak, noting, “Even though they didn’t work, they were a lot of business for exhibitors in concessions and whatever else.”

This year, the studios have done a much better job at building hits before summer. So far in 2005, four pictures have grossed more than $100 million: “Hitch” ($178 million), “Robots” ($125 million), “Meet the Fockers” (which took in $117 million of its $279 million cume this year) and “The Pacifier” ($109 million). A fifth, “Million Dollar Baby,” came very close, with $98.8 million for the year. Similarly, in 2003 and 2002, there were five films that had grossed more than $100 million through the first weekend of May.

Last year, though, other than “The Passion,” only “50 First Dates” had crossed the century mark, with $120 million through this point.

Nonetheless, no one is disputing that summer got off to a soft start last weekend. Led by “Kingdom of Heaven’s” disappointing $20 million bow, total box office for the weekend, according to Nielsen EDI, was $87 million, one of the worst starts for summer ever.

But one disappointment doesn’t define a summer.

Fox is opening “Sith” on the same weekend that “Shrek 2” bowed last year, and the “Star Wars” sequel could rival the toon’s $108 million opening. And during the Fourth of July weekend, where last year “Spider-Man 2” bowed with $116 million over four days, Paramount and DreamWorks have “War of the Worlds”

A big “Revenge of the Sith” bow will do much to quiet the box office pessimists. New Line is expecting big business for “Monster-in-Law” this weekend, as are Paramount and DreamWorks for, respectively, “The Longest Yard” and “Madagascar” over the Memorial Day span.

“You can quote me on this,” Sherak said: “Give us some rain on Memorial Day, and Katie, bar the door!”

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