‘Inside Out’ Debut Exposes Absurdity of Box Office Horse Race

INSIDE OUT
Courtesy of Disney•Pixar

Box office reporting too often focuses on data and results that have nothing to do with whether or not a movie is a hit or a miss.

One of the great absurdities of this type of coverage is that it is dominated by a horse race mentality that studios both privately ignore and publicly encourage.

The folly of this approach was on full display this weekend when “Jurassic World” “won” the weekend with a $102 million take, edging by “Inside Out,” which had to settle for a measly $91 million. That happens to be the biggest-ever opening for an original film, crushing the $77 million high-water mark set by “Avatar” in 2009.

“‘Inside Out’ would have been number one in any other weekend,” notes Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Being number one is overrated.”

Still, “Jurassic World” gets to proclaim in television spots and newspaper ads (are those still a thing?) that it is the “number one movie in America.” “Jurassic World’s” victory ends Pixar’s streak of consecutive number one openings, a record it had maintained with each of its previous 14 pictures. But the end of an era doesn’t mean much.

“There are no losers in this one-two punch,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “What movie is number one is a distinction without a difference.”

The focus on rankings obscures the fact that “Inside Out” is a critical and commercial triumph on a scale few films match. The “Inside Out” opening ranks as the second-biggest debut in Pixar history, putting it squarely between “Toy Story 3’s” $110.3 million bow and ahead of 2013’s “Monsters University’s” $82.4 million opening.

“Where you finish doesn’t matter that much,” noted Dave Hollis, Disney’s distribution chief.

He noted that “Frozen” debuted in second place before going on to become Disney’s biggest animated release with a global haul of nearly $1.3 billion.

“Where [‘Frozen’] finished on its opening weekend had no bearing on its impact to the culture,” said Hollis.

The genre-defying story of a girl’s emotional inner turmoil has a 98% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the best reviewed Pixar release since “Toy Story 3,” which went on to pick up a best picture nomination. While Pixar has yet to have a bomb on its resume, “Inside Out” may be its boldest, ballsiest venture since “Wall-E” dazzled audiences with its near-silent first act. It’s a picture that unfolds largely in an adolescent’s mind as she struggles to come to terms with her family’s decision to uproot and move to San Francisco. In the words of Slate’s Dana Stevens, “Inside Out” is unafraid to show that “growing up is both a grand triumph and an irreversible tragedy.” That’s a kind of dichotomy that most kids movies would never attempt to unwind, with all due respect to “The Penguins of Madagascar.”

Too often, box office reporting gets reduced to rankings instead of profitability. Just look at some of the number one films this year. They include both genuine blockbusters such as “Furious 7” and duds and disappointments such as “Focus” and “Chappie.” That’s to say nothing of “Tomorrowland,” which came in first over Memorial Day, but cost so much to make it will result in a reported $140 million writedown. In the process, the achievements of films like “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” which picked up $403.8 million on an $81 million budget, get overshadowed by films such as “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which opened hot before cooling down fast.

Box office headlines are often reduced to what film “trumps,” “triumphs over” or “races past” a rival. But analysts and executives argue that some blockbusters can be the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats.

“The big business for ‘Jurassic World’ did more to help ‘Inside Out’ succeed than it acted as an impediment,” said Hollis. “Having a great experience at the movies is what brings people back.”

Beyond the rankings, there’s the problem of box office milestones. Studios happily churn out releases, announcing that this or that film has passed the $100 million mark, the $200 million barrier, and the $300 million hurdle, but too often pundits fail to contextualize that figure. So, yes, it’s lovely that “Mad Max: Fury Road” has earned $336.7 million, except for the fact that Warner Bros. spent $150 million to make the movie and countless millions more to market it. “Mad Max: Fury Road” may make a profit, but math would suggest it hasn’t yet — studios get roughly 50% of ticket sales domestically and a more variable percentage of overseas grosses.

While China, for instance, is hailed as the movie business’ great savior, a recent investor presentation by executives from the National Association of Theatre Owners noted that most of the money stays in the People’s Republic. Though U.S. studios generated $2.16 billion at the Chinese box office in 2014, those companies took out only 25% of those receipts, amounting to roughly $540 million. Somehow that critical context got glossed over in the rush to talk up Chinese ticket sales.

In general, our fixation on victors and losers, boom and bust markets, and gaudy numbers that ignore a picture’s pricetag is bad for anyone hoping to draw conclusions about the overall health of the entertainment industry.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that while “Inside Out” didn’t beat “Jurassic World,” it’s still a box office winner.

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  1. Conch says:

    Reports these days needs to learn how to use the word “estimates”. It seems almost all box office reports claim early estimates as the final numbers every single time. Jurassic World’s estimates was $102m but it actually grossed $106.5m while Inside Out grossed an estimated $91 when it actually grossed $90m.

  2. Liam says:

    Interesting stats and all, but this just seems like semantics and written by someone who REALLY likes ‘Inside Out”.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Original? Dfq you smoking?

    • Pablo says:

      Please tell me to which franchise Inside Out belongs to…

      That’s what they mean by original. Not that is an original idea but that it is not a prequel, sequel, remake, reboot, spin-off, adaptation…

  4. Mia says:

    The irony of this “breaking news” story from Variety is that it effectively criticizes itself for all those other “breaking news” stories they’ve been releasing the past few weeks about Jurassic World breaking all sorts of box office sales records. Variety will report the numbers yet they also have the luxury of criticizing exactly those stories. Go figure.

  5. Ken says:

    The absurdity of weekend box office races and tallies and bragging rights is compounded even more ludicrously when one considers ticket price inflation over the years and decades. According to the All-Time Charts on boxofficemojo.com, when one adjusts box office proceeds to ticket price inflation (2015 figures), a wholly different kettle of fish emerges:

    1. Gone With The Wind (still! and from 1939, natch)
    2. Star Wars
    3. The Sound of Music
    4. E.T.
    5. Titanic
    6. The Ten Commandments
    7. Jaws
    8. Doctor Zhivago
    9. The Exorcist
    10. Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs

    On the adjusted chart, AVATAR ranks 14th, MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS ranks 72, JURASSIC WORLD currently ranks 102, Disney’s vaunted FROZEN ranks 103, and FURIOUS 7 ranks 140th.

    So, it seems all these amazing current box office figures hashed over in trade websites and on tv broadcasts week after week, really can’t compare to the sheer VOLUME of people going to the cinema in years past. When one takes into consideration the cost to make and market a flick, plus the very high inflated admission prices nowadays, these current huge figures really don’t amount to a hill of beans. But they’re fun to talk about with friends, right?

    • Bob b says:

      Plus, consider the population increase and it becomes even more amazing. When Gone with the wind was out, the US population was 130 million, or 40% of the current 320 million population. So the percentage of people who bought tickets and went to repeat performances was astronomically higher.

      • This is why I have always thought that it should be tallied not by dollars earned but by # of tickets sold as a percentage of the population (adjusted for growth).

      • DSykes says:

        Yes, and in 1930 no one owned a Television set, so there was no other options. It’s called the golden age, because of this. Television has chipped away at theatre box office receipt ever since. In 1977 when Star Wars came out their was TV but the VCR little alone VOD didn’t exist yet. Looking at top movies adjusted for inflation is certainly interesting, but the market has vastly changed as well.

      • DtoA says:

        however on the other hand, there’s a piracy and a lot more movies to choose from. It’s not that easy to compare

    • Sim says:

      > MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS ranks 72,

      Just wanted to point out that The Avengers ranks 27th on this chart, not 72. That’s Age of Ultron.

      But you are right, people don’t go to the movies that much any more.

      • DSykes says:

        Yes, when Gone With the Wind came out, it didn’t compete with a half dozen other new releases that week, little along every week following it.

      • Ken says:

        Right you are! Thank you for the correction!

  6. I think it is all silly, just a part of the marketing hype. These numbers would be like a sports team reporting they are the champions after winning the first game of the season.
    What I want to really know, and I have never seen this reported is, what are the bottom line profits or losses after a year, 5 years, 10 years, 25 years, etc including everything, all revenue and all expenses.
    I have followed the movie industry as a waste of time hobby for years but I still have no idea what movies make on rentals and DVD sales and digital sales and cable sales and network TV sales and so forth and so on and the expenses to make all that happen.
    When I see Stripes on cable or on Netflix 34 years after it was released how much is being paid and what did it cost to keep Stripes being seen 34 years later. Someone is doing the sales, the distribution, the accounting, etc., and what does all that cost?
    That is the minutiae of movie business revenue that I think people would really be fascinated by so someone should start doing it.

    • Anonymous says:

      There’s no reason to report that. There’s really no reason to report box office grosses or production budgets either other than for marketing purposes, and this article is rightfully addressing the growing sense that these numbers are increasingly just data and not information.

      I do agree that it may seem unusual that the home of ‘boffo biz’ is addressing this, but this is excellent reporting. The New York Times, Forbes and others have started to recognize that it’s both ‘show’ and ‘biz’ by discussing the business side with a little less breathless hype lately, which is good for those of us who get a paycheck from the industry by giving some context to the changes going on around us.

  7. James says:

    I can only hope that in future articles that you won’t continue to put down movies that don’t open at number 1. Like I don’t want to hear you say terminator terminates Jurassic world.

  8. sabretruthtiger says:

    Rotten Tomatoes critics ratings like the one given to Frozen (98%) are motivated by extreme liberal politics and anything that pushes feminism gets a high rating.

    • Jacques Strappe says:

      WTF! How absurd. Hollywood is driven by money, not ideologies, liberal or conservative. Critics like or dislike whatever they like or dislike.. Their opinions generally don’t impact box office results

    • vp19 says:

      Ah, the ideologues strike again!

  9. Given up says:

    Inside Out is the better movie and if you don’t shed 1 tear during it you need to check your emotions. Kudos to Disney/Pixar for another well made movie that all ages can enjoy.

  10. bijinius says:

    “…our fixation on victors and losers, boom and bust markets, and gaudy numbers that ignore a picture’s price tag is bad for anyone hoping to draw conclusions about the overall health of the entertainment industry.”

    None of the above hype will, of course, stop you knuckleheads from reporting it as such.

    • bijinius says:

      …And I don’t think I’m out of line saying any of that – I mean, this is direct quotation from the article two spots below THIS ONE: “Box Office: ‘Jurassic World’ Bites Into $102 Million, ‘Inside Out’ Scores With $91 Million” … it reads as you guys presenting equestrian race sheets, not film news. I can’t bitch because I read it like everyone else…but don’t moralize about it on your prairie dog hill of a mountain.

  11. therealeverton says:

    The irony of this, interesting, article is that it also makes the same kind of mistakes. In discussing China you fail to follow through with use of maths and se the pretty clear fact that the 2nd biggest market (and surely the point is that it is expected to become the biggest) cann see multiples over another top 5 market (for i instance the U.K) of 3 or four times, then the fact that you take back 25% instead of around 50% is next to meaningless. One of the biggest markets for Age of Ultron is the U.K It’s taken something like $75m there. But the $37.5m you see back from that is still much less than the $60m return from China’s $240m Age of Ultron takings. That and, again, the fact that the Chinese market is expected to continue growing, is why we hear so much about it. Not to mention there always remains the possibility of an increase in what comes back from there.

    Then there’s the apples t Oranges statement about Inside Out “crushing the $77 million high-water mark set by “Avatar” in 2009.”. Another spurious “fact” given that Avatar was out in December, a month that sees great weekly figures and far smaller opening weekends (perhaps a sobering thought for those who keep expecting Star Wars e7 to break opening weekend records).

    It’s so ingrained that even when trying to show there should be another way, the old habits creep in.

    The Mad Max issue is a good one, al the more so when compared to the premature and/or erroneous and almost gleeful reporting on recent films Edge of Tomorrow and Pacific Rim.

    Anyway thanks for a thought provoking read.

  12. camlaw says:

    The studios are in so many ways encouraging pirating. Because of the push to break box office records, incredible films like Love and Mercy are pushed out of the multi-plex. It’s no longer playing near me, after obly one week, so what alternative do I have, but to find it online? Jurassic World is playing in nearly half of the 20 screens at my local theater.

    • no says:

      Instead of rationalizing a criminal act, just move ya dummy. Oh, and since youre so comfortable with theft, give me your address cuz Id like a new tv. My rationalization is some multiplex has a bigger screen then I do at my house, what alternative do I have then to steal yours?

      • No No says:

        He has a valid point and instead of answering it you call him a dummy and tell him to move. Since it’s not longer a serious discussion: Would you be a troll or a dummy? You can only pick one.

  13. JoeM says:

    Has the studio/exhibitor split in the US changed in recent years? My understanding was that the studio typically got more like 80-90% of the opening week ticket money and that the percentage went down after that until it reached those 50% levels. I was always told that is why theater owners love little “word of mouth” movies that hit it big like Juno, Blair Witch Project and My Big Fat Greek Wedding and even bigger budget films like Kingsman and are so hesitant to give up any of their concession money to the studios on most films that sell for a week or two. Hence the real world importance of the opening week.

    • Shawn says:

      I believe that is still how it happens, but as most movies stretch out it ultimately becomes closer to a 50/50 split because they don’t make that much their first weekend and by the time their run is over the money is pretty evenly spread throughout the weeks. However, for films like Jurassic the opening weekend really is a make or break deal because it can basically make back it’s entire production budget in those first three days, meaning the percentage of money collected after the first week is almost all profit from that point forward. That’s why saying studios only get about 50% of all box office is not accurate for these major releases.

  14. Charles L. Sykes says:

    A comment on your 25% China observance.

    Earlier this year, Furious 7 became the first movie, not filmed by James Cameron, to pass the $1B mark in non-US (foreign) box office revenues. Although Titanic did it over 15 years ago, and Avatar actually passed $2B in non-US revenues, I thought it was significant that Furious 7 cracked a barrier that all of the Potters, Twilights, Carribeans, etc., failed to break.

    It appears that a third of the international revenue for Furious 7 was from China ($390M). Even 25% of that would approach $100M, and would be almost equal the total box office gross from the next two highest countries combined (United Kingdom and Australia).

    The new Avengers may cross the $1B international mark as it appears that it has not opened in some countries yet, e.g. nothing is listed for Japan. But, China listed at $240M; 25% of that would be $60M, and there are only two other countries with a total gross receipts higher than $60M (South Korea and the UK).

    So, even 25% of the box office revenue from China appears to be a figure worth pursuing.

  15. EK says:

    In our society, especially our inustry, people live and die by the numbers. Just ask the corner gas station operator, the IRS, your credit card company, your credit score bureau and any sports team. It is the barometer we live by. Quantity not necessarily quality. So the first studio to hit 1 Billion $ in revenue, the one who sores the highest cume and on and on. It’s all a numbers game, right or wrong, and being number one is always the prize. Good article all the same.

  16. then of course... says:

    …there are those people who will call Inside Out’s 91 million debut a disappointment, and almost immediately after contribute its “failure” to the fact that the film relies heavily on female protagonists.

  17. David Webb says:

    Disney’s distrib chief says’ “Where you finish doesn’t matter that much.” On the contrary, Dave. In the industry, as in all of life, how you finish matters a great deal. But really what we’re talking about concerning opening weekend at the movies is how you get out of the gate and enter the first turn. Few horses lead wire to wire. In the end the thoroughbred with the stamina, breeding, and great jockey will out.

  18. JoeR says:

    It’s not just box office, it applies ro home video as well. For example, 3D BluRay discs seem to sell well (given how quickly stores run out of stock. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, for example, has been a #1 3D seller since it came out, accounting for over 30% of the sales of both BluRay AND dvd combined! (Two weeks ago, it was still getting about 20% of those combined sales. Yet I still hear pundits yelling that “3D doesn’t sell”…to the point that Universal inexplicably cancelled the 3D home video release of SEVENTH SON in North America, but releasing it everywhere else in the world!. (Forcing consumers to have to pay extra to import it from Taiwan, Mexico, Europe, etc. So American buyers have to financially contribute to foreign economies to get it. Nice going Universal! (Who are now, ironically, reaping 50% of ticket sales from the U.S. 3D theatrical showings of JURASSIC WORLD. Doesn’t anybody ever lose their jobs over such stupid decisions?

    (And yes, I know SON was a flop, but a 3D release for home video would still have been profitable, as is often the case with genre releases.).

  19. LOL says:

    Pixar would’ve settled for half that amount to have kept up its #1 winning streak. After all, America loves winners.

  20. me says:

    So this writer tries to say that box office reporting focuses too much on data and results, and in an attempt to prove that point, he lists a million additional numbers and results. He even did it within the same paragraph: “the rankings obscure the fact that…” and then in the very next sentence he shows how Inside Out ranks against other Pixar movies. (“Rankings are meaningless, and to prove it, let me show you how this movie ranks with other movies!”).

    This makes absolutely no sense. It also is insulting to the audience, as if we are too stupid to know this ourselves.

  21. Alex says:

    When Pixar doesn’t have the number one hit for the weekend, the box office race is called “absurd”. It’s a nice spin, but the reality is “Jurassic World” was still the number one movie for the weekend and “inside Out” still came in second. Deal with it.

    • Shawn says:

      I agree. There have been several articles this weekend about the success of Inside Out which try to paint it as a more successful film than Jurassic World even though it did not out gross it this weekend and very well may not come close to what Jurassic will end up doing in total globally. Does it mean one film is better than the other, no, but it also is not accurate to try to suddenly downplay box office returns just because a film which is deemed better by the media and critics, in this case Inside Out, because it clearly will not do as well as the other monetarily. I’ve seen Jurassic and am looking forward to seeing Inside but honestly articles like this actually make me want to wait until it is out on DVD because it is as though the media is subliminally attempting to make the audience go see it out of wither duty or shame. Jurassic is clearly the bigger film, and it seems like the media will have to learn to accept it.

  22. dav23 says:

    The real reason the box office race doesn’t matter? Ticket price inflation has gotten so ridiculous as to render all of these “records” completely useless. Is a $100 million weekend really that impressive when tickets are over $15? I saw Inside Out last night (great, great movie). I paid $17.50 to see it in 3D and the theatre was less than half-full (on a Saturday night!) and yet it still scored $91 million. I would much rather see ticket sold than money brought in because at this point ever other week some other movie is going to put up gaudy numbers thanks almost exclusively to the gaudy ticket prices.

    • MrG8000 says:

      Where are you going to see movies that they’re $15-17.50 a ticket? Even in the Chicago suburbs, the 3D “Inside Out” is only $10, and the standard showing is $8. (And if you hit matinees, they’re even cheaper.)

      • Sam Smith says:

        In the city of Chicago 17.50 is right on to see a 3D movie.

      • DG says:

        Boston tickets are $13 for a regular show, $15 for 3D and around that for IMAX 3D. ‘Matinee’ price is like $10.5. So I wouldn’t be surprised if it was more in NYC or LA.

  23. cylon6 says:

    Not just 1 and 2.

    I think San Andreas is a movie that surprised a few people and is doing better than they predicted. Good word of mouth and quietly holding up in the face of strong competition.

    Pitch Perfect 2 was also a pleasant surprise. Who expected that to make more than Spy?

    • Jim Ponsoldt says:

      how about publishing “tickets sold per screen”. or maybe, after the gross, publish the promotion and distribution costs. of course, money always talks–to whomever listens.

  24. Larry says:

    INSIDE OUTS a remarkable movie. Just a terrific piece of work that is successful on so many levels.

  25. i highly recommend inside out it is such a great film

  26. macd says:

    Many thanks, Mr. Lang, for an excellent and illuminating article stating things that have needed to be said for quite some time, yet the media shies away from stating the cold, clear facts. Why? Since the weekend boxoffice grosses are now considered of such earthshaking importance that they are now a headliner on the network Sunday night newscasts, isn’t it high time that a movie coming in at first place is not always a cause for celebration?

  27. Heather says:

    Great points, though it is just the American way to always want that #1 spot (just an opinion).

  28. nerdrage says:

    What was that Mark Twain said about lies, damned lies and box office statistics?

  29. Free marketing, as long as someone can tout–#1 Movie in America–they will do it. But great points and thanks for the info on money overseas! Hadn’t really thought about how much makes it back here, but how would I know anyway? Insiders have to give that info out for someone like me to know.

  30. Michael . says:

    Great, great article and exactly right. Absurd system and so old school to keep numbers up and SVP’s happy it’s silly. Bravo for writing this.

  31. cadavra says:

    To quote Liberace, Pixar is “crying all the way to the bank.”

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