The box office race is largely about managing expectations.
Distributor Paramount Pictures learned that the hard way by putting itself in the embarrassing position of having to revise its estimated $50 million opening weekend for “Interstellar” downward by nearly $3 million when the film actually debuted at $47.5 million.
Final box office results often come in lower or higher than estimates, but being off by several million is a much wider gap than usual and most rival studios had “Interstellar” bowing at closer to $47 million than the $50 million Paramount claimed it would do. The discrepancy may have inspired some of the more negative headlines.
It should be noted, however, “Interstellar” actually did better overseas and on a global basis than initially reported. The picture soared to $82.9 million internationally, which pushed its worldwide total to $130.6 million–$400,000 more than original estimates.
So why the sense of deflation?
“It’s a little bit of a disappointment,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “Expectations are always very high for a filmmaker of Christopher Nolan’s caliber, but you can’t have an ‘Inception’ or a ‘Dark Knight’ every time out of the gate.”
Even if coverage of the results wasn’t exactly acidic, some was outright dismissive. For example, journalists contextualized “Interstellar’s” numbers by mentioning that they accounted for Nolan’s lowest domestic opening since “The Prestige” debuted to $14.8 million in 2006, instead of positioning them as say, his second biggest non-“Dark Knight” trilogy premiere or the best showing of Matthew McConaughey’s career, both of which are equally true.
But Hollywood expected “Interstellar” to reach the stratosphere and it may not be that kind of film. Bock notes that “Interstellar” is a more serious-minded science-fiction movie such as “Contact” or its cinematic progenitor “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Those films don’t open like “The Dark Knight Rises” and they tend to attract older crowds (“Interstellar’s” opening weekend audience was 75% over the age of 25). That’s the demo that often shows up after the opening weekend.
“It’s going to have long legs,” predicted Eric Wold, an analyst with B. Riley and Company.
He argues that Nolan’s “Inception” did more than four times its opening weekend number domestically, and notes that “Interstellar” did almost as well as “Gravity” did when on a per-screen average basis. The two films are essentially tied at north of $36,000 a screen even though “Interstellar” is almost double “Gravity’s” running time.
“Interstellar” also didn’t have the benefit of 3D, which provided “Gravity” with 80% of its opening weekend ticket sales and carried a hefty surcharge. “Interstellar” did get a big lift from Imax showings, which accounted for a quarter of the picture’s ticket sales, with many locations adding extra screenings to meet demand and reporting sell outs. The TCL Chinese Theatre Imax screen in Hollywood, for instance, had the biggest weekend in its history. But there were only 368 Imax screens showing the film domestically, and demand may have outstripped capacity.
“The way to see this film is in Imax,” said Eric Handler, an analyst with MKM Partners. “A lot of people wanted to wait with the view that they wanted to see it in Imax.”
At a cost of $165 million, and likely more than $150 million in global print and advertising costs, “Interstellar” needs to be one of the year’s biggest hits in order to turn a profit.
It also should be said that critical opinion was divided on the film’s merits and “Intersteller” may not be the Oscars juggernaut some predicted, which could temper excitement and depress long term revenues.
Unlike comic book movies or other summer blockbusters, however, this is the kind of ambitious film that will spark debate in film circles and beyond. “Inception,” “Gravity” and other like-minded movies resulted in stickier hits that built up their revenues methodically, dropping slightly from weekend to weekend. To that end, “Interstellar” enjoyed a strong hold on Monday, topping the box office with $5.2 million.
“If I were a filmmaker (or a) studio, I wouldn’t be looking at what it does on opening weekend,” said Wold. “I’d be looking at what it does total.”
For “Interstellar” next weekend will reveal if it soars or falls to earth.