Have you seen the numbers?
“Black Panther,” Ryan Coogler’s masterful adaptation of the Marvel comic book series, recently crossed $1 billion in box-office receipts worldwide, putting it in the top 10 moneymakers of all time. Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” is another commercial phenom, its opening-weekend take of more than $40 million counting as the director’s best showing in a decade, its accumulated revenue of $192 million positioning it as one of this year’s biggest triumphs.
Unless it isn’t. In a recent article in the Hollywood Reporter, analyst Pamela McClintock postulated that, with a production cost of $175 million and a sinus-clearing marketing budget, “Ready Player One” might have to earn more than $420 million — maybe $500 million — just to break even. (The scratch formula to calculate a studio’s portion of a film’s gross is to divide total box office in half.) McClintock wrote, “While the movie launched ahead of expectations . . . ‘Ready Player One’s’ debut isn’t enough to guarantee success.”
That might be hard to believe. But just as precise definitions of what constitutes a movie are changing, the notion of what constitutes “success” is undergoing a radical shift in Hollywood, as audience expectations evolve and platforms multiply and otherwise solid business models melt into air. In February, Netflix made “The Cloverfield Paradox” available on its streaming service after a surprise teaser during the Super Bowl; according to Nielsen reports, around 5 million viewers watched the movie over the next seven days, a figure that would roughly translate to about $45 million at the box office. They had even better numbers for “Bright,” another straight-to-streaming title starring Will Smith that reportedly garnered 11 million viewers over its first three days.
Why should anyone outside the movie industry care whether a bunch of L.A. fat cats get richer? Because, as with household budgets and government spending, money in Hollywood bears a direct correlation to priorities and values. In that notoriously risk-averse and slavishly imitative business culture, sure things are the collective grail, whether in the form of built-in audiences for superhero spectacles and hit book adaptations, or endless cycles of sequels, spinoffs and reboots of proven properties. The more profitable a movie is, the likelier it will be copied, meaning it’s in all our interests to pay attention to what studio executives consider a hit or a bomb. The difference decides whether the movies we love will continue to flourish, or die on the vine.
The trick is to look beyond obvious “hits” and “bombs,” the definitions of which are becoming vexingly elastic. “Game Night,” a sprightly R-rated comedy that opened in February, hasn’t made any headlines about record-breaking earnings. But it has quietly cracked $100 million at the box office, more than three times its modest $37 million budget.
Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time” has been unfairly labeled a disappointment, even though it’s been in the top five box-office earners since its March opening. Now at $106 million in receipts (around what it cost to make), DuVernay’s fantasy adventure is almost certainly guaranteed to become a staple on DVD and Blu-ray, traditionally dominated by family titles. The charming teen rom-com “Love, Simon,” which has already earned back twice its $17 million budget, has similarly rosy prospects after it leaves the big screen.
Then there are the countless movies that open briefly in theaters only to disappear seemingly in a matter of weeks — a sure sign of failure. But maybe not: Such blink-and-you-missed-them indies as “Swiss Army Man” and last year’s “A Ghost Story” might not have set the theatrical world on fire, but both performed exceptionally well on streaming sites — an increasingly common pattern whereby a film’s theatrical run is used to raise awareness for future clicks and downloads rather than an end in itself.
Hollywood might finally be accepting these new (or newish) realities: For the first time, this week, the Motion Picture Association of America has included home-entertainment statistics in its annual survey of demographics, viewing habits and industry trends. This year’s big takeaways: The North American market has matured to the point of flattening; growth is overseas, especially in China. Teenagers still crave getting out of the house, and the multiplex offers an easy, affordable option (I could have told them that); per capita attendance figures are highest among Hispanic and Asian filmgoers. Oh, and guess what: Women still account for 50 percent of the audience. (I could have told them that, too.)
Those last few data points were proved out during the first quarter of 2018, when the highest-performing movies were led by women and people of color. What once might have been considered “niche” is now most assuredly “mass,” and vice versa. Success comes in a variety of shapes, sizes, platforms and packages. As tiny a space as a box office can’t possible contain it, much less measure it.