The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Why I care about how much movies make at the box office

with 11 comments


Why do people even care about how well movies are doing at the box office? This was up for discussion recently at the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. The hosts of the show seemed to be pretty much at loss. Unless you’re directly involved in the making of the movie, why bother at all?

Since I’m a frequent movie goer who also throws a glance at the box office list from time to time, I thought I’d try to explain what’s going on in my mind.

I know there are people out there who see box office like a game. They make predictions about how well movies will make and then they wait for the turnout. If you nail it you can enjoy your moment of glory, claiming your skill as a box office prophet.

I’m not one of those. I couldn’t care less about who makes the most money, if it’s Sony, Warner, Universal or 21st Century Fox. I can’t even tell the companies aside, I haven’t put any bets whatsoever and I’m not a shareholder.

Freaking me out
And yet I do care about the numbers, perhaps more than I should. Most of the time they freak me out. I get scared when I think about what impact the current box office will have to future movies. Every time a movie takes the market by surprise, either it’s under- or over-performing, it sends a powerful signal to the industry about what kind of films they should make to become successful.

After a year like 2013 we have every reason to worry about the outcome if I’m to believe what they said at Pop Culture Happy Hour. Every movie with a new idea and concept has made it so-and-so or even bombed at the box office. Meanwhile several sequels from already established franchises went well.

If I was an executive at one of the major film studios, expected by the investors to make as much profit as possible, the obvious conclusion wold be to not to listen to any unknown person who approaches me with new ideas. I’d be better off contracting Iron Man 4,5 and 6, regardless of the cost.

Even if I admittedly love some of the long lasting installations, such as James Bond and Star Trek, I find this utterly depressing. We need film studios who dare to take chance and go for new directors and writers with original concepts. Movies like any other art form needs to get new oxygen, taking leaps of faith from time to time, or it will run the risk to suffocate.

I also care about box office numbers because I hate to see my favourite directors and screenwriters flop. It always makes me worried that no one will dare to hire them again. Actually they don’t even need to be my favourites. As long as they seem to be nice, my heart reaches out for them. I remember when John Carter bombed at the box office. I wasn’t a fan of the movie at all, but after listening to a couple of interviews with the director I felt terrible about being so harsh towards it. He seemed like the nicest guy, and besides I’ve loved other movies he’s made in the past. It was heart breaking to think about the negative effects that John Carter may have on his career. (Yes, I’m soft like that.)

The third reason why I care about the box office is that I want as many people as possible to see the movies that I love, the same way as I try to convince people around me to read a book, watch a play or visit a favourite restaurant.

I want to spread the love and it frustrates me when endlessly when a movie I love fails to find an audience. It seems so unfair to me when an excellent movie ends up getting a total audience of 500 in Sweden over a year, while a movie that I consider rubbish is watched by a half a million. What pains me is that the success seems to have very little to do with the quality of the movie. It’s mostly related to the size of the marketing campaigns and what faith the dominating theatre chain puts into the film.

Reasons not to pay attenion
Finally: of course there are good reasons why we shouldn’t pay too much attention to the box office. One is that it’s not our business. We’re consumers of movies, not producers. It’s not as if I lack movies that I’d love to watch. Regardless of what the box office says, my to-watch list is endless. And if a movie doesn’t get to a theatre nearby because of box office issues, most of the time I’ll eventually get to see it on DVD or in worst case VOD. I just need to be patient and it will come to me.

Another reason to not to bother about this is that the box office only tells a part of the story nowadays. The first reports about how well a movie does the first weekend in US says very little about how the final turnout will be. Movies are released in many markets and not all of them react in the same way. In some cases it takes a long time for the audience to find a film. The word just needs to be spread.

And isn’t that a comforting thought? When you see your favourite movie of the year failing at the box office, you can always mutter to yourself:

“Box office didn’t get it. But the film lovers all over the world will. This could be the Shawshank Redemption of our time. Just give it a few years and we’ll show you.”

photo credit: jomme via photopin cc

Written by Jessica

September 8, 2013 at 12:15 am

11 Responses

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  1. I’m with you, I don’t play the Box Office games, though I listen to/follow several people who do and it’s interesting to see how well/poor they do with their guesses. I look at it as being a small window into the business of film. While we can’t act on it, it’s interesting to see how trends shift, what’s popular and what’s unpopular. It’s disappointing to see good movies fail, and bad movies succeed.


    September 8, 2013 at 12:46 am

    • I really don’t understand the fascination of that game, but then I don’t gamble with horse races either. I’m the wrong kind of person for that. What I can understand is that if you love a certain movie, you want it to succeed and as many people as possible to like it.


      September 9, 2013 at 7:55 am

  2. Publishers are interested in one thing: making money. So it’s only logical that they will try to film those movies that will sell. And that often leads to sequelitis.

    It’s not as bad as with video games though. If you take a top 10 of best selling games of last month, it’s usually 80% sequels.

    But there, as with movies, you always have the indie scene. That’s where you can find some new ideas.


    September 9, 2013 at 5:25 pm

    • I can’t claim to be following the video game market, but that sonds awful. I really would have thought there was more edge to it. But I guess there is edge, its just not what’s selling most.

      I watch both mainstream film and indie movies. If I was forced to choose between onlywatching top 10 box office movies or watching small, unheard of indie movies för the rest of my life, I’d easily pick the indie ones. Less risk to get bord due to lack of variation.


      September 9, 2013 at 11:45 pm

      • There are huge franchises like ‘Call of Duty’ which are pretty much the ‘Transformers’ of the industry. Big, loud, lots of action and violence. Oh, and there are 10 sequels. It’s popular with the youth.

        I mostly watch the big movies and an indie one from time to time. Heck, just enjoyed watching the Bling Ring which is a bit in between I guess. Then again, I’m a fan of Sophia Coppola 🙂


        September 10, 2013 at 2:26 am

        • I’m like you, as you probably know by now. I’ve got what I’d consider a broad taste. I love most movies I watch, but on the few occasions when I don’t love a movie, it could as well be a blockbuster as an indi movie. I try not to be prejudiced. And yes, I’m a Coppola fan too! I liked The Bling Ring well enough, though it’s not a movie I’ll want to return to as in the case of Lost in Translation.


          September 10, 2013 at 11:15 pm

  3. All I can say is “Amen”! I know I said that in your last post as well but I thoroughly agree.


    September 10, 2013 at 7:23 pm

  4. I think that Box Office is silly for determining whether a movie is good, or determining whether I will like a movie. Nor do I think that a low box office has anything to do with the quality or greatness of a film. However, I do cast a weary eye at the numbers occasionally. First, because (as you hinted at, Jessica) what is popular is what will be imitated, for good or for ill. Often the studios misinterpret what made a movie great (like with The Matrix or Pulp Fiction), but we know that copy cats and sequels will abound. Also, I keep an eye on the box office, because it helps me understand what the mass audience of movies like about movies. Why Avatar and not Nausicaa? Why Silence of the Lambs and not Rear Window? Why Gone with the Wind and not The Princess Bride? As much as the public choice mystifies me, it also fascinates me.


    September 14, 2013 at 4:25 am

    • Absolutely. It’s also especially interesting when once in a while a movie appears that will take the market by surprise. Nothing makes me happier than movies made with small budget and small marketing that get viral and people go and watch because of the word of mouth. The market gods don’t control everything yet. Stars will rice unpredictably.


      September 15, 2013 at 6:09 pm

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