Friday, 3 March 2017

The Good, The Bad and The Box Office

26 films that collectively took less money at the U.S. box office than Suicide Squad did in just 3 days.

A majority of box-office headlines each week focuses on the big hitters, the franchise entries and sequels whose performance in the opening weekend is often taken as an indication of long-term financial success. Will film X surpass film Y? Will film X cross $1 billion gross worldwide? Has film X met box-office expectations?

Discussion of box office figures has gradually found its way into more and more online discussions, with larger box office takings often used as inherently flawed evidence to claim one film is better than another.

Away from the big franchises, there isn’t the same level of discussion. The reporting on smaller films is available if you want to read it but there’s less understanding as to what those figures mean. Is a $5 million opening weekend a good result? Will the film make back its budget? Does that matter?

In short, how much money do smaller releases take compared to the multi-million dollar blockbusters? In particular, I decided to see how these smaller releases compared to Suicide Squad, which was not only one of the year’s highest grossing releases, but was generally received poorly by critics (it holds a score of just 26% on Rotten Tomatoes).

Will Smith as Deadshot and Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad.

First of all, I searched through the film calendar for films that were:

  • 2016 (US) releases
  • Narrative (non-documentary) films
  • Primarily in the English language
  • “Certified Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes

And finally, I searched for films that were released in the ever widening “summer” period. I defined this as beginning on 25th March, which was after the Oscars and saw the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I then defined this period as ending on 2nd September; this was the first day of the Telluride Film Festival, which featured screenings of Oscar hopefuls such as La La Land, Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea.

These criteria make the resulting list of films more comparable to Suicide Squad. I could have included documentaries and foreign films to inflate the number of films, but these have almost always had a smaller audience. Similarly, there were inevitably some films that would not suit my case. The likes of Don’t Breathe, Sausage Party and Lights Out matched the criteria listed above but would have inflated the total beyond the amount needed for this comparison.

However, I was still able to generate a list of 26 films that collectively made less at the US box-office than the critically derided Suicide Squad did in its opening 3 days.

Those 26 films were:

A Bigger Splash
Born to be Blue
Captain Fantastic
Don't Think Twice
Elvis & Nixon
Everybody Wants Some!!
Florence Foster Jenkins
Green Room
Hell or High Water
Hunt For The Wilderpeople
Into The Forest
Little Men
Love & Friendship
Maggie's Plan
Morris From America
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Sing Street
Sunset Song
The Family Fang
The Fits
The Invitation
The Lobster
The Meddler
Total (U.S. Gross)

Suicide Squad

Some will be more familiar than others but many have featured on the ‘Top 10” lists of critics and publications. Hunt for the Wilderpeople was Empire Magazine’s film of the year and the films have a collective total of 8 Oscar nominations, 8 BAFTA nominations and 10 Golden Globe nominations.

And yet, more people chose to see Suicide Squad, demonstrating that the poor reviews didn’t factor into many people’s decision to see the film.

As a well-known intellectual property, Suicide Squad had an audience ready to flock to the cinema in that opening weekend; the opening weekend accounted for just over 41% of the film’s total U.S. gross. More significantly, Suicide Squad played on far more screens than some of those other films and for many cinemagoers, the opportunity to see one of the smaller films may not have been feasible without travelling to the larger town or city where it was playing.

The idea of counterprogramming, releasing a film that targets a different demographic to the others being targeted by another (and often larger) release, is not new. Sisters, starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, famously went up against Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens at the box office. This clash even formed part of the film’s marketing campaign with the spoof behind the scenes trailer, 'The Farce Awakens'.

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in Sisters.
The dilemma facing the distributors of the smaller films is whether to take the risk of going up against a big blockbuster or risk opening outside of blockbuster season amongst the contenders for Oscars and other awards.

In a recent piece for The Playlist titled "How The Oscars Fail Movies", Jessica Kiang argued that the pursuit of awards glory can lead to many films not getting a fair shot at finding their audience. Even films such as 20th Century Women and Loving, which earned 1 Oscar nomination apiece, were ultimately a footnote in the awards season conversation, overshadowed by the films leading the nominations.

Did these nominations help either of those films at the box office? Loving has taken $7,710,234 in the U.S. since release, which is considerably more than Jeff Nichols’ other 2016 film, sci-fi road movie Midnight Special, took in a late March release (just $3,712,282). 20th Century Women’s gross of $5,466,904 is slightly lower than director Mike Mills’ previous film (Beginners - $5,790,894), which opened against X-Men: First Class in June 2011. Until time travel moves beyond the realm of science fiction and into reality, there’s no obvious answer.

Annette Bening in 20th Century Women.
Unfortunately, it is a dilemma that distributors are going to continue to face in the future, particularly as blockbuster season grows ever longer. In 2017, Kong: Skull Island kicks off the blockbuster season on 10th March but it could arguably begin with Logan on 3rd March, less than a week after the Oscars ceremony. In 2018, both Black Panther and Pacific Rim 2 open before the Oscars ceremony on March 4th. With franchise entries of Star Wars and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them occupying autumn release dates as well, the space for the smaller movies to find a reasonable audience is shrinking.

The simple fact is that, for better or worse, there are more big franchises filling the cinemas than ever before. Why is this the case? Especially when the supposed lack of originality in Hollywood is frequently discussed.

For me, Disney is partly to blame and here's my latest piece to explain why.


Release dates, running times and film stills have been taken from IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes scores have been taken directly from Rotten Tomatoes and US box-office grosses have been taken from Box Office Mojo ( All data correct as of 23/02/2017.

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