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Box Office Numbers and the Future of Watching Movies

July 22, 2013

By John Corrado

R.I.P.D. PosterI haven’t seen R.I.P.D. and the fact that so many people are able to say the exact same thing is the very problem that the film faced over the weekend.  Directed by Robert Schwentke, the movie stars Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds as two cops who have been brought back from the dead to avenge our world from the wrath of souls who refuse to leave, and wasn’t screened for critics in advance.

Those are the facts and here are the numbers.  The film, which received many poor reviews, was produced for $130 million and Universal Pictures only made back a fraction of that with a measly $12.7 million opening that put the supposed blockbuster in seventh place at the box office.  And that includes the surcharges for 3D.

This makes R.I.P.D. the very definition of a financial failure, a Hollywood film that squandered a big budget and failed to put money back in the wallets of those who made it.  Ryan Reynolds also starred in the goodnatured snail racing film Turbo, which opened considerably better in third place, but still under performed compared to other animated films.  James Wan’s artfully crafted and terrifically terrifying horror movie The Conjuring proudly won the weekend box office.

But R.I.P.D. isn’t the first big budget movie this year to falter at the box office.  Despite recommendations from myself and several others, the reviews for The Lone Ranger were very mixed and since opening at the beginning of July, the film has only brought back a small percentage of the towering $215 million budget.  The numbers for Roland Emerich’s disaster flick White House Down weren’t impressive either, despite the charisma of lead actors Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx.  The Will and Jaden Smith vehicle After Earth suffered a similar fate after opening to poor reviews, but the M. Night Shyamalan film at least had the added benefit of doing relatively well overseas, somewhat offsetting the low domestic numbers.

These numbers always lead some to predict the end of moviegoing, but it would be a lie to say that people aren’t still coming out in droves and packing the theatres.  The skyrocketing success of Iron Man 3 has already brought in over $1.2 billion around the world, and is by far the highest grossing movie of the year and another bona fide winner from Marvel.  The fellow superhero saga Man of Steel was another huge success in both domestic and foreign markets.  Animated films have also been doing particularly well over the last little while, with the excellent Pixar prequel Monsters University and the pleasant sequel Despicable Me 2 making up a good chunk of the box office.

It’s just that people are being more discerning about what they do and don’t spend their time and money to go see.  Many of the ones doing well are parts of a preexisting franchise, and also tend to be the sort of event movies that lend themselves well to being seen on a giant screen.  This increasing discernment of audiences is evident in that a lot of the money losers have been the ones that received more negative reviews, where as many of the highest grossing films have received a generally positive response from critics.  But that’s not to say that all of the best movies have become hits, because if that was the case then the outstanding Pacific Rim would have been a much bigger financial success.

When they both spoke out during an interview back in June, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg directly addressed the changing face of moviegoing.  They envisioned a world where the big blockbusters will become full experiences to be enjoyed at a premium price on the best screens possible, while many of the smaller and independent films will find themselves reaching an even bigger audience through digital services.  These theories have been proven time and again throughout the summer.  Although the success of 3D has been declining over the last year, the price of movie tickets are actually at their highest ever, with many audiences opting to pay higher prices for larger formats such as IMAX.

This is hardly news, because things have been clearly heading in this direction for a while.  But it’s also a relevant discussion in the wake of such extreme financial losses.  While going straight to video used to be seen as a sign of defeat, the advance of digital releases is actually proving to be incredibly beneficial for many films.  I’ve seen the future of watching movies, and it exists on a variety of formats that expand beyond the multiplexes and arthouse theatres.  We are even starting to get day and date releases both in theatres and on demand, like what happened on Friday with Nicholas Winding Refn’s shockingly violent and incredibly dividing Only God Forgives, starring Ryan Gosling.

Take for example Lucy Walker’s stunning documentary The Crash Reel, which I wrote about last week and is easily among the best things I’ve seen all year.  The film aired on HBO this past Monday night, and will play on the specialty channel a few more times throughout the summer, before being released in theatres later this fall.  Yes many people will have already seen the film by the time the much deserved theatrical release rolls around, but there will also be a steady fan base and plenty of powerful word of mouth to help advertise the documentary.  As the amount of content trying to find an audience continues to grow, more high quality films will end up being delivered through cable or on demand services.

Just like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg predicted in that interview, there will be several financial losses that could lead to bigger movies costing audiences more to go see, which means that certain films might end up staying even longer in theatres.  This will lead to the smaller films becoming increasingly more available on a variety of widely accessible platforms.  But the art of filmmaking is still incredibly alive, it’s just how the movies are being seen that is currently in the process of changing.

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