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Box Office: January, February releases prove a movie’s profitability depends on many factors

(Jae Su/Daily Bruin)

By Ryan Wu

Feb. 11, 2020 5:05 p.m.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that a foreign film won Best Picture for the first time. In fact, it was the first time a foreign-language film won Best Picture.

This post was updated Feb. 13 at 1:52 p.m.

In just the first two months of 2020, film fans have plenty of upsets to discuss.

If a foreign-language film winning Best Picture for the first time ever wasn’t enough, the box office also saw its fair share of surprises with releases from the month of January.

Knock yourself out of that post-Oscars haze, because we’re looking at three different movies that were released in January and early February and how they reached – or didn’t reach – their audiences.

Streaming has raised the bar for what audiences are willing to pay for. Midbudget movies have become bigger risks, while special-effects-driven spectacle movies have only become bigger successes. It’s unlikely that this trend is reversing anytime soon, either. Just this past month, Paramount-owner ViacomCBS announced its starting its own streaming service. As audiences become increasingly pickier about what they watch, it’s a good time to start asking each theatrical release: “Who is this movie made for?”

In the loser’s column, we have last month’s Robert Downey, Jr. blockbuster “Dolittle.” Pun enthusiasts among you need not note that a movie called “Dolittle” ironically did little at the box office – Hollywood journalists have already done so. But in all seriousness, it’s not doing great. After opening to $29.5 million in the U.S. and Canada over the four-day Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, the movie has gone on to make $158.7 million worldwide, including $64 million in America, as of Feb. 9.

Put against a $175 million budget, you may think that the movie is close to recouping its investment, but not so fast. Typically, a studio takes about half of what a movie makes in American theaters, with the theaters themselves taking the rest. For a variety of reasons – including different currencies – the amount a studio gets from the international box office is often less.

In all, the rough formula for how much money a studio gets from the box office is a little over 50% of the domestic/American gross and 40% of the international gross besides China, which has its own rules. In China, studios generally get about 25% of the box office.

There are also additional considerations besides theatrical rights: Studios can make additional money by selling through home video or by selling the streaming rights to Netflix, while the budget for a film doesn’t usually include marketing costs, which can rise to over $100 million. In general, you can estimate the break-even point for a blockbuster film like “Dolittle” is 2.5 times the budget.

That’s where the math gets tougher for the movie. 2.5 times the budget for “Dolittle” is $437.5 million, almost certainly out of reach at this point, especially with China having recently closed cinemas to combat the spread of coronavirus. In all, experts are expecting a loss of between $50 million to almost $100 million for Universal Studios.

In some ways, “Dolittle” is actually doing alright when compared to similar releases. In the film industry, analysts use comps – short for “comparables” – as a way of gauging how well a movie does. Analysts control for things like what genre the movie is, what kinds of audiences they’re trying to draw in, what time of year they release in, if they share a similar plot or actors or themes, etc.

For “Dolittle” specifically, comps include 2015’s “Paddington,” which also opened on MLK Weekend to the tune of about $25.5 million and 2016’s “Monster Trucks,” which opened to a dismal $14.1 million. The real problems arise from the budget. “Paddington” was a success when compared to its $55 million budget, while “Dolittle” very certainly was not.

It’s not doom and gloom for every movie, though.

Sony Picture’s “Bad Boys for Life” became a surprise hit, garnering one of the largest opening weekends ever for a movie released in January at over $73 million over four days.

The “Bad Boys” surprise victory comes in stunning contrast to last weekend’s shock underperformer, the Margot Robbie-produced “Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn,” which opened to an underwhelming $33 million stateside. It’s tougher to compare overseas grosses, because “Bad Boys” has a different release schedule in many countries compared to “Birds of Prey.”

Box office analysts have thrown around myriad reasons why “Bad Boys” succeeded and why “Birds of Prey” didn’t, but for now it might be best to talk about intended audiences. Both movies are part of a franchise with built-in audiences and both are R-rated because of language and violence. Part of the reason one succeeded where another failed is that one appealed to its intended audience and the other didn’t.

Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at boxoffice.com, told Business Insider that “Bad Boys” succeeded in part by giving adult audiences something to watch after a December full of family fare. Fans of the Michael Bay originals were eager for more hyper-violent action, which according to many critics, the movie delivered in spades.

“Birds of Prey” was not so lucky. Deadline’s Anthony D’Alessandro wrote that part of the movie’s meltdown is attributable to the fact that most Harley Quinn fans are teenagers who are unable to regularly see R-rated movies. As such, despite positive response from teenaged audiences, most were unable to even see the movie in the first place.

This is all simplified, and there are tons of other factors to consider, including marketing, release date, stars and brand. But for now, one takeaway for the Bruins who will go on to be directors and writers and producers and moguls is to always think about who would want to watch the movie. Will family or adult audiences turn out for stars like Downey or Will Smith? Is an R-rating for content worth it if it’ll keep your primary audience out of theaters?

After all, if nobody wants to watch, then what’s the point?

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Ryan Wu
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