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Box Office: The role of Valentine’s Day weekend in February film successes and flops

(Jae Su/Daily Bruin)

By Ryan Wu

March 6, 2020 12:09 p.m.

Did audiences fall in love at the box offices this year? For now, let’s call it “mixed feelings.”

This year’s February was an eventful one, beginning with the surprise underperformance of “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” before swinging around to a stuffed Valentine’s Day weekend. That in itself is something worth noting – this is the first time since 2014 that Valentine’s Day fell on a Friday.

Normally, this would just be a simple horological curiosity, but when it comes to the box office, dates – especially holidays – are actually very important for understanding why a movie performs the way it does.

For example, movies released in summer tend to have more weekday business than those released in spring or fall because more kids are out of school and able to go to the theaters. On the flip side, movies tend to do worse in months like January and August, because kids and college students are going back to school and they still have to compete with the blockbusters released over winter and summer vacations.

Holidays are similarly important. For example, why did “Doctor Sleep,” a critically acclaimed sequel to a classic horror film, flop last year? Part of it may be because it was released after Halloween; a weekend before and the movie might’ve been able to capitalize on the spooky season.

So what about this year’s Valentine’s Day?

First up, let’s take a look at the opening weekends. This year’s Valentine’s Day weekend saw four wide releases, in order of opening weekend grosses: Paramount Pictures’ “Sonic the Hedgehog,” Sony Pictures Releasing’s “Fantasy Island,” Universal Pictures’ “The Photograph” and Searchlight Pictures’ “Downhill.”

While there’s probably something to be said about the other releases – “Sonic the Hedgehog’s” massive success or “Downhill” going, well, downhill – the more interesting stories come from the weekend’s two middling performers, “The Photograph” and “Fantasy Island.”

Both at least made sense for the Valentine’s Day weekend: One was an out-and-out romantic drama that captured younger audiences while the other was a PG-13 horror movie, which usually does well with young couples.

Overall, neither did atrociously, at least in the opening weekend; both earned around $13 million and $14 million, respectively. You’d think that they’d both have unremarkable runs, with “The Photograph” as the long-term winner. That movie boasted a decent audience rating of B+ according to polling service CinemaScore, whereas “Fantasy Island” was a poorly reviewed horror film with tepid word-of-mouth.

In a typical situation, this would mean that “The Photograph” would have better “legs,” or ticket sales after the opening weekend, than “Fantasy Island.” After all, if a movie is well-received by audiences, then it stands to reason that they’d tell their friends about it and encourage them to go see it long after the movie’s release date.

But then, a funny thing happened. Usually, box office watchers use the “second-weekend drop” – how much less business a movie did on its second weekend compared to its first – as a bellwether for a movie’s legs. “Fantasy Island” dropped 65% on its second weekend, which is relatively average for its genre. “The Photograph,” however, suffered a rout; it dropped nearly 77% from its opening, the 25th biggest drop ever recorded to date.

Why would this occur when audiences gave it a decent B+ rating? Well, the answer may lie in the date.

After all, “The Photograph” was a romantic drama opening on Valentine’s Day on Friday, so it stands to reason that most of its business is going to be driven by Valentine’s Day. As such, it might be less a matter of audiences hating the film and telling their friends to stay away and more a matter of people rushing out to see the movie on Valentine’s Day weekend.

Taking a look back at 2014 is also constructive: Two romance movies, “Endless Love” and “About Last Night,” were released on Valentine’s Day weekend on Friday to even better audience reviews than “The Photograph,” both A-. They dropped 70% and 71%, respectively.

It might seem like just a simple detail, but details like this help tell a fuller story than just, “Audiences hated this movie and that’s why they stopped showing up.” To quote the Facebook relationship status, “It’s complicated.”

Pulling back and appreciating what kinds of movies do well on what dates – and how one can take advantage of that information – may be a big help for any School of Theater, Film and Television Bruin trying to win an audience’s heart.

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Ryan Wu
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