LOS ANGELES | A Warner Bros. executive emailed a fact sheet about “The Dark Knight Rises” to Hollywood reporters a few days ago and ended with two hopeful syllables for the film’s box-office prospects: “Ka ching.”
Cash registers have indeed been ringing at theaters worldwide this weekend as millions shell out for the finale to Christopher Nolan’s epic Batman trilogy. But the shootings that left 12 dead and 58 wounded at a “Dark Knight Rises” screening in Colorado on Friday have silenced the usual box-office crowing by studios to let the world know they’ve unleashed another blockbuster.
Warner, the studio behind the Batman flicks, decided to hold off on releasing debut numbers for “The Dark Knight Rises” this weekend out of respect to the shooting victims and their families. Other studios followed suit, saying that like Warner, they would not issue their usual Sunday estimates, waiting instead until Monday, when they normally release final dollar counts for the weekend.
It’s an unusual show of harmony in a business where studios jostle and elbow one another for the right to proclaim in ads: “The No. 1 movie in America!”
There’s no doubt that “The Dark Knight Rises” will be the No. 1 film in America and beyond. Before Warner opted against weekend box-office reporting, the studio announced that the film took in $30.6 million domestically from shows that started just after midnight Friday, including the one in Aurora, Colo., where a gunman opened fire on an audience eager to be among the first to see the film.
That was the second-best result ever for a midnight debut, trailing only Warner’s “Harry Potter” finale with $43.5 million over the same weekend last summer. Trade papers Hollywood Reporter and Variety were projecting about $75 million for the film’s full first day Friday, which could result in a three-day weekend haul of around $170 million, second only to last May’s “The Avengers” at $207.4 million and ahead of the then-record $158.4 million for 2008’s “The Dark Knight.”
But Hollywood’s radio silence on box office this weekend leaves a curious void. No top-10 list for movie fans to mull over. No studio executives sharing audience age and gender breakdowns. No analysts slicing and dicing the numbers to determine if overall business was better than the same weekend’s a year ago. No one reducing movies to the simple thumbs-up, thumbs-down judgment of whether they made too much or too little money.
The question on this box-office-less weekend is: Will anyone really miss it?
Sure, people like lists and rankings. Publishing has its best-seller lists, music has its pop charts, TV has its Nielsen ratings.
Many movie fans have an idle curiosity to see how particular releases do, some holding off on deciding if they’ll see a film until they know if it’s a hit or a flop. Yet most people are either sold on seeing a film based on the marketing or they’ll wait until trusted friends catch it and give it a recommendation or a raspberry.
For books and music, the rankings simply say what’s selling the best, and Nielsen ratings provide context on what share of the overall audience a show grabs.
Hollywood box office is all about dollars, the numbers always climbing, the records always shooting higher. But box-office receipts provide only a narrow glimpse of show business.
A movie that hauls in $150 million might sound like a winner, but it may have cost twice that much to make and market, and studios have to share the receipts with theaters. Conversely, a movie might flop with $50 million domestically but do two or three times that much business overseas and manage at least to make back its money.
Inflation raises a bigger issue in gauging box-office records by cash alone. Publishing and music count success in terms of units sold, and some countries measure films the same way, by the number of tickets they sell.
Hollywood perpetually breaks box-office records largely because ticket prices keep going up. In 2002, “Spider-Man” did what had been unthinkable to box-office analysts, pulling in $114.8 million to become the first movie to top $100 million over opening weekend.
This summer, over the same May weekend 10 years later, “The Avengers” did today’s equivalent of the unthinkable with the first $200 million debut.
Average ticket prices in 2002: $5.80, meaning about 20 million tickets sold for “Spider-Man” over opening weekend. Average ticket prices today: $7.83, meaning about 26 million tickets sold for “The Avengers” in its first weekend.
But the ticket price for “The Avengers” would average out quite a bit higher because much of its business came from 3-D screenings, which cost a few extra dollars. With today’s market-saturation release pattern, “The Avengers” also played on far more screens than “Spider-Man” did.
Likewise, “The Dark Knight Rises” is playing only in 2-D, so it’s a superhero flick probably destined to be less of a box-office spectacle than “Avengers” because no one’s paying extra to watch it wearing, well, spectacles.
Inflation really makes a difference gauging all-time box-office sensations. “Avatar,” ”Titanic,” ”The Avengers” and other top-grossing modern movies have more cash in the bank but lag behind such older films as “Gone with the Wind,” ”Star Wars” and “The Sound of Music” in terms of actual tickets sold.
Warner and other studios did the right thing in muzzling the box-office machine this weekend. Counting dollars is trivial in light of the tragedy in Colorado.
But then, is it any less trivial this weekend than the other 51 weekends of the year?