Predicting the box office

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Kevin Smith, the Gen X director of “Clerks,” “Mallrats,” and other slacker comedies, has never been a hit at the box office. Though a critical darling and favorite of his studio heads, Mr. Smith would never be confused with Judd Apaptow, R-rated comedy hitmaker par excellence. So it was with some interest that I followed the box office receipts for his latest film, “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” a movie I reviewed and enjoyed. The second weekend performance of tween hit “High School Musical 3” was also of some interest; no one seemed sure of the legs this flick would have.

I was a little confused, however, when the studio bean counters and the professional commentariat freaked out after both films tanked on Friday. “HSM3” was down 90% from the Friday previous, an unheard-of decline over one weekend. “Zack and Miri,” meanwhile, opened with just $2.2 million, for an average of just $812 per screen. (Just so you know, that’s terrible. There’s a very funny riff on the commentary track of the “Mallrats” DVD in which he explains just how terrible that sort of Friday is. He should know, since “Mallrats” was a collossal failure at the box office.)

Plugging those Friday numbers into the box office calculators, the experts were predicting dreadful, historically bad weekends for both films. Over at Slash Film, their box office guru predicted, at best, a $6.9 million, 4th place opening bow for Kevin Smith, and as for “HSM3,” he said, “I feel safe in saying that this film will finish in the $75M-$80M domestic range.” Compare that to the $150 million he was predicting last weekend, and you have a rough snapshot of just how badly that Friday number skewed things for people.

How can so many “experts” have been so blindsided by these numbers? Friday was Halloween, right? What are the target demos for those films doing on Friday? Well, the tween set is probably trick or treating, bobbing for apples, and making out at Halloween parties: not going to a theater. And Kevin Smith’s target demo — 18-30 year old males — are at their own parties/bars, getting tipsy and hitting on provocatively costumed lasses. They are also not going to theaters in large numbers.

Predictably, both movies rebounded nicely on Saturday, and while the totals are still mild disappointments they couldn’t possibly be considered a huge suprise. Mr. Smith’s success is going to depend on good word of mouth (which it will almost certainly get) and a decent second weekend — look for a drop of 30% or less (for about $6.5-8 million on the weekend and a $22-24 million cume). “HSM3” is a harder flick to predict: interest might have been too frontloaded for its numbers to keep up. But there’s no real competition for that demo until “Twilight” opens later in the month. I wouldn’t be surprised to see another $10-12 million for “HSM3” next weekend.

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