The Growing Importance Of Opening Weekend

Since starting this site, I’ve had a growing fascination with metrics by which movies are measured. Being mathematically inclined, I guess it was a nice fit. Plus it’s more interesting to look into the numbers behind some of these movies than it is to watch them.

My history delving into movie numbers only goes back to last September, so I don’t have a long history of knowledge to draw from, but it seems to me that even since just last year, there’s been a noticeable increase in the importance of a movie having a big opening weekend. Sure, having a big opening weekend should always be the goal of a movie, but it takes several weeks for most movies to get near breaking even, that’s generally not even close after one weekend. It follows that of course the first weekend is important, but maximizing the box office of the entire theatrical run should be paramount.

But that isn’t the reality. In practice, as time has gone on, the opening weekend has become the sole focal point and anything after is icing on the cake. The picture in this post isn’t just a nice graphic to visually convey the topic, it’s actually the graph of the weekend totals for Watchmen.

The Holiday (Fall-ish) and Summer movie seasons are when the moneymaking movies are generally released, so we’ll look at those two periods over the years. For the Holiday season, during the 1980′s, the average decline from the first weekend to the second weekend was around 15.7%. In the 1990′s, that average increased to 24.1%. So far in the 2000′s, the average second weekend drop has increased to 31.2%. For the Summer season, the average decline has increased from 30.3% to 38.6% to 48.8%.

So what does that mean? Movies now are getting a higher percentage of their total gross from the opening weekend. They’re building up the hype to give them a big opening and hope some of it spills over into the next few weeks.

Looking at it another way, the percentage of a movie’s box office that comes from the opening weekend has increased over the years. In the 80′s it was 15.7%, 90′s was 21.5%, and the 2000′s is 33.1%. Nowadays a movie’s opening weekend represents twice as much of it’s box office as it did during the 80′s.

Out of the 100 biggest second weekend drops since 1982, three were from the 80′s, 35 from the 90′s, and 62 from the 2000′s.

Of the movies that have debuted in over 3,000 theaters since 1982, the one that has experienced the biggest drop in the second weekend was this year’s Friday the 13th, which dropped 80.4%. X-Men Origins: Wolverine comes in with the sixth biggest drop (69%) and Watchmen the tenth (67.7%). That’s three of the top ten movies that have seen the biggest second weekend drop, all from 2009. The oldest movie in the top 10 is Hulk from 2003. The oldest movie on the list of 58 was Pokeman from 1999.

Let’s take a look at Angels & Demons. It made $46 million it’s first weekend. Based on the averages, it might make around $24 million this weekend and $138 million overall. Using the 1980′s average (with an average 80′s ticket price of $3.41), a movie like A&D would have opened to $22 million, had a second weekend of $15 million, and a total of $140 million. The overall total is nearly identical, but the 80′s opening was less than half the 2009 opening.

There is even a trend developing where movies are relying more heavily on their opening day. The list of movie whose opening Friday represented the biggest percentage of their opening weekend is topped by Hannah Montana the Movie, only a month old. 53.9% of Hannah’s opening weekend came from Friday. Twilight is number two at 51.7%. Think about it: the two movies in the history of movies that have had their opening day represent the biggest portion of their opening weekend were released in the last six months. Four of the top five were released in the last seven months. 20 of the top 100 were released in the past year.

There have been more than 600 movies released into theaters each year since 2006. There aren’t enough screens to go around for everyone to have a nice long run, so studios gear everything toward the opening weekend and hope for the best. With so much resting on that one weekend, if it isn’t big, all hope is lost for the film being financially viable in the near future. Take a movie like Watchmen, with a $150 million budget and a $55 million opening weekend it looked good, but it cut it’s losses after 11 weeks and $107 at the box office, averaging $5.2 million per week after it’s first weekend. Those first three days of a movie’s release have become the most important in the entertainment industry.

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