A recent news story reported that while fewer 2006 movies have broken the $150 million mark (13 in 2005 and only 7 in 2006) the overall box office has been much higher. That's good news for everyone; it corresponds to a New York Times magazine story from a few months ago. With new types of tracking tools, companies are realizing that there's good money to be made from smaller items. While one super-widget may make a ton of money and look good on the record books, the combination of the sales of hundreds of smaller widgets may actually equal that sum.
For example, Apple has noticed that, while iTunes has its best-selling songs that rank in the top 100 each day, they also do good business on older songs. Virtually every song in their catalog gets downloaded at least once every few months. This is called "individual taste" and it assumes that customers are human beings.
A few weeks ago I wrote that, while X-Men: The Last Stand (53 screens) and the year's other top blockbusters have earned big bucks, that does not necessarily guarantee that everyone actually liked the film. Everyone who saw the film had to plunk down the exact same $9, but their voices and opinions were not actually recorded. Frankly, it's highly unlikely that the 35 million people (give or take) that saw the film all felt the exact same way about it.
And yet, that's precisely how Hollywood has perceived us over the past decades. They look at that one giant number and assume that it's a vote for the film's excellence.
Hopefully studios will begin unraveling this year's box-office take, discovering that small comedies like Thank You for Smoking (59 screens) -- a smart, well-written film with an ensemble cast and no high-concept ideas -- earned nearly $25 million on a $6.5 million budget. That number, $25 million, looks pretty paltry compared to X-Men's $234 million, and it's understandable why studio executives tend to ignore the smaller of the two; after all, they're more worried about keeping their jobs than about making good movies.
Another factor in this year's trend could be the rampant slew of bad movies that have not screened for the press. When the two big Hollywood releases of the weekend, say The Wicker Man and Crank, do not have reviews in the local paper, editors are forced to move the smaller movies up to page one.
Here are a few other, small films that contributed to the good health of the year's box office take. Kevin Smith's Clerks II (59 screens), ironically, was made for roughly $5 million -- about 200 times the budget of his original 1994 film -- but it has grossed over $24 million so far.
Woody Allen once remarked that Annie Hall was the lowest-grossing Academy Award winner in history. He received his worst reviews in some time for the very funny Scoop (165 screens), but -- perhaps aided by the presence of Scarlett Johansson -- it's a genuine hit. It has earned over $10 million on a reported $4 million budget.
I haven't been able to track down the production budget for An Inconvenient Truth, but I'd be willing to wager that, with its $24 million gross, it's in the black. And that's good news for the whole planet as well as for movie fans.
Another documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car? (58 screens) -- which is sort of a companion piece to An Inconvenient Truth -- has apparently turned a profit, grossing $1.4 million on a $1 million budget. And the very popular doc Wordplay (28 screens) has pulled in $3 million on a reported $500,000 budget (not bad for a movie with Bill Clinton, Ken Burns and Jon Stewart in its "cast").
The same goes for Robert Atlman's A Prairie Home Companion (90 screens); no budget information is available, but it has a respectable $20 million gross, and Altman has never been a spendthrift.
There's also a tiny British drama, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, which opened last May and has been steadily playing all summer. Oscar nominee Joan Plowright (Enchanted April) stars. It has reportedly doubled its tiny $750,000 budget with a $1.5 million gross. I never saw this movie, and it fell completely off my radar, but it's a perfect example that all kinds of people -- not just teenage boys -- go to the movies.
Two more: their budget info is unavailable, but The Proposition and Water have raked in nearly $2 million and over $3 million respectively. I liked the guy flick (The Proposition) and hated the chick flick (Water), but that didn't stop audiences from making up their own minds.
Maybe studios will begin to notice these films. I'm sure their initial reaction will be to try to make copies of these small hits, and throw more money at them to make them bigger and advertise them more, but the trick is even simpler: hire smart, talented filmmakers and let them do what they want.