What's the biggest winner at the box office this week?
Is it "300: Rise of an Empire," which debuted atop the chart with an estimated $45.1 million? Maybe, but that film did about as well as expected, and certainly nowhere near the $70.9 million opening of the original "300" seven years ago. Is it "Mr. Peabody & Sherman," which opened in second place with an estimated $32.5 million? That, too, was on the lower end of expectations, and well behind the $43.6 million debut of original cartoon "The Croods" at this time a year ago.
Was it "Frozen," which earned an Oscar bounce of $3 million after winning trophies last weekend for Best Song and Best Animated Feature -- an impressive figure, considering that the movie is already playing at home on many cable providers' video-on-demand services? Was it "12 Years a Slave," which saw a post-Oscar bounce of 123 percent and added another estimated $2.2 million to its theatrical earnings (now totaling $53.1 million), even after having been in theaters for five months?
Let me posit that the biggest box office achievement this week belongs to Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel," which premiered at No. 17 and opened in just four theaters but nonetheless grossed an estimated $800,000. That's an average of $200,000 per venue in just three days. By contrast, the "300" sequel averaged $12,983 per screen, and "Peabody" averaged $8,261.
Still, $200,000 per screen? Without adjusting for inflation, on a per-screen basis, that gives "Budapest" the ninth biggest opening of all time.
I thought Fox Searchlight, the studio behind "Budapest," might have made a rounding error. $20,000 seemed easily possible, but $200,000?
Turns out it's not as outlandish as I thought. Here's how the math breaks down. The film is playing at just four theaters, but those theaters are in New York and Los Angeles, where tickets cost $13 apiece. In each of the two Manhattan theaters, it's screening 10 times a day. In the two Los Angeles theaters, it's screening 16 and 17 times a day, respectively. That adds up to 53 screenings a day. At $13 per ticket, over three days, each screening would have to sell about 387 tickets to gross a total of $800,000. That's an awful lot of tickets per screening (especially for those (9:30 AM and 10 AM shows), but it's not impossible.
Still, how does a modestly-budgeted independent movie, with only modest promotional muscle behind it, land the ninth-biggest opening of all time, especially when blockbusters like "300: Rise of an Empire" and "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" that have huge production and marketing budgets, premiering on upwards of 3,400 screens, can't manage an average that's even in the same ballpark?
For the answer to that question, it's worth checking out Box Office Mojo's list of the biggest debuts per screen of all time. Of the top 10 movies, eight are Disney cartoons, most of which went on to become blockbusters. But, for the most part, they only opened at one or two showcase theaters in Los Angeles a week or two before expanding nationwide. That created the sense of a special event, not to mention the chance to see early the movie everyone else would be talking about in a week or two. As a result, "The Lion King" (which tops the list) managed to average $793,377 on two screens when it opened -- especially impressive at 1994 ticket prices.
The same strategy worked well for other Disney toons, including "Pocahontas" (which averaged $448,285 on six screens in 1995, landing at No. 2 on the list), "The Princess and the Frog," "Toy Story 2," "A Bug's Life," "Hercules," "Frozen," and even "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" (a movie that flopped nationwide but still averaged $164,505 on two screens its first weekend, to place at No. 10 on this list). Besides "Budapest," the only movie in the top 10 that's not a Disney cartoon is Kevin Smith's 2011 film "Red State" (No. 8, with $204,230 from one screen), which was also marketed as a unique event, with Smith taking distribution into his own hands and claiming the film would be his last.
So it helps if a movie is seen as special. Scarcity of theaters actually helps in this regard; how special can a movie be if it's opening on 4,000 screens? (Few of the movies on the list opened on more than 10 screens; By these standards, the only wide-release movies that qualify as true events -- movies that everyone simply felt they had to see opening weekend despite their ubiquity -- were "The Avengers" (No. 100, averaging $47,698 per screen on 4,349 screens) and "Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour" (No. 110, averaging $45,561 on 683 screens).
Anderson's movie hasn't been hyped as a special event, but then Fox Searchlight didn't have to sell it that way. Among indie audiences, Anderson's movies are so beloved that each one is automatically an event. In fact, all six of Anderson's movies since 2001's "The Royal Tenenbaums" are among the top 75 films on the list. Other auteurist directors whose histories of delivering personal visions are enough to draw opening weekend crowds in limited release include Woody Allen, Pedro Almodovar, Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Tim Burton, Terrence Malick, Sam Mendes, Michael Moore, and Alexander Payne, all of whom appear on the list multiple times.
Of course, just because a movie earns a large per-screen average during a limited-release opening doesn't mean it'll do well once it expands nationwide. Indeed, a lot of these directors seem to have large fanbases in Los Angeles and New York who will come out opening weekend but few fans elsewhere who are as devoted.
Still, bragging rights are bragging rights. If Fox Searchlight can boast the ninth biggest opening weekend of all time for "The Grand Budapest Hotel," won't that make everyone else between Los Angeles and New York wonder what they're missing and inspire them to see the film once it does open in their hometowns?
That's the hope, at any rate. And if it doesn't work out this time, it'll probably be only two or three more years before Anderson sets out to challenge his own record with his next release.
[Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight]