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What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.
(Photo: electrospray/Flickr)

(Photo: electrospray/Flickr)

The wide-release premiere of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar earlier this month was that rare occasion in contemporary film: the debut of a must-see movie, one that you felt compelled to see the weekend it came out, both to avoid spoilers and so that you wouldn’t be completely left out of every conversation for the following week. In proper deference to the importance of the occasion, I bought tickets ahead of time, for a 5 p.m. showing Saturday (in 35mm). Upon the release of Nolan’s last non-Batman film, Inception, I’d tried and failed to get tickets day of, and when I went to see Gone Girl a month ago—a week after its release, no less—we had to settle for seats in the very front. I wasn’t taking any chances this time.

It turned out that the showing we went to wasn’t even sold out. And Interstellar’s first-weekend gross overall would be short of expectations—it opened to $47 million domestically according to Box Office Mojo, putting it second on the weekend, behind Disney’s Big Hero 6. That gave it the 17th-biggest opening of the year. At $100 million, the biggest opening, which belongs to Transformers: Age of Extinction, took in twice as much as Interstellar did. Websites and pundits wasted no time calling Interstellar’s opening a let-down, while some others rose to its defense.

What’s the truth? That might be the wrong question. First, we need to figure out what even makes a film successful in 2014, with receipts falling overall and video-on-demand changing the industry paradigm in a rapid and inarguable way. And second, we need to decide: Does the opening weekend even matter?

"It used to be, ‘Oh, we didn’t do that well domestically, but it’ll still sell a decent amount on DVD.’ Now it becomes, ‘We didn’t do quite what we hoped in North America, but we’re going to kill it overseas.’”

The $47-million figure is not the full picture when it comes to Interstellar. (As of November 17, after another weekend in wide release, the film is a million dollars away from nine digits domestically.) For an example of why, let’s consult Pacific Rim, the 2013 giant-robot action movie. Domestically, Pacific Rim, which cost $190 million to make, grossed a paltry $101 million, with $37 million of that coming on its opening weekend. It was called a flop, and writers puzzled over its failure even years later. The problem is, Pacific Rim didn’t flop—in fact, it was the second-highest-earning live-action original release of the year, behind only Gravity.

There’s a stark difference between “flop” and “second-highest-earning live-action original release of the year,” and it comes from the worldwide gross. Particularly with blockbusters, the international box office is becoming more and more of a factor in the financial success of movies. The percentages can range: This year’s highest-grossing domestic release, Guardians of the Galaxy, earned 57 percent of its total gross overseas. Meanwhile, Noah, which underperformed in the United States with $101 million in earnings, did gangbusters internationally, bringing in another $261 million—or 72.1 percent of its total gross.

“Judging a movie’s success based on its North American opening weekend is just wildly off base,” says Phil Contrino, the vice president and chief analyst of “People are obsessed with the old model, where you live and die based on North America, but that hasn’t been the case for years now. It used to be, ‘Oh, we didn’t do that well domestically, but it’ll still sell a decent amount on DVD.’ Now it becomes, ‘We didn’t do quite what we hoped in North America, but we’re going to kill it overseas.’”

Let’s look at Interstellar again. Overseas, the movie earned another $83 million, giving it a $130 million first-weekend take. With another weekend in theaters, it’s reached $324 million worldwide. It’s tracking 13 percent ahead of Inception overseas, and six percent ahead of Gravity.Interstellar was not a cheap movie to make or promote—it had a $165 million budget, which, Forbes analyst Scott Mendelson wrote, means it’ll need about $415 million worldwide to ensure profitability, once you factor in publicity and marketing. It’s almost guaranteed to clear that bar with room to spare. (Gravity opened to $55 million, eventually pulling in $274 million domestically and $716 million worldwide. But it did have a few advantages over Interstellar: better reviews, more famous stars, and nearly half the run-time.)

BLOCKBUSTERS AREN’T THE whole story, though. To fully understand the way that we misinterpret movies’ financial success, it’s worth looking at indies as well. I’m not the only person who thinks that the Jake Gyllenhaal thriller Nightcrawler, written and directed by The Bourne Legacy writer Dan Gilroy, is one of the best movies of the year. And in wide release, it took in $10.9 million on its opening weekend, effectively tying it with Ouija for first place. That release happened to fall on Halloween, which, because it was a Friday, did serious damage to the weekend take. But it still led to Nightcrawler’s debut being labeled disappointing or mediocre—despite the exact opposite being true.

Nightcrawler is being handled domestically by indie distributor Open Road Films, and it cost only $8.5 million to make, not including marketing and publicity. (Which, for a movie of this size, isn’t a huge number—much of Nightcrawler’s publicity came from Jake Gyllenhaal’s tireless promotion.) That’s five percent of Interstellar’s budget, and when you can make a movie for that little—particularly one featuring a star like Gyllenhaal—the economics of the release change completely.

“What indies want is a solid, steady run in North America,” Contrino says. “Once you have that successful run in North America, it hits On Demand and iTunes and home viewing, and you have another wave of revenue coming in. If the movie’s even approaching a point in North America where it’s covered production and marketing costs, it’s well on the way to becoming a profitable title.”

Nightcrawler covered its production costs in its first weekend of release. And if Gyllenhaal somehow breaks through the crowded Oscar conversation to snag a Best Actor nomination—he’s being seen as a potential spoilerright now—it’ll mean a huge boost in profile and interest. The mere fact that the movie debuted at #1 is a remarkable achievement considering its humble origins, and it’s already almost caught up to the gross of presumptive Best Picture candidate and fellow indie Boyhood, which first entered theaters in July. Contrino points to movies like Boyhood, as well as Bill Murray vehicle St. Vincent, as films designed to try and benefit from an Academy Award-nomination bump. And, to that group, I’d add Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s outstanding debut starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. If—more likely when—Simmons receives a nomination for his performance, it should ensure renewed interest in the film, which cost a mere $3.5 million to make.

Oscar nominations are hardly out of the question for Interstellar as well, and they’re part of the reason why it’s particularly difficult right now to predict what kind of money it will ultimately make. But you certainly can’t call it a disappointment—yet.