Box office analysts aren’t perfect.
This small, dedicated group reads the cinematic tea leaves when a new film reaches the marketplace. The science behind this process is evolving, says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com.
Robbins and his fellow box office gurus have more tools at their disposal than ever before. Still, no one could have predicted a pandemic shuttering theaters for months at a time.
Given traditional times, though, box office experts rely on a number of credible ways to predict Hollywood futures.
“Tracking has evolved to include not just traditional surveys of small-to-moderate samples, but wider movie-going insights that are demonstrated by social media platforms,” Robbins says. “Fifteen years ago, word of mouth and pre-release buzz was far more confined than it is now. That factors into the assessment of many major films before and after release in this day and age.”
That doesn’t discount the “gut” factor, something a chart or viral Tweet can’t necessarily duplicate. The best method captures both approaches.
“There’s an eyeball test that’s still required very often, a test that includes understanding marketing and films as a whole from the perspective of mass appeal,” he says.
A good comparison is building a great baseball team based on raw data, like home runs and slugging percentages.
“You can build a team to win the marathon of a season based on statistical averages, but that doesn’t always pan out in the short sprint to a playoff championship,” he says. “Sometimes a movie just has the ‘it’ factor, and that can transcend any available data.”
Think “under-served audiences … nostalgic and generational demand and sheer cultural importance,” he says.
Here are 13 other films that blew past expert predictions to become unabashed hits.
‘A Quiet Place’ (2018)
Horror movies routinely over-perform at the box office. That often translates into the $12-15 million range, a fine ROI for a project that likely cost that amount, or much less if the Blumhouse sticker is attached to it.
This mainstream shocker let comic actor John Krasinski take a spin behind the camera, and the results were nothing less than extraordinary -- $50 million on its opening weekend en route to a $188 million total stateside.
The movie delivered shocks, thrills and more, but the director/star offers another rationale for the film. It was, he says, a “love letter to his kids.”
‘Crazy Rich Asians’ (2018)
This smart rom-com made roughly half of what “A Quiet Place” earned during that critical first weekend, but the film had “legs,” as they say in Hollywood. Rom-coms are increasingly rare on the big screen, with few actors able to pick up the Hanks/Ryan mantle.
“Asians” bullied past that trend, showcasing the glory of western culture while offering a fresh perspective from the standard New York City Boy meets Brooklyn Gal model.
It helped that Warner Bros. directly tapped the under-served Asian-American demographic, and robust word of mouth ensued.
‘Dirty Dancing’ (1987)
This film’s surprise box office tally -- $63 million at U.S. theaters -- tells just part of the story. Yes, the film nearly cracked the year’s Top 10 list and proved a word-of-mouth sensation after a modest start. “Dirty Dancing” didn’t stop there, becoming a cultural juggernaut in the process. Dance class attendance soared. The film’s soundtrack rushed up the charts and the VHS version proved a sensation.
PERSONAL NOTE: This critic worked at a New York video rental store in 1988 when the film hit VHS. The bosses had to change the store’s reservation policy due to intense, sustained demand.
‘The Sixth Sense’ (1999)
Director M. Night Shyamalan earned his “next Spielberg” status with this runaway smash. The film, a haunting meditation on death starring Bruce Willis, earned close to $300 million at a time when that figure was rare, indeed. The studio in question had so much confidence in the film’s box office chances it released the title … in August, where many a film goes to die.
The film’s holding power remains extraordinary:
In each of its first five weekends, it made $26 million, then $25 million, then $23 million, then $20 million, and then $29 million (over Labor Day weekend).
The movie cemented Shyamalan’s reputation as an A-list auteur, an unofficial title that took a hit with subsequent duds like “The Lady in the Water” and “After Earth.”
‘The Blair Witch Project’ (1999)
Found footage horror went the way of pagers and fax machines, thank goodness, but for one glorious moment the concept powered a horror movie like few others.
No stars. A microscopic budget. Zero name recognition. So what did “Blair Witch” have on its side? Mystery … and an ad campaign that suggested the horrors captured on screen actually happened.
That’s nonsense, of course, but that piqued our collective curiosity to the tune of $140 million. The film’s budget? $60,000.
Sure, “Blair Witch” generated the proverbial “buzz” from its splashy Sundance Film Festival debut. That doesn’t always translates into hard box office numbers, but it sure did here.
‘Paranormal Activity’ (2007)
The spiritual cousin to “Blair Witch” is one of Hollywood’s most profitable releases. The film earned $107 million from its $15,000 budget and spawned a successful franchise based on security cameras.
We’ve seen plenty of films fumble the found footage conceit, but this one clicked by reminding us how vulnerable we feel at night. It’s worth noting Steven Spielberg circled the film with designs on remaking it with far more cash. The original vision polled so well with early viewers it forced the “Jaws” director to scuttle those plans.
‘The Passion of the Christ’ (2004)
Want a recipe for box office poison? Start with a director with a reputation for anti-Semitic feelings. Add dialogue from another era and a cast with zero stars of consequence. Make it as faith-friendly as possible, but with sequences that would make torture porn fans wince.
Add it all up, and you’ve got “Passion,” which earned an astounding $370 million.
A small, passionate group of fans got to know Sacha Baron Cohen from his trippy TV effort “Da Ali G Show.” The otherwise unknown star fused “Candid Camera” pranks with scripted fare to create “Borat,” a comedy with a subtitle too unwieldy to remember. The film’s biggest star? Pamela Anderson, playing herself in a glorified cameo.
It didn’t matter. Audiences ate every bit of the shtick up. The results? The movie raked in $26 million from well under 1,000 theaters (837, to be precise). A star was born (even if Cohen’s career has slid steadily downhill since then) and a massive $128 million at the U.S. box office.
The legend of director Zack Snyder officially starts with this visually stunning tale. The marketing team behind “300” trotted out the usual tricks, from teasing the production at Comic-Con to incorporating video game tie-ins to goose interest in a film with no bankable stars.
It worked. The movie helped the careers of both Gerard Butler and Lena Headey while making Snyder a Hollywood power player. Time magazine praised the film’s marketing more than the actual content, but we’ve seen plenty of movies squander their buzz in record time.
“Snakes on a Plane,” anyone?
“300” wasn’t historically accurate (though not to the degree some claimed), and its lavish look often overshadowed the story in play. None of that matters as “300” muscled its way to $210 million at the U.S. box office.
Remember when Peter Farrelly ditched gross out comedy to direct “Green Book,” which went on to become 2018’s Best Picture Oscar winner?
In 1990,. one of the men responsible for “Airplane!” and “Top Secret” switched gears just as violently to bring us “Ghost,” a romance/thriller/supernatural yarn with limited box office appeal.
Jerry Zucker’s “Ghost” crushed the competition, landed co-star Whoopi Goldberg a Best Supporting Actress Oscar and made pottery classes hopelessly hip. The film’s $217 million box office tally is impressive, of course, but its cultural impact dwarfed those figures. Sales for the classic love song, 1955’s “Unchained Melody” (originally written for a prison movie) soared all over again thanks to its critical use in the film, and stars Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze earned sizable career boosts.
‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (2008)
In an alternate universe, this vibrant tale would have made a few million on the arthouse movie circuit and called it a day. The film’s original release schedule had it going straight to home video until wiser heads prevailed.
Instead, Danny Boyle’s irresistible film made $141 million en route to winning that year’s Best Picture trophy.
Why was “Slumdog Millionaire” so successful?
The film itself deserves plenty of credit, focusing on a Mumbai teen but tapping universal feelings of loneliness, grief and a hunger to improve one’s lot in life. Boyle’s kinetic director certainly helped, turning an often-grim tale into one teeming with color, texture and, most of all, hope.
‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ (2002)
Modern comedies are lucky to crack the $50 million mark these days. This indie gem, written by and starring then-unknown Nia Vardalos, hauled in $241 million. That’s an astounding figure back in 2002 … and now, too.
Vardalos’ vision remained simple and perfectly populist. Forge a sweet romance with an uber-nuclear family brimming with oddities -- but never mock them out of hate or disgust.
The story began as a one-woman play which caught the attention of actress Rita Wilson. She and her husband, Tom Hanks, wanted to turn the story into a feature film. The duo resisted casting anyone but Vardalos in the lead role, one of many shrewd decisions which led to its phenomenal success.
How phenomenal? The movie earned a 6,150 percent return on its investment.
‘March of the Penguins’ (2005)
Blame Michael Moore. The far-left filmmaker changed documentaries forever with early smashes like “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Those films, despite their inaccuracies, made serious coin. That was unheard of for the sober film genre.
“Penguins” is nothing like a Moore opus, but the film made $77.4 million, falling behind “Fahrenheit 9/11” as the top grossing doc of all time. If anyone saw this intimate, impeccably crafted film and predicted those numbers … they’re either lying or possess a silver DeLorean.
Best of all? The film opened on just four screens -- hardly a sign of confidence from the film’s marketing team. That approach worked, leveraging strong reviews and word of mouth power to state its case.
Mark Gill, president of Warner Independent Pictures, screened the French version of the film at the Sundance Film Festival. He ended up buying the feature, generating less than positive press in the process.
“At the time, Premiere magazine actually made fun of me and said, `What was Mark Gill thinking when he paid a million dollars for a French documentary about a bunch of penguins?’ But now that it’s earned $77 million, I actually look not like an idiot, but a genius.”