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Seeing the Bright Side of Dark of the Moon

In the mail, a question from someone who clearly knows how to poke me right in the eye:

Any thoughts for us on the box office performance of Transformers: Dark of the Moon last weekend? We all know how much you love that series.

Heh. The sarcasm! It burns! And actually, yes, I have a number of thoughts.

First, the over $160 million that Dark of the Moon pulled in
domestically in its first five days is objectively excellent by any sane
standard, and surprisingly good considering the handicap it had coming
after the second Transformers film, which is universally acknowledged —
even by the filmmakers — as being one of the crappiest films of the
last several years. That there would be a third Transformers film was
not surprising (crappy or not, Revenge of the Fallen grossed $800
million worldwide, which is a hard figure to ignore), but it had vast
potential to be a (relative) failure out of the box, because the
audiences burned by Fallen might have chosen to stay home.

In
that respect, the filmmakers owning up to the rankness of the second
film was a smart marketing strategy, because it gave audiences the idea
that the latest edition wouldn’t be insultingly bad. Also a smart
strategy: actually making Dark of the Moon a better movie than the last one. This is different than making a good film, mind you. But with the Transformers you take what you can get. So well done, Michael Bay and pals, or at least, better done.

Second, with about 60% of its domestic gross coming from 3D showings, Dark of the Moon
shows there are still some films people want to see in three
dimensions, if the process is handled well (most reviews of the film
gave a thumbs up to the 3D aspect of the film, even if they gave a
thumbs down to the rest of it). I suspect that the 60% 3D gross figure
could eventually become the goal for high-end, effects-heavy “event”
films, since the 75% 3D grosses of Avatar have shown to be
unsustainable in the long run. I think 60% would be a slightly more
realistic goal regarding the potential of the process, at least as it
concerns Hollywood bean counters.

Third, with a spectacular international gross of $210 million in its first five days, Dark of the Moon continues
2011’s major film story, which is that it’s the international, not
domestic, market that’s the true economic engine for the film industry
(it doesn’t hurt that 70% of the international grosses were from 3D as
well). The film’s worldwide $370 million gross in five days also means
it has an excellent chance to creep into the $1 billion club, even if
the North American market doesn’t perform as strongly as it did for the
other films in the series. Just ask Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
about that: It cracked the $1 billion worldwide mark this last weekend,
with more than three-quarters of that coming from overseas markets.
Sorry, North America. Your tastemaking dominance was fun while it
lasted.

What will be interesting will be to see how Dark of the Moon
fares next weekend. Will the film’s relative improvements over the
second installment keep it going strongly, or will it see the same 60%
drop that the last film in the series suffered? My prediction is that it
will hold up at least a little better than the last Transformers film,
partly because it’s a better film — again, relatively speaking — and
partly because next week’s “big” release is Zookeeper, a family comedy starring Kevin James, which I don’t really expect to suck away too many of Dark of the Moon’s core market of young men (or, for that matter, any of Moon‘s 3D screens).

The
other interesting thing will be to see where the Transformers series
goes from here. Michael Bay and Transformers series star Shia LeBoeuf
have both indicated in interviews that they’ve seen this as the final
installment of a trilogy, which is all well and good. On the other hand,
it’s hard to see either Dreamworks or Paramount, the two studios
involved in the production of the films, so casually walking away from a
series that makes that much damn money, especially if Dark of the Moon
ends up performing as well as I expect it to. Which leads me to make
the following, probably completely safe prediction: With or without Bay
and LeBoeuf, we haven’t heard the last of the Transformers. Yes, I know.
I’m scared too.

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