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$20 Million Now, $20 Million Then – How Star Wars Changed Movie Math

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There he goes, there goes Speed Racer — right into a wall: Last weekend Speed Racer crashed and burned at the box office, pulling in a feeble $20 million. This gives 2008 its first major SF/F flop and assures that Warner Bros and its financing partners are going to eat most of the rumored $150 million production cost of the film (not to mention the additional tens of millions for marketing). Right now, the Wachowskis are sitting in a dark room, looking at the numbers and realizing that they really do have to stop cruising on the cred they earned on the original Matrix flick — that’s all gone now.

If Only the Wachowskis Had Released Speed Racer 31 Years Earlier
Because here’s something interesting: On July 15, 1977, after several weeks in limited release, official wide release and pulled in $6.8 million for the weekend , which, adjusted for inflation, would be about $20.9 million dollars today. Star Wars would go on to make more than $300 million in its initial release (a gobsmacking $930 million or so in 2008 dollars), and, of course, go down in movie history, spawning a franchise that is even now dropping films into theaters. (The animated Clone Wars, heading to screens in August.)

So, the question, which the Wachowskis might ruefully ask, is: Why does a $20 million opening spell disaster for Speed Racer today when its equivalent was absolutely fantastic for Star Wars, back in the day? Movies are still the same strips of images on film stock in 2008 as they were in 1977 — has everything else about movies changed so much?

Well, yes. Movies are physically the same objects they were 31 years ago (although probably not for long, as more theaters go digital), and people still go to theaters to see them. But everything else about the mechanics of making money at the movies has changed.

In 1977, for example, if you were suggest to a movie executive that you should open a film in 3,600 theaters, like Speed Racer was last weekend, you would get a blank, non-comprehending stare. Star Wars — and nearly every other movie of the time — had its debut on just a few dozen theaters: 43, in the case of Star Wars, all clustered in and around major metro areas. If a movie did well, they’d add a few dozen more screens the next week, and a few dozen more the week after that, and so on. In all of 1977, the movie never made it into more than 1,100 theaters — less than a third of Speed Racer’s opening weekend count.

You would think that smaller number of theaters would cut down on the amount of money you could make — and indeed, all through 1977, Star Wars never managed to make more than $7.7 million a weekend (about $25 million today). But what Star Wars could do that Speed Racer and other movies today generally can’t is just keep running. From its first limited release on Memorial Day weekend, 1977, Star Wars stayed in movie theaters for nearly an entire year, and for that year, experienced very small drop-offs in business from weekend to weekend: Between ten and twenty percent each weekend. Compare this to last year’s $300 million in six weeks — and experienced 40 to 50 percent dropoffs in attendance each week. In both their eras, Star Wars and Transformers are state-of-the-art blockbusters, in terms of how they made their money — it’s just that the state of the art evolved.

How It Evolved
One: The studios recognized that when a movie is
released at the right time — say, summer — you can get more people
(read: Kids) into the theaters and make more money faster. Two:
The studios have changed the way they share money with theaters, so now
it’s no longer as advantageous for a theater to keep a film for a long
period of time. Three: Theatrical release is no
longer where movie studios make most of their money; it comes from home video, toys and other ancillary markets.

When did all this start changing? If you guessed, oh, probably right after Star Wars came out, you’d be perfectly correct.

Speed Racer is doomed: There’s no chance that Speed will get up to speed from here. Tomorrow the family audiences that were supposed to go see it will go flock to Prince Caspian instead, and then the weekend after that, Indiana Jones is back. Speed Racer
will be in the second-run movie theaters by the first week in June,
with nothing to else to look forward to until its financial afterlife
on DVD and HBO. All because of two $20 million opening weekends: Its
own, and the one Star Wars had, adjusted for inflation, 31 years ago.

Winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John
Scalzi is the author of
The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies as well as the
novels Old Man’s War and the upcoming Zoe’s Tale. His column appears
every Thursday.

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