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Lessons from the Success of “Chronicle”

Chronicle, the science fiction film about teenagers getting superpowers somewhat ahead of the morality required to wield them responsibly, brought in $22 million over the Super Bowl weekend. This was good enough for a first-place finish at the box office, and the fourth-best Super Bowl weekend result ever. It did much better than anyone expected.

What can we learn from the film’s surprising success?

1. Cheap Is Not Bad

Chronicle cost about $12 million to make. To put that in perspective, Paramount paid about 30% of that to advertise The Avengers for 30 seconds during the Super Bowl itself. By bringing in $22 million its first weekend, the film has pretty much paid for itself right out of the box, even on one of the traditionally least-trafficked movie weekends of the year. 

Bear in mind that cheap is not enough; lots of low-budget films sink below the waves and lose money for their backers. Chronicle benefited from being part of the “found footage” genre, which is not only popular (see: Paranormal Activity) but also hides a low budget by making the film intentionally look like amateur video. It also helped that, despite being a small-budget film, it had major-league distribution through 20th Century Fox, which put it into nearly 3,000 theaters.

2. Super Bowl Weekend Movies Aren’t Just for Women/Horror Fans Anymore

Traditionally, Super Bowl weekends have been when studios punt films that appeal to the double-X chromosome set or horror fans. This is not an entirely stupid thing to do, as prior to this weekend, nine of the ten top Super Bowl weekend films were either women-oriented or horror (and those horror films most often with a female star toplining). The two most successful? Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour and Dear JohnThis gives you an idea of how Hollywood traditionally approaches this particular box-office frame.

But in 2009 Fox rather counterintuitively released Taken, the Liam Neeson-starring action thriller, on Super Bowl weekend. It gathered in $24 million on its way to $145 million domestically, signalling that not every non-horror-loving male in the U.S. was in a 72-hour trance when it came to the Super Bowl. And now Fox has proved it again; Chronicle skewed male (55% of the audience) and young, and apparently did not suffer for it at the Super Bowl weekend box office. 

This isn’t to suggest that Hollywood will now dump Super Bowl weekend as a place for its women-focused and horror films; The Woman in Black, which was both horror and skewed toward women (they were 60% of the audience, in no small part due to star Daniel Radcliffe), finished with $20.9 million for the weekend, only slightly behind Chronicle. It does mean that studio will now start reassessing the belief that men, as a class, aren’t interested in movies on Super Bowl weekend.

3. Sometimes Two Days Is Enough for a Weekend. What is absolutely true about Super Bowl weekend is that the Sunday is a complete loss for move theaters. A typical weekend will see Sunday grosses down from Saturday by anywhere from a third to a half; on Super Bowl weekend, it’s more like 60 to 75 percent. This was certainly true of both Chronicle and The Woman in Black, both of whose Sunday box office was off more than two thirds from the Saturday box office.
But with the right film this isn’t a horrible thing, and the “right” film in this case, to go back to point one, is a film that didn’t cost a lot to make. With a $12 million budget, Chronicle could afford to essentially skip most of a day’s worth of grosses; so could The Woman in Black, which was reportedly made for $17 million (and which distributor CBS Films picked up for a fraction of that). Indeed, of the top ten films for Super Bowl weekends, only one had a production budget of more than $25 million: the Hannah Montana movie, which cost $35 million to make. 

This isn’t a coincidence. This year’s Super Bowl had nearly 112 million viewers; if you were a studio executive and you put out an $80 million film on a weekend when a third of the country is watching the same show on TV, you’d get fired, and rightly so. But a $12 million film? That’s not even an A-list star’s salary. You can risk it. 

What does this mean for the future? Just that if you see another cheap, young male-skewing science fiction-y flick out next Super Bowl weekend, you’ll know the lessons of Chronicle were learned. 

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