Here's a bulletin from The-Department-Of-I-Told-You-So.
I sent a note to my editor on Sunday afternoon when I saw the weekend box office estimates for Precious. It was a monster hit, pushed by Oprah Winfrey and riding a wave of critical raves to an average of more than $100,000-per-screen. Still, as big as those numbers were, I knew they were wrong.
Film companies report "actuals" (box office numbers) for Friday and Saturday, but to meet newspaper deadlines, they estimate Sunday numbers. And I could tell they'd underestimated Precious. Here's my note:
Sent: Sun 11/8/2009 2:03 PM
Let's see if I still know anything.
Precious this weekend had easily the highest per-screen average in the movie biz. With only 18 screens in three cities — NY-CHI-LA — it grossed more than $1.8 million in three days.
Boxofficemojo.com has the per-screen average at:
Sunday: $28,500 (estimate).
Now, when I was working in the exhibitor end of the movie business, we learned to predict weekend grosses pretty accurately so we could order enough refreshments for the theaters, and the pattern they're predicting. A 25%-30% drop from Saturday to Sunday would be right for most pictures. But one of the absolutes in the business back then (and admittedly, this was the late '70s, early '80s, so things may have changed) was that films aimed at black audiences tended to do much better than the average on Sundays.
So I'm guessing that when they report the actuals on Tuesday, the Sunday numbers are going to be higher than $28,500, even as big as that is. I'm guessing the grosses will be closer to what the film did on Friday. So I'm writing this down. And we can look when the final numbers come in, and see what they say.
On Monday night, the Sunday "actuals" were finally reported, and I'd nailed it. Not the estimated $28,500, but $32,499 per screen — just $168 off from Friday.
As for why? Well, who knows? Theater operators need to be good at reading audience behavior, not at explaining it. Back in the '70s, the theater chain I worked at knew teenage boys would be disproportionately represented in audiences on Friday and Saturday nights; children at matinees; the elderly mid-week. G and PG-rated pictures always did well at matinees, R-rated pictures at night. Those were absolutes, and for planning purposes, they were useful; theater managers knew when they needed extra staff, more popcorn cups, that sort of thing.
As for African-American attendance, the bulk of the spike on Sundays always came mid-day rather than evening. One of our managers noted that folks were coming in their Sunday best, which suggested that people who'd seen the films on Friday and Saturday had told friends at church. Never mind that the rule held true not just for family films, but also for R-rated thrillers and trashy soap operas. Those seemed an odd choice right after church, but our attendance model predicted it.
And though Twitter and Facebook have certainly changed how word gets out, the numbers for Precious suggest that the model still holds, at least some of the time.
(Bob Mondello is an NPR film critic and commentator.)