Film Fund-amentals: The Long Cold Summer

Before the beginning of the silly season (better known as the Summer Releases), I predicted the impending demise of the big budget tent pole movie. But gee whiz, gosh golly, gee bang oh molly, with the whopping big opening weekend of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, I must have been wrong.

Jumpin’ jiminy by jove, what could I have been thinking. (Note: I am being sarcastic — I was recently told that I wasn’t sarcastic enough, which came as a great surprise to members of my family, various ex-girlfriends, and several ex-employers, but I figure I’d better be crystal clear about this.)

Unfortunately, there’s an extremely high probability that the “fallen” of the title will describe the movie’s box office over the next few weeks. I’ve just crunched the numbers and they quite simply do not look good (though I’m looking forward to the various ingenious ways the reporters at Variety are capable of putting a positive spin on things — they could have done wonders with the sinking of the Titanic).

First, let’s look at the immediate track record for the whompin’, stompin’ robots. The original Transformers was a huge hit that succeeded in taking in around $224,009,583 in its first two weeks of play. Then it began a steady drop as it wheeled its way toward the salvage yard. Still, it cleaned up with every teenage boy in America (many of whom can actually tell the robots apart).

The new movie has just hit this peak in its first three days of play. What that tells me is that this movie has already run out of teenage boys. There’s no reason whatsoever to assume that the film is capable of reaching beyond its already established core audience. I took my teenage son to see the film, and he had to explain to me what was going on throughout the movie. I may be an old fart, but I used to work for a cartoon archive and had to deal with this kind of material, so I shouldn’t need footnotes. This suggests to me that the movie will not be capable of reaching a broader audience, especially if they don’t have teenage boys to explain the movie to them

Oddly enough, we saw it at a late afternoon screening in a large theater filled with five people (all teenage boys). The meager attendance was the same in the other five theaters showing the movie (all teenage boys). It could have been an off moment, but I sometimes have to wonder about the reported figures for some of these movies.

Either way, movies like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen are a pretty expensive approach to niche marketing. Teenage boys are an enthusiastic but extremely limited part of the audience. Despite all the cleavage and tush-twitching from Megan Fox and Isabel Lucas (jail-bait for the older nerds), the movie is stuck at the mid-teen range.

Then there’s another problem that the new Transformers movie has to face. It’s the second-week drop. The pace for the whole summer has been set by the current 55 to 65 percent loss at the box office that has hit nearly every film.

The trend started with X-Men Origins: Wolverine (aka I’m A Lumberjack and That’s OK), which dropped by 55 percent between week one and two. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian met the challenge by dropping even faster at 56 percent. Not to be outdone, Terminator Salvation achieved a 66 percent free-fall. Even The Hangover (the closest thing to a surprise hit this summer) staggered to a 67 percent loss by week two. Only Up (9 percent drop) and Star Trek (24.5 percent) have so far evaded this phenomenon.

Most likely, the biggest achievement of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is that it has run through its audience faster than any other movie in history. Yep, every teenage boy alive saw this movie by last Friday. But its run is basically over. The upcoming 4th of July weekend will probably see some repeat viewings by the boys, after which Optimus Prime will be taking a long, hard dive off a very short pier. The movie may even beat the drop record currently held by The Hangover.

Which also means that this will be a very cold summer at the box office.

— Dennis Toth