In the end, not even Matt Damon could get in the way of The Martian. In the lead up to the movie, he made the type of headlines that enrage the internet, but apparently have no noticeable effect on ticket sales. On the season premiere of Project Greenlight, he foolishly tried to teach an African-American female filmmaker about diversity, and two weeks later in a Guardian interview he suggested that as far as careers are concerned some gay actors are better off staying in the closet. Those are the types of comments which launch a thousand thinkpieces and result in Damon immediately going on the Ellen show to do damage control, but that run of bad publicity was canceled out by the honest-to-goodness coincidence that a week before the premiere of The Martian NASA announced the discovery of liquid salt water on Mars.
Or maybe none of that had anything to do with anything and The Martian was always going to make a ton of money because the trailers looked good and the early word-of-mouth from screenings was euphoric. Either way, we’re left with the second-biggest opening weekend in October history, an impressive $54.3 million domestic haul, just short of Gravity’s $55.7 million record which was set over the same weekend two years ago.
Yet The Martian, which is nearly a full hour longer than Gravity thus limiting the number of times it can be screened in one day, had the more impressive opening. Looking back at it, 80% of Gravity’s total domestic opening came from 3D ticket sales, 20% from IMAX showings (regardless of 3D or 2D). According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, that 3D share is even higher than the 71% for Avatar. Everyone was stunned when that happened because prior to Gravity’s opening 3D ticket sales had become so insignificant the studios quietly stopped reporting them. Gravity seemed to prove that on a case-by-case basis audiences could still be convinced certain movies demanded to be seen in 3D and/or IMAX.
Universal and Sony chose to take that lesson to the extreme over the past month, producing two movies tailor-made for 3D and IMAX – Everest and The Walk – and exclusively premiering them in IMAX theaters. After all, if nearly a quarter of Gravity’s opening came from IMAX why can’t you open a big movie in IMAX theaters exclusively for one week before expanding wide? It’s actually an old idea, i.e., the platform release, which they’ve updated with a modern wrinkle. However, it has oddly backfired.
After a seemingly okay first weekend on IMAX, Everest has struggled to gain any traction, looking up at just $33m total domestic after 17 days. Now it’s lost even its IMAX screens to The Walk, which rode a wave of “the last act is so spell-binding it has to be seen to be believed” reviews to a giant thud of an opening ($1.9m) this weekend, failing to reach the absolute low-end of projections.
That’s not to suggest that it’s over. “We believe so much in this film,” Sony distribution president Rory Bruer told the press. “We will be heavily marketing the film this week to promote its wide release. That’s what it has always been about. It’s all about the long haul for us.” Sure, but look how well that worked out for Everest.
The problem might be that in pushing so hard to convince audiences that Everest and The Walk demanded to be seen in IMAX the studios might have inadvertently turned the movies into the feature-length equivalent of the various space exploration and nature documentaries which play exclusively on IMAX screens in educational settings like a Cosmosphere. They wanted make the next Gravity, but instead they got Journey to Space.
The Martian, on the other hand, managed to seem like an actual event movie without being gimmicky about it. It didn’t have any access to IMAX screens, and even though it’s available in 3D it’s playing in far more 2D theaters. Audiences could pick and choose how exactly this movie should be seen, and 45% decided it warranted 3D.
However, there is another angle here. The Walk debuted in 365 Imax theaters and 83 PLF locations this weekend while The Martian debuted in 375 PLF theaters, generating around $6 million (11% of the total opening gross).
What the hell am I talking about? What are PLF theaters? Take it away, Moviefone:
For decades, IMAX-branded screens had this market to themselves, but in the last few years, the theater chains have invented their own floor-to-ceiling screen systems, meaning they don’t have to share revenue with IMAX. There are several different such formats, but to avoid confusing audiences, they’re all marketed under the umbrella designation “PLF,” meaning premium large-format. IMAX purists — including many filmmakers — grumble that most PLF screens don’t measure up to IMAX, which projects from a taller, wider image source; the off-brand PLF screens just blow up the standard image, often resulting in a fuzzier, underlit picture. Nonetheless, audiences have embraced PLF, to the point where, within the last year, the number of PLF screens in North America (374) surpassed the number of IMAX screens (360).
We’ve all probably heard “Premium Large Format” mentioned at the very end of movie trailers, e.g., “Available in IMAX and select Premium Large Format theaters.” Up until this moment, though, I honestly didn’t fully know what that meant. Were they just trying to dumb it down for us and make sure people understood that IMAX is the one with the really large screens? Or was this an actual competing format?
Clearly, it’s the latter, and in the past month we’ve seen that IMAX or PLF, 3D or 2D, audiences do not want to be herded to an exclusive setting. The IMAX-only releases for Everest and The Walk have been disappointments whereas the more traditional release for The Martian nearly broke records. That’s not to suggest that Everest and The Walk would have put up Martian-like numbers via a more traditional release. Between the three, The Martian has had the superior word-of-mouth and reviews (93% on RT versus 87% for The Walk and 72% for Everest). Plus, for as much as it matters anymore The Martian comes with a built-in audience for its star (Damon), director (Ridley Scott), screenwriter (Drew Goddard) and author (Andy Weir) of the book the movie is based on. However, Universal did not experiment with Everest overseas where it has been playing on any available screens, not just IMAX, and it is now up to $103.3m.
Maybe the lesson is that in an era where movies movies are more front-loaded and first-weekend dependent than ever before it’s a mistake to waste your first weekend on an IMAX-only engagement. Platform releases still work. Just look at what Sicario did this weekend (a #3 finish) after building up its audience in limited release the past couple of weeks. However, a platform release which is format-dependent might invite unwanted historical associations (e.g., Oh, this is just like those IMAX documentaries) or scare away audiences who don’t want a viewing experience so realistic that they might suffer from vertigo while viewing The Walk. The IMAX-only platform release has only been tried three times now, and the one time it definitely worked it was for a Mission Impossible movie. It’s a neat tool for the type of movie everyone already wants to see, but not necessarily for the type of movie which needs to convince audiences to go out and buy a ticket.
This Weekend’s Actual Box Office Top 12 Totals – Domestic (10/2-10/4)
–Transylvania 2 is now $13m ahead the pace of the first Hotel Transylvania at the domestic box office.
-Compared to other Nancy Meyers movies, The Intern is $3m ahead the pace of Something’s Gotta Give, $11m ahead of The Holiday, but $23m behind It’s Complicated. Then again, this is her first movie in 6 years, and today’s movies don’t typically stick around in theaters as long as they did even just 6 years ago. Let’s see how The Intern holds up. Either way, it’s likely that the studio was right to force Meyers to makes this for $40m instead of the $80m-$90m she’s used to.
–Scorch Trials is now $10m behind the pace of the first Maze Runner at the domestic box office.
This Weekend’s Estimated Box Office Totals – Worldwide (10/2-10/4)
What’s Up Next?: Nationwide expansion for The Walk, WB’s much delayed and surefire bomb Pan