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Box Office: The Accountant, Inferno & The Brief Resurgence of the Mid-Budget Hit

So, The Accountant is a hit ($24.7 million in 3 days, good enough for a #1 debut), and Ben Affleck is a bonafide movie star again.

So I hear.

Inferno is an international hit ($50 million from its first 53 markets two weeks before launching in the U.S.), putting Tom Hanks and Ron Howard back on top again and possibly giving Sony its first blockbuster since Spectre.

Cool. Good for them.

How do we know either of these things to actually be true?

Because, um, the media?

Oh, come on. Don’t pull a Donald Trump. Give me more specifics.

Because that’s what TheHollywoodReporter, Vulture, Forbes and all the usual suspects said over the weekend into Monday?

Bingo. And how exactly did they decide these two new releases were instant hits?


Again, can you be more specific?

Fancy math?

Actually, it’s incredibly simple math: You compare a film’s opening weekend box office total (A) to what it was projected to make before the weekend began (B). If A is bigger than B, bravo, you have a possible hit. Then you compare A to the film’s production budget (C), and if A is at least equal to half of C then chances are the film will eventually make back its budget at the box office.

But how can we trust the pre-release projections? What about marketing costs?

Um, shut up about that. Yes, the pre-release projections are often utter and complete bullshit, for a wide variety of reasons I previously wrote about. Yes, my little equation doesn’t factor in marketing, largely because we have no idea how much studios actually spend on marketing. The MPAA stopped reporting such figures in 2007. We just know marketing costs can often rise to as high as $150m-$200m for blockbusters, and you can expect a bare minimum of $10m-15m for small films. Sometimes the industry trades will catch wind of a marketing spend for a certain film, but even then we can’t trust those figures, largely because how do we know the studios didn’t leak that information to obscure an actually far higher marketing number? We don’t.

Conspiracy theory much? Okay, back to the equation.

So, our perception of a film’s success is at least initially shaped by pre-release projections and gross vs. production budget. However, the traditional pre-release tracking system is broken, and budgets have been spiraling out of control in recent years. That’s when we turn to comps, comparing A to the opening weekends of similar films to get a better idea of where it might end up. For example:


Opening Weekend

Domestic Total


The Accountant (10/14/16)




Argo (10/12/12)




The Town (9/17/10)




* Projected

Additionally, Accountant and Argo have nearly identical budgets ($44m) and Town‘s in that same range ($37.5m).

An Argo-like long run for Accountant seems unlikely. Argo was an Oscar movie boosted by awards season; not so much for Accountant. It’s not even guaranteed to enjoy a Town-like run simply because the box office world of 2010 was a more nurturing place than 2016, where consumers have ever more distractions and big budget blockbuster movies lurk around the corner every other week.

magnificent-sevenFor example, Magnificent Seven opened to $34m last month, and three weeks later it’s only up to $84m meaning it might not even make it to $100m total. That’s actually pretty good for a western, but not for one which stars Chris Pratt and Denzel Washington and went up against a relatively weak late September/early October. Accountant, on the other hand, has to contend with a new Tom Cruise Jack Reacher movie next week, Inferno the week after that and Doctor Strange and Hacksaw Ridge after that. Yikes.

But let’s say Accountant gets to $80m-$90m like Magnificent Seven. Would that be considered a success?


Why? You made it seem like $80m-$90m for Mag Seven was bad?

That’s because Accountant only cost $44m, almost exactly half of Mag Seven‘s (as we’re apparently calling it now since “Magnificent” is a pain in the ass to type) $90m production budget. Similarly, Inferno is currently being judged by a different standard than its predecessors (Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons) because the studio halved its budget (Angels & Demons cost $150m compared to Inferno‘s $75m). What we currently have with Accountant topping the domestic chart and Inferno seizing the international chart is the all too rare reign of the mid-budget hit. Throw in Sully‘s $118m domestic gross off of its $60m budget for good measure.

Hold on. Aren’t you one of those whiny bloggers who has repeatedly complained about the death of the mid-budget movie?

I’ve been a bit of a broken record. Basically, there are more movies being made now than ever before, but that’s because of the explosion of the micro-budget indie market. The studios are all actually cutting back on the number of films they make, yet at the same time, studio films have gone from a 69% market share to 76% meaning fewer studio movies are taking up more of the market while around twice as many independent films are left fighting for what’s left. As such, whenever a major studio distributes a movie which didn’t cost either mere pocket change for them or the equivalent of the gross capital of a third-world country it’s a rare display of being comfortable just swinging for a double instead of needing a grand slam every time. The studios, in their desperate, short-sighted and doomed attempt to out-Disney Disney, would all rather spend hundreds and hundreds of millions just to make millions, yet here’s Accountant posting an opening weekend which Vanity Fair says is almost as profitable as Batman v Superman‘s.

Screw you, Hollywood!

Also, um, thank you, Hollywood, since you made Accountant.

Let me guess: Now you have some totally depressing way to end this, some kind of “this changes nothing” reminder.

Variety summed it up nicely when writing about Don’t Breathe‘s box office success two months ago:

Chalk it up to the conglomeratization of the movie business. Ever since a wave of consolidation began hitting Hollywood in the Reagan era, studios have become smaller and smaller subsidiaries of the sprawling media empires that house them.

That’s radically upended their mandates. Time Warner, Viacom, 21st Century Fox, Walt Disney Company and other parent companies don’t care about earning $20 million on a movie. That won’t move the needle on their stock price, particularly when there are advertising revenues and retransmission fees, licensing agreements and merchandising pacts, toylines and theme park rides out there to dazzle investors. For all its success, “Don’t Breathe” and its gang of teenage delinquents aren’t likely to inspire a Saturday morning cartoon or land on many lunch boxes. Even three of four of these movies won’t cover the enormous overhead it takes to maintain global distribution networks, massive studio lots and to keep thousands of employees from Culver City to Tokyo humming.

That means more comic-book movies, more Star Wars, more Harry Potter and an ever-escalating array of reboots, sequels and spinoffs.

 Accountant might get a sequel, but even then this is still just a side gig WB let Affleck do to keep him happy and creatively engaged to now give them their damn Batman movie.

Source: HollywoodReporter, Vulture, Forbes

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