Something freaky happened with this weekend's specialty and mainstream box office reports: While it came as little surprise to anyone with a Facebook account—or who consumed traditional media, like newspapers for that matter—that The Social Network opened #1 at the box office with a $23 million gross, an $8,300 per screen average from a 2,771 wide release, it was not such a wonderful weekend for the documentary film adaptationFreakonomics.
Thompson on Hollywood's Anthony D’Alessandro tempers some of the enthusiasm for Fincher's film, "If Social Network’s opening seems lackluster, it’s due to media over-hype. Seven of the film’s top ten theaters Friday were in New York and L.A., which indicates that Social Network performed best in coastal metropolitan areas as opposed to middle America." This observation lends itself to the idea that The Social Network is performing a little bit like a specialty release, but does little to cap the fact that the film promises to grow legs an perform well into awards season.
Meanwhile, the specialty market itself produced a surprise this weekend: a shockingly soft opening of the omnibus film Freakonomics.
Peter Knegt from Indiwire writes:
Unfortunately, one doc that’s likely not going to contribute to that heft is “Freakonomics.” Debuting on 17 screens for distributor Magnolia, the doc adaptation of Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s intensely bestselling 2005 book, took in only $33,000, averaging $1,941. The movie had brought together a “doc dream team” including Seth Gordon (The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters), Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp, 12th & Delaware), Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), Alex Gibney (Enron, Taxi To The Dark Side), and Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) to each direct portions of the “anthology film.”
Per screen average is the gold standard of specialty films which play on limited screens, relying on the impact of targeted marketing, as opposed to the broad appeal of a wide opening. $1,941 is an anemic result. (By comparison, this weekend's top specialty film Waiting for Superman brought in $11,971 per screen.)
With so many factors in play—a stable of brand name directors, a best selling book—why the flop?
The film's saving grace may come in the form of an alternative release strategy. Freakonomics distributor Magnolia Pictures has taken an aggressive direct-to-the consumer release strategy that includes making the film available on Video-On-Demand and for download on iTunes and Amazon
However, in a bizarre twist of freak, we'll never really know how well Freakonomics is performing. Unlike theatrical releases, which all report their grosses to services like Rentrak, tracking numbers for iTunes, VOD, and Amazon remain proprietary. When interviewed by the New York Times, Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures proclaims, “The business model for independent film has collapsed, and anyone who thinks otherwise is basically borderline delusional." He continues, "We try to stay open-minded about the commerce of film.”
By comparison, The Social Network, a film ideally suited for such a multi-platform release, played it decidedly old school.
After staging a marketing campaign that relied as heavily on television spots and newspaper buys as it did on Web ads, the film opened simultaneously in 2,771 theatres across the country.
In the aforementioned New York Times piece, Bob Berney, a distribution and marketing executive and veteran of several independent film companies. (This week he joined a new company, FilmDistrict) commented, “The mainstream theaters are still very averse to changing things up. They know that the release windows may eventually change, but they’re holding out as long as they can.”
All the chatter about whether Facebook and Twitter posts lifted The Social Network's box office to #1 missed the point: where was the chatter asking why a film for the "Facebook" generation was marketed and distributed like something for their parents (and grandparents), while a film targeted squarely at the traditional New York Times reader is being distributed with a marketing plan suited for the iPad generation?
What would freakonomists Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner make of this?
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