Partly the notion that box-office takes are like scores in a contest. The number one film is the winner, and people tend to like to hear about winners. Also there’s a vague assumption that if a film is packing them in, people must like it and therefore it’s worth seeing. Thus reports of big ticket sales in many cases may prolong the a film’s success.
First, consider the total number of screens a film is playing on. These days big films routinely start out in around 3000 theaters, and a few that are virtually guaranteed to be hits start out in even more (4324 for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and 4223 for Shrek 2). In multiplexes, they play on two or even three screens. Unless a blockbuster is released on the same weekend as another blockbuster (and the studios juggle their schedules to avoid such confrontations), it’s almost bound to win the weekend.
But how many people are in each of those theaters? Anything over $5000 per theater is considered reasonably successful, but usually the top films do better than that, The Departed, averaged $8911.
On the other side,
Judged by per-screen averages, there are quite a few independent and foreign films playing in art houses that do very well indeed. The indie hit Little Miss Sunshine opened in only seven theaters its first weekend (July 28-30), but it brought in $52,999 in each. (It had actually opened July 26, so that was actually a five-day count.) After eleven weeks in release, Little Miss Sunshine has “only” grossed $55,010,203. Does that mean it’s actually not a hit?
That strategy of opening a film in only a small number of theaters is called “platforming.” It’s done with small films that the distributors think will get good reviews and word-of-mouth. If it fails, at least the company will have saved on prints and advertising (P&A). P & A create costs for the distributor that often go well beyond the announced production budget. A major Hollywood company can spend tens of millions of dollars on them. In extreme cases P & A add fifty per cent to the total cost of making, marketing, and distributing a film. The public seldom hears figures for P & A, so people may get the impression that a film is more profitable for its maker than it really is.