I think it was the news that the follow-up to Tron: Legacy was moving ahead, despite the relative disappointment of last year’s 20-years-after-the-fact sequel, that made me really stop and think: When will we all stop paying attention to the box office?
Here’s the thing: Tron: Legacy barely broke even at the US box office – I think it made $1 million more than it cost – which means that it actually lost money, when you factor in promotion costs. And yet, Disney pretty much had to greenlight the follow-up, because it had already invested so much in the brand (Not just Legacy, but the two separate animated series set to spin-off from it, the remastered reissue of the original on DVD and BluRay and tie-in videogames, comics and other material). Before the release of the movie, executives were talking about Tron being positioned as one of Disney’s major boy-centric brands, and apparently, not even a critically-panned, medium-level success movie can stand in its way.
Don’t worry; Legacy will be fine; it’ll make a reasonable profit now that it’s on BluRay, especially with the 3D BluRay edition. But that’s not anything new; there have been movies that have flopped in theaters but found audiences large enough on home release that a sequel has ended up happening (Why, Boondock Saints, how fetching and yet entirely unwatchable you seem today), enough to make me wonder whether box office even counts as the primary market for movies these days. After all, the longer shelf-life is home entertainment, and with studios already signed up to a premium VoD service sending movies to televisions just 60 days after theater release, that seems to be something that’s become even more the case, rather than going in the opposite direction.
(One of the reasons why so many studios – all of the majors save Paramount – have signed on to Home Premiere, the DirecTV premium VoD scheme is apparently that movies only have, on average, a 56 day lifespan in theaters. Which, let’s face it, isn’t very long at all.)
On top of all of that, looking at the box office as a gauge for success seems even less reliable when you consider two more factors: Multiple ticket prices and inflated demand. With IMAX and 3D in the mix, movies can take the top spot in terms of money earned in a particular amount of time without actually being the most successful movie in the same period, purely because IMAX and 3D tickets cost more… which kind of undermines the entire point of tracking box office take in the first place, surely. Not only that, but on the rare occasion when a movie is a genuine, honest-to-goodness hit, that’s something that can be entirely missed when looking at the weekly box office, because a steady, long-term earner can be eclipsed by the rush to see that weekend’s latest flash in the pan (See How To Train Your Dragon last year, for example).
So with all of these reasons not to focus on box office, what are the odds that the movie industry will look at the bigger picture when it comes to determining success or making decisions? I’d like to believe they’d be pretty good, but then I remember that there’s a third Transformers movie coming out this summer…