What makes a movie a flop? And are we judging opening weekend numbers accurately?
After an opening weekend of only $33 million dollars, many were quick to label Birds of Prey a box office flop. Warner Brothers even came out and changed the name to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey, in order to garner more attention and hopefully drive people to the seats.
With a budget estimated to be almost $100 million, and foreign bringing in $46,500,000 as of my typing this, the movie seems to be tracking better than people made it out to be initially.
In fact, worldwide is now $85,051,561 according to Box Office Mojo.
Still, the prevalent story online is that this movie is already a flop, despite a fresh Rotten Tomatoes score of 79 and despite the apparent box office numbers.
Right off the bat, it seems a bit sexist to label a female-driven comic book film a flop, especially one that almost made most of its budget back right away. But even further review shows a different story, a flawed way we analyze films and project their openings and profits.
Let's jump in.
Was Birds of Prey a Flop Opening Weekend?
Early prognosticators had BOP opening around $40 million, with some aggressive people seeing it debuting in the $50-55 million domestically. Those bullish estimates were a reaction to the billion dollars Joker made at the box office. They assumed that another R-rated superhero film would follow in its tracks. WB also had a lot of luck with female-driven hero films, with Wonder Woman being one of their strongest films to date.
The irreverent tone, evocative of Deadpool, felt like maybe this would be a big success for the DC Universe.
Even Suicide Squad, which debuted the Harley Quinn character for feature film audiences, did well at the box office.
So What Happened?
That should have been an impressive combination, but what people failed to realize was burying the name "Harley Quinn" at the end of the title, Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn hid the most valuable resource for the franchise.
Margot Robbie was praised for her performance in the film, and in Suicide Squad, but having marketing take her out of the title was a terrible move.
The character of Harley Quinn has always been lower tier with comic book fans and didn't have a following the way Wonder Woman does in pop culture. While an R-rated Joker drew in an audience unlikely to see a comic book film, an R-rated Harley Quinn movie only brought in fans of her niche character. Ticket buyers were older males—54% were men and 65% were over the age of 25—according to PostTrack surveys.
That's not the huge female-draw they hoped a Birds of Prey movie would gather.
Were women put off by the darker narrative? That's hard to say. But it's easy to see that they did not connect with the intellectual property in the same way they did with Wonder Woman, whose name and property are one of the most in popular culture, synonymous with empowerment.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the parents who wanted to take young kids to see Wonder Woman as a positive role model probably steered away from the R-rated BOP.
Harley Quinn is only popular with a certain sect within the fandom, with not much crossover outside of comic book readers and viewers of Suicide Squad. Unfortunately, within that sector of fandom, there are some toxic voices who derided the movie on Social Media and internet forums.
The topic of "Are they hot enough?" has been debated all over the message boards. It's vile to even have to mention this stuff, but here we are as a society.
While this sexist stance trended online is disappointing and repressive fashion, it was a noisy discussion that might have held back some fans from going to the theater.
Let's take a minute here and hope that studios stop bending to these toxic fandoms and instead invest in other ideas and creators.
How Were Prognosticators So Off?
One of the reasons the studio and prognosticators got their hopes up for major ticket sales is a shift in the industry to rely on YouTube to estimate opening weekends. While there's not a direct correlation from views to box office, The Hollywood Reporter ran a study showing that "for every additional 1 million views a trailer on YouTube receives, the corresponding movie earns an addition $1.14 million dollars in its first weekend, on average."
The initial BOP trailer was viewed 23 million times. The second trailer was viewed 10 million times. Together that should have correlated to close to $40 million dollars. Instead, it was more like a 1:1 ratio. Which is closer to how people expect indie movies to perform.
What else does Hollywood use to prognosticate an opening?
According to the Harvard Business Review, "It’s all about identifying patterns in past data, melding them with current data points that are readily available, and then taking action to improve business."
Well, the patterns here all pointed toward a success...
Enough to be released in 4,236 theaters.
Don't Forget About Intangibles
When you're releasing movies, there are lots of intangibles that can affect its haul. One of the biggest affecting BOP is the coronavirus. Markets in Asia, like China, usually come out in strong support of comic book movies, but the fear of getting sick, massive quarantines, and public worry held people home.
It's hard to predict things like this, but easy to see their effects after a movie is released.
Is $85 Million Worldwide Not a Great Opening?
Unfortunately, the money brought in for ticket sales is not money a movie actually made. That's because theaters get a slice of the pie, and international dollars also lose money to other deals. You can assume that a studio takes roughly 50% of the box office. So while it may have opened at $85 million gross, the net is closer to $40 million.
So if the budget on BOP was around $100 million, the movie would need to make around $250 million to break even. Which is not why you make a film like this one. Also included in this price tag are the hidden amounts studios pay to advertise these films.
They call that P&A, or Prints & Ads.
Which studios, famous for their strange accounting practices, need to recuperate before a film makes any money.
Only time will tell if BOP has a strong second weekend and can pick up steam with audiences, who generally favor the film overall.
Is It Sexist?
Yeah, duh. There is a ton of sexism in Hollywood. And lots of sexism within the talk of BOP's opening weekend. While there are lots of reasons people are using the word "flop" for the opening weekend, it would be a disservice to a better society to brush sexism aside.
While sexist backlash is not the only reason the movie didn't hit targeted marks, it didn't help.
Also, it's not just sexist people angry online. We should be looking into the underlying tracking of a movie from inherent sexist stances. Like why was Ford v Ferarri considered a hit opening at $33 million on the same budget? The easy answer was that it tracked lower.
Video is no longer available: twitter.com/AbuJimin/status/1227314799303970819?s=20
Fine, that's the right answer, but does that mean sexism plays into prognostication and tracking? Yes!
We need to look at the world through a more diverse lense, this will help studios and marketing departments find the right audiences and estimates much more than a general YouTube poll.
What Are Some Lessons to Learn?
The lesson here is to know your audience. If you're going to lean into the R-rating, really make sure the marketing shows why your movie is rated R, and make sure those people get the message.
Secondary to that, if you have a lead character who means the most value, don't just put her front and center on the posters, but have her name in the title.
And lastly, prognosticate with caution. And with solid facts.
Set your expectations not based on movies that appeal to different audiences or different messages.
If you're unsure about a movie, release it on fewer screens and stagger it if you think it can break out as a hit.
What's next? Learn Cathy Yan's Pitch Process for Birds of Prey!
After lukewarm critical reviews but a box office bonanza, Suicide Squad had a lot of figuring out to do. But one thing everyone loved from the film was Margot Robbie's portrayal of Harley Quinn. She was fun, crazy, and unpredictable. It felt like the role she was born to play. So how did Cathy Yan get the directing gig?
Let's find out.