Illustration by Maria Corte
Warner Bros. broke decades of tradition by changing its protocol for releasing grosses for ‘Tenet’ — and, amid a pandemic and a shift to PVOD for blockbuster releases, less transparency could become the new norm.
Here’s a little-discussed tidbit: Hollywood studios are under no obligation to reveal box office grosses. Certainly, a conglomerate has to disclose an official write-down to shareholders, but that duty is rarely triggered when it comes to individual film titles.
So why would studios willingly reveal grosses day after day, weekend after weekend, exposing themselves to the risk of a film being declared a bomb mere hours after opening? Well, to engage consumers and generate global headlines. It worked for decades until the novel coronavirus struck, decimating moviegoing and sending high-profile titles to streaming or PVOD, where they escape that scrutiny. Now studios get to rethink whether they want to continue sharing grosses on a 24/7 basis with rivals, analysts and the media.
After all, box office transparency didn’t always exist. Grosses weren’t a perpetual fascination until the late 1980s and early ’90s. Until studios started allowing theaters to feed grosses into centralized databases managed by an outside firm (such as Rentrak, which is now Comscore), numbers weren’t so readily available.
“Somebody realized that nothing sells like success,” says Sony Pictures chief Tom Rothman. “And, in that moment, the first stone was cast. It turns out people were as interested in that as in the number one TV show. Sure enough, it worked.” Rothman believes the rise of box office reporting fundamentally changed the landscape — and not necessarily for the better — as marketing budgets skyrocketed and theatrical shelf lives shortened. “It was the beginning of narrowing what kind of big movies were made for theaters,” he says. “A movie had to be a simple enough idea to open wide.”
It’s why Rothman started Fox Searchlight in 1994 with the aim of ensuring specialty films are judged by awards, critical acclaim and word-of-mouth instead of box office returns. “Before that, it wasn’t a parachute business. Now it is. You open or you die. There wasn’t an instant pronouncement of judgment,” adds Rothman. “And so the same way it is about sports — there’s a winner and there’s a loser — it became that way about films. It wasn’t a question of whether a movie was good or bad — which is fair enough — it became a question of whether the movie had opened or not opened, which is much less fair.”
Here’s how it typically works: Theaters feed ticket-sales data directly into Comscore. That data is available to studios that are Comscore customers. By Friday afternoon, distribution execs across town prepare a flurry of memos for their bosses assessing how the box office is doing overall, not just with regard to their own titles. Those memos are updated throughout the weekend and often shared with media and filmmakers.
Warner Bros. has majorly deviated from the norm in how it has reported grosses for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, which opened in early September in the U.S. Hoping to manage the narrative without interjection from pundits, it only supplies weekend numbers on Sundays (followed by Monday actuals) and has blocked rival studios from seeing Tenet figures on Comscore, keeping the daily data to itself.
Usually, other distributors would be livid over such obscured grosses. With Tenet, however, competitors have largely understood, considering Warners is the only major studio to brave releasing a big-budget tentpole as cinemas struggle to reopen — and without New York and L.A. theaters in play. Says one rival studio exec, “I actually was very, very sympathetic to Warner Bros. and agreed it was a mistake to encourage opening-weekend pronouncements.”
Sony followed Warners’ lead, albeit to a far lesser degree. It’s delaying the release of daily Comscore numbers until the Monday after opening weekend — but otherwise, it’s adhering to traditional reporting protocols, as are other distributors. (Sony also gives a weekend estimate to the press on Sundays.)
Warners insiders explain there was concern that competitors might encourage the media to compare Tenet with Nolan’s previous films, ignoring the extenuating circumstances. Generally speaking, though, reporters have been keenly aware that using comparisons for Tenet (or any other movie) is unfair amid the pandemic. Nor is there much point in noting the list of “worst-ever” records being set.
In the case of Tenet — which cost $200 million to produce before marketing — the film has grossed $53.8 million domestically, but few have dared to declare it a bomb. Internationally, it has fared notably better, grossing $293.3 million for a global total of $347.1 million through Nov. 1.
“We have come through the looking glass and things have become forever changed in terms of how we perceive, interpret and report on the numbers,” says Paul Dergarabedian, Comscore’s chief box office analyst. “We are living in a parallel universe. Suddenly, a $3 million opening has become something to celebrate” — as opposed to being a case for the usual studio schadenfreude.
Maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.