Thursday, July 21, 2011

Jason analyzes the box office returns of THE UNDEFEATED

I don't know why I'm doing this. I generally try to keep politics out of my blog, and there is little that bores me more than talking about box office totals. But I read this analysis, and my love of correcting people took over.

Let me first acknowledge that getting a film in theaters at all, let alone 10 screens, is a huge accomplishment. I know enough independent filmmakers that I know most of them get a screening at a few film festivals and maybe go to DVD (often self-distributed), so kudos for getting in theaters at all.

Second, let's acknowledge that, Big Hollywood, and the author of the article, John Nolte are right wing--at least compared to the "mainstream media" (as much as I hate that term). Whether you believe that they're on the fringe or it's really the rest of the media that's radically left-wing and their centrism just looks right-wing in comparison, it doesn't matter. The important thing is I want to acknowledge that they have at least an emotional interest in making THE UNDEFEATED look as good as possible. Nothing wrong with that, as long as their analysis is factual and relevant. So let's look at their claims.

Claim 1:

“The Undefeated” ranks as #15 in the all-time highest grossing debut category (and this includes Michael Moore’s unique hold on this category). However — and this is a mighty important however – nine of the films ranked above the Palin doc opened on more screens — in some cases, hundreds more.

They are correct about the #15 rank, at least based on the chart from Box Office Mojo. That's kind of hard to mess up, since BOM did the work for them. I will point out that while the article shows the top 30, the BOM chart shows 93 movies in the category of political documentary. That actually makes the #15 showing a little more impressive.

As for the rest of the commentary on this claim, I'm not sure what "Michael Moore's unique hold on this category" is supposed to mean. Because he makes popular, wildly successful movies (two of which--ROGER AND ME and BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE--made more on opening weekend than THE UNDEFEATED while playing on fewer screens) his shouldn't be counted? And while 9 of the films opened on more screens (and I don't know why they didn't point out that not just some, but 8 of those 9 opened on > 100 screens), it's just as true that 5 of those films opened on fewer screens. Of those 5, I haven't seen THE U.S. VS. JOHN LENNON, so I don't exactly know it's political bent, but the other 4 are clearly left-leaning or hard left-wing (depending on your point of view) films. Judging by the title alone, I suspect the John Lennon movie is as well.

Upshot, for this narrow category, in which films generally don't make much money, THE UNDEFEATED had a respectably successful opening overall.

Claim #2:
On a comparative number of screens (less than 10), “The Undefeated” enjoyed the fifth highest-grossing debut in the history of political documentaries.
Well, first off, if you're looking at less than 10 screens, THE UNDEFEATED doesn't show up at all. You see, it opened on 10 screens, and 10 is not less than 10. But I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant less than or equal to 10. But there's a bigger problem with this claim, as seen in this chart (click for bigger):

I've double and triple-checked with BOM's chart, and I'm sure this is right. This is the top of the list of political documentaries that opened on 10 screens or less, ordered by opening weekend total. THE UNDEFEATED is sixth, not fifth. This is a really puzzling error. Counting to 6 is not hard. So we've determined that Mr. Nolte is either sloppy or:
  • He doesn't know the difference between "less than" and "less than or equal to." And...
  • He doesn't know how to count to 6.
BTW, it's worth noting that the full list of political documentaries opening on 10 screens or less (from BOM's chart) contains 78 films. Granted, many of those were on 1, 2, or 3 screens so 10 screens is a bit of an advantage, but 6th place is still bragging rights. Which makes it odd to claim 5th place when it's clearly not true.

So let's move on to his claim #3:
Opening on a comparative number of screens (5 to 25), “The Undefeated” enjoyed the sixth highest per-screen average in the history of political documentaries.
Well, given the previous claim, I didn't know if "5 to 25" was inclusive or not. None of the films opened on exactly 25 screens, but 2 opened on exactly 5. I've chosen to include them. The full list is below:

Surprise, surprise, it's seventh, not sixth. Now I'm beginning to think Nolte really doesn't know how to count. Or perhaps he counts the number of films above THE UNDEFEATED and uses that as the place. Only six films did better, it's in sixth place! Of course, this is as wrong as saying, "Only one person beat me in this race, so I'm first!" (If this is the math used, then suddenly calling it THE UNDEFEATED makes sense).

BTW, this is not a shortened list, this is the total list, from BOM's chart, of political documentaries that opened on 5-25 theaters. There are 20 total, THE UNDEFEATED was number 7. Above average, but hardly the top. You could reasonable call it the high end of the middle of the pack or the bottom of the top tier. Nothing to be ashamed of, but hardly indicative of a runaway success. Nor is it "kicking all kinds of box-office ass when compared to its counterparts" as Nolte claims.

The other numerical claim, in the ADDED paragraph:
In the comments someone compares the per screen of “The Undefeated” to EVERY political documentary released on fewer than 10 screens, all the way down to one, two, and three screens. This is not apples-to-apples when you’re talking about a film released on ten screens. But even with that apples-to-oranges comparison, the Palin doc comes in at #11 ALL-TIME.
I'll get to the "apples-to-apples" comparison in a moment, but the numerical claim is #11 all time. I have no idea where he gets this. Here are all 78 political docs released on 10 screens or less, ordered by per-screen average, according to BOM (click to see big):

THE UNDEFEATED is not #11, it's #32. 11 ≠ 32. That's 32 out of 78, again above average, nothing to be ashamed of, but not kicking all kinds of ass.

Another claim:
Had the film’s roll-out been scheduled in just a few targeted markets instead of ten, obviously this would’ve resulted in a higher per screen average.
That claim is impossible to know for sure. There are plenty of movies on that list that opened in 1, 2, or 3 theaters and flopped. Of course, if THE UNDEFEATED had opened only on the highest grossing screens last weekend, it would've had a better per screen average. But in the same vein if it had only opened on the worst screens, it would've done worse. The claim that fewer screens = higher average seems to imply that screens were cannibalizing each other's business--people didn't see it on one screen because it was playing on another screen instead. I don't have the breakdown of exactly where all the screens were, but with 10 screens spread across the country (I've heard Georgia and California), I find it unlikely there was much audience cannibalization.

More importantly, the claim implies--nay, practically states, that the release markets were not "targeted." Baloney! When I see the traditional big markets of L.A. and N.Y. eschewed in favor of highly conservative Orange, CA, I'm pretty sure they did target conservative, Palin-loving markets. They hardly threw darts at the map and decided to open there.

And in that case, this release is fairly similar to a one screen release in a targeted market. Maybe not identical--nothing is--but comparing all releases of 10 screens or less is closer to apples-to-apples than apples-to-rhinoceroses. It's a common dilemma of balancing a desire for a large sample size with the need for the samples to be relevant. If you choose any two movies on BOM's list, I'm sure you could find reasons why comparing their box office take is not valid. But we compare anyway, because without comparison we just have the raw numbers and no context on if they're good or bad. So acknowledging that no comparison is completely valid, what does changing the sample size do?

When changing from 5-25 screens to 10 screens or less, the breakdown changes like this:
  • 6 films (all with lower per-screen average than THE UNDEFEATED) are dropped from the list.
  • 25 films with higher per-screen average are added to the list.
  • 39 films with lower per-screen average are added to the list.
End result, as explained above, we go from 7th out of 20 (~top 35%) to 32nd out of 78 (~top 41%). Not a huge difference. I'd say it's a reasonable comparison. Better than comparing against all releases, certainly. Claiming you should narrow the sample size and then pointing out it has a higher rank on a smaller list is intellectually dishonest.

BTW, at the opposite extreme you could compare only those releases on exactly 10 screens. In that case, there are only 2 and THE UNDEFEATED is number 1! (by < $400 per screen, but still...). Obviously that would be a case of narrowing the samples too low to be relevant, and to Nolte's credit he didn't do anything that ridiculous.

Another (frankly, odd) claim:
“The Undefeated” has no cinematic hook whatsoever.
I disagree, Sarah Palin attracts attention wherever she goes and whatever she does. Some attention from fans, some from detractors, and I'm not in the business (nor am I interested) in judging whether the attention is fair or not. But I think she is definitely a "hook." In fact, for a film opening in only 10 theaters, it has received an inordinate amount of attention in both traditional media and online. Saying it has not hook is baloney.

Final analysis: THE UNDEFEATED was targeted to its audience, and generally found it. Its performance--for a film of its kind--was pretty good (in the top 35-40% of films of its kind), but claiming it's kicking box office ass is at least as dishonest as the MSM calling it "tepid" or a "flop."

Now maybe there's more details someone could dig into. Did THE UNDEFEATED open on screens with lower-than-average capacity? Maybe the box office take vs. theoretical maximum possible (if everything was a sellout) looks great (if that measure is even relevant)? On the other hand, perhaps if you compare its box office vs. the amount of media coverage it got pre-release, it might look worse (or better, I don't know, and I don't have the tools to get those numbers).

Oh yeah, and so far (12 reviews) it still has a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes.

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