Last weekend, a torch was passed in modern box office history. No longer would Justice League, Warner Bros’ supremely expensive $300 million superhero team-up that grossed an astoundingly low $657 million worldwide (and only $229 million in the US) be used by box office aficionados as the standard unit of measurement for other, better movies, such as Black Panther, which has grossed approximately 2.1 “JLs”.
That burden has now passed on to Solo: A Star Wars Story. With a budget of $250-350 million and a worldwide gross that, judging by its opening weekend’s dismal performance, could be under half a billion, the new standard unit is “Solos”.
This may strike you as being rather mean-spirited, but the jokes are borne out of a genuine horrified fascination of how two blockbuster franchises could have performed so poorly. Yes, Justice League came off the back of the execrable Batman v. Superman, but surely any movie with the so-called “DC Holy Trinity” of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman (plus those two other guys) would at least manage a billion worldwide? And granted, perhaps people are getting tired of seeing four Star Wars movies in as many years, but who wouldn’t want to see another Han Solo adventure?
I’m not going to delve into why Justice League and Han Solo have performed so poorly (well, OK, briefly: a combination of bad movie-making, poor publicity, too many directors, and most importantly, an utter lack of interest in the subject matter). I’m more interested in how box office tracking has become a surprisingly popular pastime on the internet.
I’d long been curious about box office figures, largely via Box Office Mojo, which was the first website I’d discovered with free daily updates and good commentary. I can’t recall just how I stumbled into Reddit’s r/boxoffice – maybe I was excited to find out just how much money The Force Awakens had been making and wanted to read more hot-takes. There are 33,200 members of r/boxoffice, which along with the massive Box Office Theory are the two main hubs of box office discussion.
I have a few theories on the rise of box office tracking:
- More data: It’s only recently that box office data has been quickly and freely available to the general public. Both supply and demand have rise due to the growth of the internet in general; the data certainly existed in the past but wasn’t interesting to enough people to warrant publishing every day. These days, major films will receive multiple estimates a day, all of which fuels discussion.
- Real-time data: Some territories including the UK and China now have fairly reliable real-time box office data, sourced or scraped from cinema websites. I found Applaudience for the UK via r/boxoffice, and Maoyan for China is particularly impressive.
- Lack of transparency from other media: It’s much more difficult to obtain reliable revenues and audience numbers for TV, videogames, apps, and streaming services. Numbers occasionally leak out from industry insiders and paid reports, but for the most part, fans are left guessing – especially for streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime.
- Franchise and business fandom: The “MCU” and “DCEU” (Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Extended Universe) are almost a century old and filled with passionate fans. It’s no surprise they’re intensely interested in how much money Ant Man and The Wasp could make, because that will influence the movies, comics, TV shows, and games that come afterwards. What’s more unusual is the growth of business fandoms, where people will identify with particular platforms, brands, and studios like Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Blumhouse.
- A changing market: The explosive growth of superhero franchises is just fascinating to watch amid the general destruction of the cinemagoing audience, who are universally defecting to streaming services and video games.
- The measurement of everything: We measure the worth of everything by numbers these days, like review scores on Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, or Letterboxd. Box office figures provide a firehose.
And now for some sweet JL/Solo memes:
FYI, I thought Solo was fine. Justice League was awful, though.