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David Poland

By David Poland

Batman & The Iceberg

Okay… so I get that John Horn had to ask the question… can The Dark Knight pass Titanic or even come close to Titanic at the box office?
And I understand that the new rule at the LAT is local, local, local.
But is it anything less than a dereliction of duty, whether it be Horn’s choice or his editors’ choice, to not even mention the worldwide box office success of Titanic, which really is what makes the box office landmark the equal of what “Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak is to baseball.”
A domestic lead of $140 million or 23% on #2 Star Wars or $160 million/27% over Shrek 2, which is the #2 highest grosser in its first run alone, is obviously impressive. But the domestic box office is more like the home run record for a season. Eras change and the season home run number got threatened and then beaten… repeatedly. We later realized that the players, not the ball, were juiced.
The Dark Knight’s massive opening was “just” $7.3 million more than the last top film, Spider-Man 3, or a %% bump. Impressive, but not so shocking (except for the fact that it was unexpected from this particular film).
There have been eleven $100 million openings in history and every one has been in the last seven years… seven of the eleven in the last three years. That is a seismic shift in the idea of what is possible in one weekend.
The $400 million mark is less seismic in and of itself, but how we get to that number has changed a lot. For what is now the #2 film, Star Wars, the $400 million mark was only achieved after a third release of the film… the third release earning $138 million, bolstered by the lack of availability of the film. (I believe there was a vhs release, but the film was rare to see on free or pay tv, we were still before a major dvd market… there was an event to a theatrical re-release that seems to be a thing of the past now.) E.T., even more tightly held, also hit $400 million only by re-release, though the total domestic gross from the film’s two re-releases was only $76 million.
Then Star Wars: Episode One did it on its own power. Then Spider-Man (but neither sequel). Then Shrek 2 in 2004, Star Wars: Episode III missing by $20m in 2005, and Pirates II in 2006.
While the trio of three-quels last summer broke a record by all doing $300 million-plus domestic, none did $400m domestic. However, the worldwide numbers were what really mattered to the studios.
Shrek The Third lost $120 million from the prior film’s domestic gross, but held steady internationally to get to a reported $799 million. Spider-Man 3 lost $37 million domestic from its prior entry, but increased worldwide gross by $144 million to get to $890 million worldwide. And Pirates 2 lost in $1124 million in domestic value, but was stead overseas to be one of just five films ever to crack $950 million worldwide (2 Pirates, a Potter, a Ring, and Titanic).
Another thing that remains stunning about Titanic is that it and Jurassic Park are the only “originals” to gross over $900 million worldwide.
But the mega stat is that Titanic did overseas alone more than ANY other movie has grossed in total. International was more than double domestic. The second best all-time international gross is $500 million less than Titanic.
And that is why “titanic numbers” are close to impossible in the current marketplace.
I have said before, at some point, some studio will experiment with day-n-date for one of these mega-movies, something like the last Harry Potter, offering it across the globe in theaters and in one-view-for-one-payment showings through opening weekend into living rooms by satellite and cable. And that movie will gross $600 million in one weekend. And the one-view sales will be enormously profitable, since delivery costs are minimal and providers will take a much smaller cut than the 45% that exhibitors take. And in that moment, someone will have made the most profitable movie ever.
And if the entire industry follows suit, we will see the sky fall for real.
But I digress…
Domestic box office will continue to creep up on Titanic. Someday, perhaps in less than a decade, that number will fall. But the international number is far, far away in comparison. While international box office has grown, the biggest potential markets remain elusive. Piracy is still an issue. And while the habit of opening weekend has become greater in many of the traditional international powerhouse countries, that has led to increases in front-loading grosses, just as in the US. And many of the underscreened countries, recent generations have become habituated to taking what they can get when they get it, not to demand opening weekend access.
The Dark Knight is likely to take Titanic’s domestic lead from the current 27% to as close as half of that, maybe 13% or under $100 million. That’s shouting distance. Ticket price creep can push that further. (Keep in mind, in 1994, when we had the first two $300 million movies in one summer, we went two years before the next (ID4) and then Titanic in 1997, another two before Episode One. It was 2001 before multiple $300 million grossers in the same year became a norm.)
But the 67% lead of Titanic on Rings 3 internationally… that’s a looooooong way to reach.
For The Dark Knight to be the fourth film in history to crack $1 billion will be a big achievement… bigger than any Harry Potter film.
No Batman film has ever even matched the level internationally that it reached at home. But let’s give The Dark Knight that. $500 million at home and $500 million overseas. You’re $850 million away from Titanic.
But let’s give it more. International at 60%! So… $500 million at home, $750 million internationally. And we’re still almost $600 million away from Titanic’s number.
Do you want to believe in miracles? How about $600 million domestic and $900 million worldwide? You’re still almost $350 million away from Titanic.
And for all of you guys who have S.O.O. (Sudden Oscar Obsession), the top two grossing films in history did get Oscar nominations and wins. After that? Aside from the other Rings movies? #30 all-time was the next highest grosser to even be nominated… Forrest Gump. And #31, The Sixth Sense.
Those four movies are the only films to gross as much as $500 million worldwide and to be nominated. And yes, three of the four won. (1994, 1997, 2003) But you’re still looking at four nominations in 14 Oscars, 4 out of 70 nominations…. 5%.
The odds are better than an animated film getting nominated… 1 out of 105 opportunities since Beauty & The Beast got the only nod ever. .1%.
I am all for celebrating the achievement of The Dark Knight. But while hysteria may be fun from someone, that achievement is only great in context. And in the context of reality, this success is very exciting indeed… and not earth-shattering.
The first Batman was a real industry changer.
Titanic was a real industry changer.
Lord of the Rings was an industry changer (good for some, not so good for others).
And this summer, Iron Man is a real industry changer. (Whether that is good or bad, time will tell.)
The Dark Knight is a good movie that everyone underestimated. Everyone. On top of that, it is even more successful than anyone who pays serious attention to box office anticipated, even after the massive opening.
But to hit “Titanic numbers” a film will have to not only match or beat Titanic at home, but unless something changes significantly (and someday, it will), the film will need to do at least $100 million or more than Titanic at home and still be an international giant to get to $1.8 billion.
It really is a 56 game hitting streak. And the headline rhetoric should really be lessened before someone embarrasses themselves.
Oops. Too late.

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10 Responses to “Batman & The Iceberg”

  1. cjKennedy says:

    You’re not wrong, but you’re being a buzz kill and making a big deal over a formerly proud newspaper stirring up a little hay out of the thing most people seem to want to be talking about these days.

  2. The Pope says:

    I may be wrong, but I think the “buzz kill” is what David Poland is talking about. By keeping things in perspective and re-iterating the Titanic stats, he is saying that the chances of TDK surpassing the ship is highly unlikely. If people keep on expressing the possibility that TDK will beat Titanic and then finally TDK doesn’t, it will appear in some small way that TDK failed. And that will ultimately take away from the film’s success. “Oh, but it didn’t beat Titanic.”
    One of the reasons, if not THE biggest reason why Titanic was such a hit was because of the female audience. And I am quite certain that they did not go solely because of Leo. They also went because of Kate’s character. The obsessives made Titanic the hit that it was… and there are many obsessives (i.e. The Jokers) who are pushing TDK to such stellar heights. The movie is drawing in those marginalized personality types and shaking them down for every shekel they’ve got.

  3. LYT says:

    I think it will be Oscar-nominated, at this point. A combination of its success and the number of people who have told me it’s the best movie they’ve ever seen. Perhaps to a lesser extent the fact that it’s stirring up the political talking heads over whether Batman is like George Bush or not.

  4. Triple Option says:

    I see this more like Hammerin’ Hank’s career HR record. Titanic didn’t have a jaw dropping w/e much like Aaron never hitting over 45 homers in one season. Just around forty for two decades. One thing that Dark Knight has in its favor is the repeat business. Doubt we’ll see anything like the number of 13 yr old females seeing it nine times each but can anyone remember a time when so many adults have gone back to the theater w/one showing still somewhat fresh in their minds?
    It is a wee bit soon to talk Titanic but it’s interesting to be reminded what that film did. As it is w/sports records, prolly the only industry where laymen have figures afixed in their heads, (seriously, you think any sorority girl currently enrolled in college knows Titanics gross bo receipts), talk of breaking records, 19-0 football; 56 game hit streak, and up until McGuire & Bonds, 61 homers*, were constantly referenced even a quarter of the way out the gate. Numbers make it relateable. Numbers build fascination and interest. Eventually these can turn into anticipation. In an impatient, front-loaded, immediate gratification, quick rate of return obsessed society, it takes it place above actuality for driving decisions. Thus, it may not be wise to believe the hype, the hype still matters.

  5. cjKennedy says:

    The Pope, I guess we read the tone of David’s piece differently, but I see where you’re coming from.
    I’d argue that comparing TDK to Titanic’s domestic is flawed if you don’t adjust for inflation in the first place, let alone the $1.8 billion worldwide.

  6. RoyBatty says:

    This is all a strawman argument. The only thing you can legitimately slam Horn for is not pointing out that $600M is the domestic tally only.
    After that you shoved the whole thing into a personal numbers wank about worldwide gross. The metaphor choice is lamentable, because it gave you the opening and it’s only in Horn’s mind that it is apt.
    When you consider that when adjusted, TITANIC would now be at $884M it shows just how inevitable it is that some summer movie would eventually come along to hit the less impressive unadjusted $600M number. That it has taken this long only underscores just how miserably the studios have failed to make their core product (the summer popcorn movie) as they used to. Consider this: from 1973 to 1983 the top film changed 4 times. It then took 14 years for the next, and current, champ to arrive.
    But no one seriously expects DARK KNIGHT to do anything like this overseas and it’s exactly buzz-kill theatrics to drag it onto the World Wide stage to do so.
    Also, when a film that so many didn’t like like POTC – DEAD MAN’S CHEST can get within $800M of TITANIC one does have to wonder just how safe that record is as well.

  7. MDOC says:

    I love Batman so I’m not coming from a negative place, but at some point The Dark Knight has to go from the movie everybody loves to “overexposed” and the backlash will commence. Ironically the movie touched on the theme, but I just think by November people will be suddenly be “better” then Batman movies again, the snipers emerge and the Oscar talk will become unhip. We’ve seen it a hundred times.
    On a more positive note, great number cruching Dave. I forgot how gaudy that Titanic International Number was, it’s a three minute mile.

  8. mathayus says:

    Y’know it’s funny. I’d felt it was getting kind of ridiculous with David continuing to push some more wet blanket on the movie (mixed with some praise to be fair) as it became more and more clear how extraordinary the phenomenon is, but now the overhype he’s been speaking to fits like a glove. There’s simply no way that Dark Knight will even threaten 1.8 G$ territory.

  9. mathayus says:

    Re: ‘Consider this: from 1973 to 1983 the top film changed 4 times. It then took 14 years for the next, and current, champ to arrive.’
    Somebody correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t ET surpass Star Wars initial gross by around 50%? (And of course Titanic’s leap was pretty comparable) Seems to me a bit unrealistic to expect that type of leap to go on consistently and indefinitely no matter what business you’re in.

  10. RoyBatty says:

    mathayus – Correcting you because you are indeed wrong. At the time that E.T.’s $359M surpassed STAR WARS the latter’s total was $322.7M (which includes the ’82 reissue), hence only an 11% increase.
    I also do no such thing as expect such 50% non-existent increases to go on consistently (guess you wanted to join Poland in the straw man of the day club).

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon