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The business of film
The business of film

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3 Theatrical performance

Although films are released in many different windows, distributors often focus most on the cinema performance of a film (often called ‘theatrical’ in North America). This is for a number of reasons.

Firstly, under the traditional model of film exploitation, cinema release is the first window for the film, so it is the first opportunity to see how audiences actually respond to the film. As a result of this, it is generally a film’s performance in this first window that determines its value in other windows. This can be an implicit relationship – the film would be expected to sell more DVDs if it did better in cinemas. It can also be an explicit relationship – the amount a broadcaster pays for a pay TV window might be directly related to box office performance. Lastly, it is the window for which performance information is most publicly available. Nowadays, many general interest publications (print and online) and television programmes will report box office performance.

These are some key terms people in the distribution business use to analyse the performance of a film:

Opening weekend gross

Though there are exceptions, films tend to perform best when they are first released. This is because all the marketing and publicity, and the reviews in newspapers, magazines and television shows, are all timed to the opening weekend. Films generally open on Friday (though there may be previews in the day or two previous) and the opening weekend is considered to be from Friday to Sunday. A film’s opening weekend gross is a key statistic in analysis of the film’s attractiveness to the public, and films that do not meet expectations in this regard will be quickly considered as disappointments, and will not remain in cinemas long.

Per screen average

Obviously, the more cinemas a film is shown in, the more opportunities there are to buy tickets. So, a statistic that is frequently examined, especially for smaller independent films, is per screen average, sometimes referred to as site average. This is the amount of box office (for the week or for the weekend) divided by the number of screens it is being shown on. This is measured in screens rather than cinemas because a film may be showing on more than one screen in a particular cinema complex.

Second week/weekend performance

Because the biggest performance is in opening week/weekend, the comparison between opening week/weekend and the second week/weekend gives useful information about the film’s ‘staying power’ and about the ‘word of mouth’ – whether people that see the film tell their friends to go or to avoid it. Usually, there is a significant second weekend drop – both on an absolute basis and on a per screen basis. But if films do not exhibit this pattern, it may be an indicator that the film is getting very good word of mouth or, in some cases, repeat visits, and so will perform better than expected.