At this weekend’s box office, Sicario, the superb pitch-black drug thriller from Denis Villeneuve, earned one of Hollywood’s more esoteric distinctions. In limited release, Sicario grossed a total of $390,000 across six theaters, or $65,000 each — the best per-screen performance of the year so far. Based on its present company in the top ranks of that data point, this honor could be a harbinger of beautiful, gritty things to come, a nation transfixed by Josh Brolin’s flip-flops and the way Benicio del Toro manages to act, excellently, with his eyes only 40 percent open; or it could be the movie-industry equivalent of a horse coming fast out of the gate, then spending the rest of the race eating flowers near the infield. Let’s crunch some numbers!
Opening weekends tend to be the story when it comes to a movie’s box office, for very obvious reasons: If a release hits hard from the word go, it makes up its operating costs in a big chunk and gains momentum for a long stay in theaters. There’s also the matter of word of mouth: The more people who see your movie early, the more who can evangelize for it, traveling the world in sandals and robes to preach about the glories of Minions. The five biggest openings of 2015 have also been the five biggest movies of 2015, though in slightly different order, and the two with far and away the biggest openings — Jurassic World and Avengers: Age of Ultron — are far and away the biggest movies.
But one number that often doesn’t make it into the conversation about openings has to do with the size of the rollout, and it gives us an interesting glimpse into the way people go to the movies. A film is considered in wide release if it hits 600 theaters or more. That number can go as high as 4,000-plus screens, with this year’s widest releases belonging to Minions (4,301 theaters), Avengers (4,276), and Jurassic World (4,274). While all three of these films were dynamite performers, a debut of that breadth by no means guarantees success: Fantastic Four opened on 3,995 screens and made $25.6 million, giving it a per-theater average of $6,429. That kind of average is not good enough for a movie of that size: Just two movies in 2015 have made more than $100 million after opening to a per-screen average of lower than $10,000, Spy and Trainwreck, and both benefited from terrific reviews and word of mouth. (It should also be said that Trainwreck, at $9,530 per, barely missed this bar.)
Obviously, the best-charting wide-release averages were Jurassic World and Avengers; if you're adept at elementary-school math, you probably deduced as much. But where these per-screen numbers get truly interesting are the limited releases. Often, prestige and art-house distributors will launch their titles in fewer than ten theaters, usually in New York and Los Angeles; if they perform well, that can lead to larger rollouts that take advantage of momentum and high tidings. It’s a select few companies that do this well: of the top ten limited-release per-theater performers this year, four were released by A24 and two by Sony Pictures Classics. After all, it’s a different game altogether: Four theaters is one one-thousandth the size of Jurassic World’s release. If you’re selling a product to that much smaller of an audience, you have to sell it differently.
Not to mention that you’re selling to a different audience: The types of moviegoers who attend limited releases in New York and L.A. generally have little in common as consumers with the folks going to see Furious 7 in small-town Nebraska. As such, these performances can be misleading. The highest-grossing movie so far this year with an opening of less than ten theaters — and, prior to Sicario, the one with the best per-theater average — is Ex Machina, at $59,316 for four theaters, and it made $25 million during its theatrical run. For A24, that’s a serious success: Ex Machina only cost $15 million to make, so that box-office take meant tremendous growth week to week. Unlike the behemoths, which tend to earn anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of their total take in that first weekend, Ex Machina’s opening was only 0.9 percent of its total.
But While We’re Young, another A24 release, opened to almost exactly the same numbers ($56,922 per theater) as Ex Machina in the exact same amount of theaters, and then ended with less than a third of that movie's total box office. Also on four screens, It Follows did $15,000 less per theater ($40,000 per screen), then nearly doubled While We’re Young’s eventual gross ($14.6 million versus $7.6 million). After those three, the drop-off is steep. If a movie released in fewer than ten theaters makes less than $30,000 per screen, it almost certainly isn’t earning more than $5 million total; if it makes less than $20,000, chances are slim it even hits seven figures.
When you look at these numbers in comparison to wider releases, the challenge facing smaller movies really comes into focus. Only three wide releases — Jurassic World, Avengers, and Furious 7, obviously — even beat $30,000 per. Five more exceeded $20,000. That speaks to the level of difficulty for indie-type distributors in launching their smaller films. They need to attract the same kind of per-theater business as one of the year’s top-grossing blockbusters in order to have much of a shot at gaudy returns.
And the speed with which business can fall off will give you vertigo. Sleeping With Other People, Leslye Headland’s very good rom-com, did $89,102 in five theaters two weekends ago, good for a $17,820 average. That's better than Ant-Man, San Andreas, and Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation did on a per-screen basis in their first weekends. But all three of those heavy-hitters are now past $150 million. When Sleeping With Other People expanded just slightly, to 27 theaters, its average fell to $3,435. That’s what Aloha made per screen on its first weekend, and Aloha was in one hundred times as many theaters with much more marketing exposure. Aloha, to date, has grossed just $21 million. While this doesn’t necessarily mean Sleeping is doomed — not to mention that doomed is a relative term for a low-budget indie — it also seems to indicate that a gross of $1–2 million is the most it can hope for.
Sicario cost $30 million to produce, more than what Ex Machina earned before it left theaters; those dire economics reinforce the point that releasing movies is hard. But $65,000 per is a good start, particularly if, as Lionsgate is certainly hoping, all those self-perceived influencers who saw Sicario last weekend are spending this week telling others to go see it. Take me, for example: Go see Sicario. (If you can find it.)