Top 10 Box Office Performance

So after looking at a bunch of top 10 films of 2006 lists, and compiling my own, I began to wonder just how popular these movies really were. Film critics are notorious for picking films that the average viewer thinks are boring or pretentious. Indeed, my list features a few such picks, and when I think about it, there are very few movies on the list that I'd give an unqualified recommendation. For instance, some of the movies on my list are very violent or otherwise graphic, and some people just don't like that sort of thing (understandably, of course). United 93 is a superb film, but not everyone wants to relive 9/11. And so on. As I mentioned before, top 10 lists are extremely personal and usually end up saying more about the person compiling the list than anything else, but I thought it would be interesting to see just how mainstream these lists really are. After all, there is a wealth of box office information available for every movie, and if you want to know how popular something is, economic data seems to be quite useful (though, as we'll see, perhaps not useful enough).

So I took nine top 10 lists (including my own) and compiled box office data from Box Office Mojo (since they don't always have budget information, I sometimes referenced IMDB or Wikipedia) and did some crunching (not much, I'm no statistician). I chose the lists of some of my favorite critics (like the Filmspotting guys and the local guy), and then threw in a few others for good measure (I wanted a New York critic, for instance).

The data collected includes domestic gross, budget and the number of theaters (widest release). From that data, I calculated the net gross and dollars per theater (DPT). You'd think this would be pretty conclusive data, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized just how incomplete a picture this paints. Remember, we're using this data to evaluate various top 10 lists, so when I chose domestic gross, I inadvertantly skewed the evaluation against lists that featured foreign films (however, I am trying to figure out whose list works best in the U.S. so I think it is a fair metric). So the gross only gives us part of the picture. The budget is an interesting metric, as it provides information about how much money a film's backers thought it would make and it provides a handy benchmark with which to evaluate (unfortunately, I was not able to find budget figures for a number of the smaller films, further skewing the totals you'll see). Net Gross is a great metric because it incorporates a couple of different things: it's not just a measure of how popular a movie is, it's a measure of how popular a movie is versus how much it cost to make (i.e. how much a film's producers believed in the film). In the context of a top 10 list, it's almost like pretending that the list creator was the head of a studio who chose what films to greenlight. It's not a perfect metric, but it's pretty good. The number of theaters the film showed in is an interesting metric because it shows how much faith theater chains had in the movie (and in looking at the numbers, it seems that the highest grossing films also had the most theaters). However, this could again be misleading because it's only the widest release. I doubt there are many films where the number of theaters doesn't drop considerably after opening weekend. Dollars per theater is perhaps the least interesting metric, but I thought it interesting enough to include.

One other thing to note is that I gathered all of this data earlier this week (Sunday and Monday), and some of the films just recently hit wide distribution (notably Pan's Labyrinth and Children of Men, neither of which have recouped costs yet) and will make more money. Some films will be re-released around Oscar season, as the studios seek to cash in on their award winning films.

I've posted all of my data on a public Google Spreadsheet (each list is on a separate tab), and I've linked each list below to their respective tab with all the data broken out. This table features the totals for the metrics I went over above: Domestic Gross, Budget, Net Gross, Theaters, and Dollars Per Theater (DPT).

List Gross Budget Net Gross Theaters DPT
(Mark Ciocco)
$484,154,522 $319,850,000 $164,092,855 16,675 $29,034.75
(James Berardinelli)
$586,767,062 $607,000,000 -$20,674,428 16,217 $36,182.22
(Adam Kempenaar)
$210,592,457 $234,850,000 -$27,159,180 8,589 $24,518.86
(Sam Van Hallgren)
$79,756,419 $152,204,055 -$73,445,839 4,467 $17,854.58
Philadelphia Inquirer
(Steven Rea)
$236,690,299 $239,000,000 -$40,474,006 10,239 $23,116.54
The New York Times
(A.O. Scott)
$104,484,584 $92,358,000 $11,238,032 3,641 $28,696.67
Rolling Stone
(Peter Travers)
$419,088,036 $264,400,000 $119,130,515 14,784 $28,347.41
Washington Post
(Stephen Hunter)
$540,183,488 $362,900,000 $169,683,807 15,394 $35,090.52
The Onion AV Club
(Scott Tobias)
$195,779,774 $191,580,000 $1,308,777 6,844 $28,606.05

This was quite an interesting exercise, and it would appear from the numbers, that perhaps not all film critics are as out of touch as originally thought. Or are they? Let's take a closer look.
  • Kaedrin (Mark Ciocco): The most surprising thing about my list is that every single film in my top 10 made a profit. In addition, my high net gross figure (around $164 million, which ended up being second out of the nine lists) isn't overly dependent on any single film (the biggest profit vehicle on my list was Inside Man, with about $43 millon, or about 1/4 my net gross). The only real wild card here is Lady Vengeance, which only made about $212 thousand. Its budget figure wasn't available and it was a foreign film that was only released in 15 theaters (I saw it on DVD). Given this data, I think my list is the most well rounded of all the surveyed lists. Not to pat myself on the back here, but my list is among the top 3 lists for all of the metrics (and #1 in theaters). Plus, as you'll read below, the lists that appear ahead of me have certain outliers that skew the data a bit. However, even with all of that, I might not have the most mainstream list.
  • Reelviews (James Berardinelli): James is probably the world's greatest amateur critic, and his list is quite good (it shares 4 films with my own list). Indeed, his list leads the Domestic Gross and Budget Categories, as well as Dollars Per Theater. But look at that Net Gross metric! Almost -$21 million dollars. Ouch. What happened? Superman Returns happened. It made a little more than $200 million dollars at the box office, but it cost $270 million to make it. This skews James' numbers considerably, and he would have been around $50 million in the green if it weren't for Superman. He also has two films that were released in less than 25 theaters, which skews the numbers a bit as well.
  • Filmspotting (Adam Kempenaar): Of the two critics on the Filmspotting podcast, Adam is by far the one I agree with more often, but his list is among the more unprofitable ones. This is due in great part to his inclusion of Children of Men, which has only recently come out in wide release, and which still has to make almost $50 million before it recoups its cost (I think it will make more money, but not enough to break even). To a lesser extent, his inclusion of two foreign films (Pan's Labyrinth and Volver) has also skewed the results a bit (both films did well at the foreign box office). Given those disclaimers, Adam's list isn't as bad as it seems, but it still not too hot. It is, however, better than his co-host:
  • Filmspotting (Sam Van Hallgren): I think it's safe to say that Sam takes the award for least mainstream critic. He's got the worst Domestic Gross and Net Gross of the group, by a significant margin. Like his co-host Adam, this can partly be explained by his inclusion of Children of Men and other small, independent, or foreign films. But it's a pretty toxic list. Only two films on his list turned a profit, which is a pretty miserable showing. Interestingly enough, I still think Sam is a pretty good critic. You don't have to agree with a critic to get something useful out of them, and I know what I'm getting with Sam. Plus, it helps that he's got a good foil in his co-host Adam.
  • Philadelphia Inquirer(Steven Rea): I kinda like my local critic's list, and it's definitely worth noting that his pick of the Chinese martial arts epic Curse of the Golden Flower has impacted his list considerably (as a high budget foreign film that did well internationally, but which understandably didn't do that great domestically). That choice alone (-$40 million) put him in the red. He's also got Pan's Labyrinth on his list, which will go on to make more money. Plus, he suffers from a data problem in that I couldn't find budget figures for The Queen, which has made around $35 million and almost certainly turned a profit. Even with those caveats, he's still only treading water.
  • The New York Times (A.O. Scott): I wanted to choose a critic from both New York and LA (due to the fact that most LA critics seemed to have a lot of ties, I decided not to include their lists), and A.O. Scott's list provides a decent example of why. Three of his picks were only shown in 6 theaters or less. This is more or less what you'd expect from a New York critic. They are one of the two cities that gets these small movies, so you'd expect their critics to show their superiority by including these films in their list (I'm sure they're good films too, but I think this is an interesting dynamic). In any case, it's worth noting that Mr Scott (heh) actually turned a profit. How could this be? Well, he included Little Miss Sunshine on his list. That movie has a net gross of around $50 million dollars, which gave Mr Scott significant breathing room for his other picks.
  • Rolling Stone (Peter Travers): I've always thought of this guy as your typical critic that doesn't like anything popular, but his list is pretty decent, and he turns out to be among the tops in terms of net gross with $119 million. One caveat here is that he does feature a tie in his list (so he has 11 films), but the tie consists of the two Clint Eastwood war flicks, both of which have lost considerable amounts of money (in other words, this list is actually a little undervalued by my metrics). So how did his list get so high? He also had Little Miss Sunshine on his list, which, as already mentioned, was quite the moneymaker. But even bigger than that, he included Borat in his list. Borat is a low budget movie that made huge amounts of cash, and it's net gross comes in at almost $110 million! So those two films account for the grand majority of his net gross. However, of all the lists, I think his is probably the most mainstream (while still retaining a critics edge) and gives my list a run for its money.
  • Washington Post (Stephen Hunter): I wanted to choose a critic from WaPo because it's one of the other "papers of record," and much to my amazement, his turns out to have the highest net gross! He seems to feature the most obscure picks, with 4 films that I couldn't even find budget data for (but which seem pretty small anyway). He's got both Little Miss Sunshine and Borat, which proves to be quite a profitable duo, and he's also got big moneymakers like The Departed and Casino Royale. It's an interesting list.
  • The Onion AV Club (Scott Tobias): He scrapes by with around $1 million net gross, though it should be noted that his list features Children of Men (a big loss film) and a couple of movies that I couldn't find budgets for. It's an interesting list, but it comes in somewhere around the upper middle of the pack.
Whew! That took longer than I thought. Which critic is the most mainstream? I think a case could be made for my list, Peter Travers' list, or Stephen Hunter's list. I think I'd give it to Peter Travers, with myself in a close second place and Stephen Hunter nipping at our heels.

Statistically, the biggest positive outliers appeared to be Little Miss Sunshine and Borat, and the biggest negative outliers appeared to be Flags of our Fathers and Children of Men (both of which will make more money, as they are currently in theaters).

Obviously, this list is not authoritative, and I've already spent too much time harping on the qualitative issues with my metrics, but I found it to be an interesting exercise (if I ever do something similar again, I'm going to need to find a way to automate some of the data gathering, though). Well, this pretty much shuts the door on the 2006 Kaedrin Awards season. I hope you enjoyed it.