As filmmakers and creatives, more often than not, we resist the numbers side of the business. Whether budgets or box office results, it is easy to overlook these important figures and lose yourself in screenwriting, shot lists, production design, and all the other creative aspects of the industry.
However, by taking a real look at the numbers - you will set yourself up for greater success when it comes time to make your film. By looking at the numbers and really being honest about who your audience is (and who is actually buying tickets), you can better position your film for prosperity.
Stage 32 member and former box office analyst, David Outten, has put together an amazing article to help you find your audience and maximize success on your next film.
The movie industry is not just about creating what pleases you. It’s about creating entertainment that will delight an audience. The major studios put a lot of money into big movies seeking to serve a huge international audience. Independent filmmakers often target much smaller audience groups, but they have a target.
Before you put one word on paper you need to consider who your potential audience is and how you can expand that audience. If you spend $5 million making a movie for a $10 million box office you may not break even. There are marketing and distribution costs. However, if you excite a $20 million audience then your profit margin soars. Reach $50 million on a $5 million budget and you’re considered a miracle filmmaker. You get invited to make more movies.
Every year the MPAA produces a report with a chart showing the percentage of Americans (P.O.A) who are frequent moviegoers. Frequent moviegoers go once a month or more. The report includes the percent who are occasional moviegoers (less than once a month), the percent who are infrequent moviegoers (once a year) and, the dreaded group, non-moviegoers. This chart explains a great deal about the movie industry that every scriptwriter and producer needs to understand the basics. The 2019 MPAA Report showed that 12% of Americans were frequent moviegoers and 53% were occasional moviegoers. A companion chart showed that 49% of all tickets were sold to the 12% frequent moviegoers and 49% were sold to the 53% who were occasional moviegoers.
The major studios study what the 12% like best and create a production schedule accordingly. Disney has Marvel and Lucas Film, Warner Bros. has DC Comics, and Sony has Spider-Man to serve the ComicCon frequent moviegoers and Disney has Pixar, Disney Animation, and Disney live-action to serve frequent family moviegoers. Universal has Illumination. Comic-Con and family films tend to fill the top ten list every year, but let’s look at the actual percentage of Americans each movie draws. This is arrived at by dividing the movie’s box office by the average ticket price (to get the number of ticket buyers) and then dividing that by America’s population that year to get the P.O.A. (for 2019 I used 2018s average ticket price of $9.11)
Here is the percentage of Americans attending 2019s top movies.
Only eight movies out of 904 listed on Box Office MoJo’s annual chart attracted more than the 12 percent number of frequent moviegoers.
The frequent moviegoer base is shifting.
MPAA reports from 2013-2018 show that frequent moviegoers aged 2 to 24 declined from 47% in 2013 to just 30% in 2018 while the percentage of frequent moviegoers aged 40 and above rose from 32% to 43%. The reports showed that in just five years the population of the United States went from 21% 60 and over to 23%. Sixty and up is not just the fastest-growing demographic in the United States, it’s even more pronounced in developed nations around the world where birth rates have plummeted for decades. This demographic also tends to have the most free time and the most money.
Wisely, Stage 32 hosts a Grown Up Movies scriptwriting contest for stories appealing to the 50 and over set.
Younger audiences are the most rapid adopters of streaming and are the heaviest users to digital devices. This undoubtedly is part of the explanation for the frequent moviegoer shift.
The vast majority of movies made and released do not get 4,000 theater opening weekends. Their P.O.A. can be modest. I’m most interested in the faith-based market. Here’s how their movies did in 2019.
The remarkable thing is that a movie attracting 1.4% of Americans can be quite profitable. Breakthrough made $40.7 million on a budget of $14 million. Breakthrough and Overcomer were both in the top 10 percent of box office results. The vast majority of movies do not attract 1% of Americans.
When you consider the percentage of Americans who’d be willing to buy a ticket to your movie you may pause to wonder, “How can I double that?” If Breakthrough had attracted just 2.8% of Americans it would have brought in $81.4 million and had a MUCH healthier profit margin.
My example of faith-based films holds true if you look at any market: horror, romance, LGBT, anything. If you aim your movie at a niche market your profitability depends on keeping costs low and increasing your P.O.A.
Breakthrough is the third in a series of movies dealing with a child who dies and comes back to life. The first, Heaven is for Real, had a robust $91 million box office on a $12 million budget. Lots of independent filmmakers would be happy with that, but when you remake that theme it’s very uncommon to experience the success of an original concept.
Heaven is for Real (2014) 3.5%
Miracles from Heaven (2016) 2.2%
Breakthrough (2019) 1.4%
The God’s Not Dead series was even more pronounced in its decline.
God’s Not Dead (2014) 2.3%
God’s Not Dead 2 (2016) 0.7%
God’s Not Dead 3 (2018) 0.2%
There’s tremendous money being made on sequels, but examining P.O.A. tells an interesting story about declining interest, even in the biggest of all series.
Here were the original three.
Here were George Lucas’ next three.
Here are Disney’s three.
Here are the spinoffs.
A side note to this apparent trend is that as popularity decreases budgets often go up. Star Wars cost $11 million, The Empire Strikes Back cost $23 million, and Return of the Jedi cost $32 million.
The history of the motion picture industry is punctuated with box office miracles. There have been those times when a movie does what social media calls “going viral.” It just soars above all competition and pulls an astounding percentage of Americans into movie theaters. The greatest of these can be found on Box Office Mojos All time box office list (adjusted for inflation).
The lesson to be learned from these movies is that the really big money comes from really big creativity when it works. There are times when it doesn’t.
When it does work Hollywood gets serious bandwagon syndrome.
One of the worst cases of "bandwagon syndrome" was the big musical frenzy following The Sound of Music. The Sound of Music saved 20th Century Fox then almost destroyed it with costly “Let’s do this again musicals.” Other studios joined in the frenzy as well. Look at this P.O.A. progression.
What the studios failed to see about The Sound of Music was the box office value of Maria. Julie Andrews played Maria to perfection, but it was Maria’s joy and her resistance to stifling authority that won an 81% P.O.A. In 1968 Star! featured both Julie Andrews and The Sound of Music’s director Robert Wise, but it was a monumental flop because Julie played the part of a self-centered broadway star. It was offensive to Maria lovers.
What audiences love most is something new and exciting. There is a lot of money that can be made on “do it again” or “bandwagon” movies, but miraculous P.O.A. comes from taking a chance on something new and doing it extremely well.
The Blind Side featured a white Southern Christian family and drew multiples of what most faith-based movies make because the story was good enough to reach beyond churchgoers. It was so impressive that Sandra Bullock won an Academy Award playing a part unlike anything you see on television or in other movies. The movie modeled love and compassion with no preaching. On a $29 million budget it brought in $255 million for an 11.1% P.O.A. That’s nearly ten times the P.O.A of many of the popular faith-based movies.
Another movie that was remarkably different and successful was Forrest Gump in 1994. It made $330 million on a $55 million budget and had a 30% P.O.A. Imagine making a movie about a man with a 75 IQ that Americans fell in love with. Not only did Americans love Forrest, but the movie won best picture and best actor and four more Academy Awards. This was far from a “bandwagon or a “do that again” movie. While it did contain some offensive material, it modeled love and innocence.
Exodus: Gods and Kings had a P.O.A. of 2.5% while The Ten Commandments had a P.O.A. of 85.8%. The difference was the portrayal of Moses. Cecil B. DeMille’s Moses was a liberator sent by God. Ridley Scott’s Moses was a confused Jewish terrorist. Scott had the advantage of 21st Century CGI Cecil B. DeMille would have loved, but his Moses was not someone audiences could love.
A brilliant example of an unusual character made to be attractive was E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Imagine a creature who is not good looking being made into someone audiences adored. That was great creative filmmaking.
If you want to drastically increase the percentage of Americans willing to buy a ticket to your movie give them someone to love. Put that person under threat and let them continue to be unselfish in the face of great peril. If possible, make them adorable.
In Christian circles reaching the lost means convincing unbelievers to become believers, but in the movie business, it means getting members of the “non-moviegoer” MPAA category into theaters. Take a look at what happens to the domestic box office when you reach higher and higher P.O.A.s. In 2020 with our current population and ticket price this is what it looks like.
P.O.A. Domestic Box Office
The domestic box office of Avenger: Endgame’s 28.4% P.O.A. was $858 million. If someone achieved an 80% P.O.A. now their domestic box office would be $2.5 billion. It would blow away all domestic box office records because our population is so much greater than it was in the days of The Ten Commandments or The Sound of Music.
To get beyond the 28% of Avengers: Endgame you need to reach far past the Comic-Con crowd while still delighting the Comic-Con crowd. Black Panther topped the box office in 2018 by greatly increasing the black audience while still attracting the Comic-Con audience (regardless of color). Wonder Woman reached out to women as well as Comic-Con fans. While I’m not proposing you have some geriatric superhero, it wound be possible to have a grandparent play a heroic part in a movie still popular with younger audiences.
Regardless of your favorite genre I wish you the best and hope you’re inspired to be more creative and to aim higher.
David Outten is a retired box office analyst with the Christian Film and Television Commission. He is now a screenwriter trying to apply some of the lessons learned in order to make some extremely popular movies. He’s equally excited about helping others fill theaters and television with quality family entertainment.
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