Can the Westerns Genre Thread the Gender Gap Needle?

The big box office news this past weekend was the big decline in ticket sales for Suicide Squad and the strong opening for Sausage Party. But, without much fanfare, the best performing movie of the weekend was Hell or High Water. Because it only opened in 32 theaters this weekend, you won’t find it in the box office top ten. It was, however, the number one movie of the weekend in terms of ticket sales per theater, racking up an impressive per screen average of $18,500, well ahead of Sausage Party at $10,828 per screen. Could the Western genre be experiencing a renaissance?

The big box office news this past weekend was the big decline in ticket sales for Suicide Squad and the strong opening for Sausage Party. But, without much fanfare, the best performing movie of the weekend was Hell or High Water, a modern day Western. Because it only opened in 32 theaters this weekend, you won’t find it in the box office top ten. It was, however, the number one movie of the weekend in terms of ticket sales per theater, racking up an impressive per screen average of $18,500, well ahead of Sausage Party at $10,828 per screen. Could the Western genre be experiencing a renaissance?

Westerns were very popular in the twentieth century up until the 1960’s. After that it seemed like their audience rode off into the sunset with the heroes of this genre. The decline of the Western genre may be influenced by the growing purchasing power of women. Today women purchase more than half of the tickets sold at movie theaters and Westerns have not been popular with women.

In a study I did of IMDB’s top movies from the Western genre the problem becomes evident. Women typically make up around 16% of the IMDB vote. For the Western genre women make up around 9% of the vote. For all movies, women have the same IMDB average rating as men. For Westerns, women have an average rating that is 0.3 points lower.

It appears that movie studios recognized that they had a problem attracting women to Western movies and began to make them more female-friendly. My study bears this out.

Movie IMDB Average Rating
Release Male Female Female % of all Votes
Pre-1970             8.4             8.0 8.5%
Post-1969             7.8             7.8 13.0%

In terms of female participation and average rating, the gender gap was clearly narrowing in the Post-1969 era.

In my 40 movie sample, three actors appear in multiple movies and they are instructive of the Western gender gap.

IMDB Average Rating
# of Movies Male Female Female % of all Votes
John Wayne 6             7.9             7.4 10%
Clint Eastwood 8             8.4             8.1 7%
Kevin Costner 4             7.7             7.7 13%

John Wayne and Clint Eastwood are symbolic of the golden age of Westerns and representative of the gender gap experienced by the genre. John Wayne is the tough as nails hero. Clint Eastwood is the tough as nails anti-hero.  Kevin Costner, on the other hand plays a more charming and humanistic hero in his movies. Where John Wayne is an Indian fighter in his roles, Costner becomes a friend of the Indians in Dances with Wolves. Where Clint Eastwood is the less than noble loner, Costner in Open Range becomes the romantic partner of the female ranch owner in her quest to protect her land.

In the Post-1969 era of the Western genre, movie producers are clearly recognizing the need to appeal to women to make the genre viable again. On the flip side, the average male vote is lower as the machismo in these movies is mitigated. It is an interesting case study in movie market dynamics.

It will be interesting to track Hell or High Water  as it moves to wider release next week. In early IMDB voting, it has 15% female participation in the voting, above average for the genre, and a male average rating of 8.2, suggesting strong male appeal. Early on it is threading the gender gap needle. We’ll have to wait a few weeks to see if this early trend continues.

Does Rotten Tomatoes Unduly Influence the Movie Box Office?

DC Comics fans were so enraged by the emerging Rotten rating for Suicide Squad last week that they initiated a petition to shut down the Rotten Tomatoes website. Do they have a point? Do critics prejudice movie viewers against movies with Rotten ratings?

A firestorm arose last week among DC Comics fans when reviews started to aggregate on Rotten Tomatoes for the latest DC Comics movie installment, Suicide Squad. From those early reviews it was clear that DC Comics was headed to its third straight Rotten rating. As of today the Rotten Tomatoes Ratings for the three DC movies released so far are:

Release Date Rotten Tomatoes Rating
Man of Steel 6/14/2013 Rotten 55%
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice 5/23/2016 Rotten 27%
Suicide Squad 8/5/2016 Rotten 26%

DC Comics fans were so enraged by the emerging Rotten rating for Suicide Squad last week that they initiated a petition to shut down the Rotten Tomatoes website. Do they have a point? Do critics prejudice movie viewers against movies with Rotten ratings?

Last year I created a time series of movies released in the second half of 2015 that made it into the weekly box office top ten. From that data, I’m able to measure box office performance for movies rated Certified Fresh vs. Rotten by Rotten Tomatoes.

Top Ten Box Office Movies
Released  July 17 to October 13, 2015
Opening Weekend Box Office (1,000,000) Total Box Office (1,000,000) % Growth After First Weekend
Certified Fresh  $        26.50  $       92.14 247.7%
Rotten  $        13.37  $       40.19 200.6%

Certified Fresh movies, on average, open with almost twice the box office as Rotten Movies. And, after the first weekend, the additional growth in sales is 23.5% greater for Certified Fresh movies. In addition, Certified Fresh movies have an average theatrical box office run of 96 days as opposed to 72 days for movies rated Rotten.

So obviously Rotten Tomatoes does influence theater goers into seeing Certified Fresh movies over Rotten movies, right? Yes, and justifiably so. Audiences enjoy the Certified Fresh movies more according to IMDB feedback from opening weekend movie goers.

Top Ten Box Office Movies
Released  July 17 to October 13, 2015
Opening Weekend IMDB Rating
Certified Fresh                7.9
Rotten                6.1

The people who go to movies on the opening weekend are the ones who are most predisposed to like the movie. If they rate Rotten movies low on IMDB, the casual viewer is likely to rate it even lower. Rotten Tomatoes is doing the person planning on going to the movies a service by redirecting then away from below average movies. In fairness, though, the IMDB ratings for the three DC Comics movies are better than the average Rotten rating in my study.

IMDB Rating as of 8/11/2016
Man of Steel 7.2
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice 6.9
Suicide Squad 7.0

These IMDB ratings are closer to what you might see for a Fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes. The  incongruity between the IMDB average ratings and Rotten Tomatoes might be worth a second look. The influence of bad reviews on the box office for these movies is also unclear..

Opening Weekend Box Office (1,000,000) Total Box Office (1,000,000) % Growth After First Weekend
Man of Steel  $      116.62  $     291.05 149.6%
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice  $      166.01  $     330.25 98.9%
Suicide Squad  $      135.10

At first blush, these movies appear to underperform in the weeks after successful opening weekends. But, when you compare their box office growth after opening weekend to the very successful Captain America: Civil War the post-opening weekend box office growth lags, but not outrageously so.

Opening Weekend Box Office (1,000,000) Total Box Office (1,000,000) % Growth After First Weekend
Captain America: Civil War  $      179.14  $     407.05 127.2%

We’ll have to wait and see whether Suicide Squad underperforms in subsequent weeks. But it might be that franchise movies have a built in audience that mitigates somewhat the influence of bad reviews for all but the casual movie goer.

Going to August Movies This Year May Be Suicide, but Some “Really Like” Prospects Come in Small Packages

As I mentioned in my last post, August is a below average month for ticket sales at the box office. Accordingly, August is one of the months that movie distributors use to dump movies that they don’t expect to do well. The historical exception to this is promising small movies with modest budgets. It is possible that there is a second exception.Two years ago we saw the successful launch of Guardians of the Galaxy on the first weekend in August. The gamble was that the first weekend in August was more like July, the blockbuster mecca, than the rest of August

As I mentioned in my last post, August is a below average month for ticket sales at the box office. Accordingly, August is one of the months that movie distributors use to dump movies that they don’t expect to do well. The historical exception to this is promising small movies with modest budgets. It is possible that there is a second exception.Two years ago we saw the successful launch of Guardians of the Galaxy on the first weekend in August. The gamble was that the first weekend in August was more like July, the blockbuster mecca, than the rest of August.

In selecting my August “really like” prospects, the trick is to separate the wheat from the chaff. I need to find the movies that fit the exceptions noted above and avoid the dumps. With that in mind, consider the following five movies:

Suicide Squad  Release Date: August 5, 2016  “Really Like Probability” 45%

One of the classic movies released in the 1960’s was The Dirty Dozen, in which twelve criminals with special skills were recruited for a black-ops mission during World War II. The success of The Dirty Dozen hinged on humanizing these “bad men” so that the audience would root for them. The movie succeeded in doing this by infusing a liberal dose of humor. Suicide Squad is a comic book version of the same story. Coming out of last week’s Comic-Con in San Diego, the movie is riding a positive buzz. I’m betting on the buzz being because the movie is good and not just hype. Because nobody has seen this movie so far, the probability reflects a little better than average probability for an August movie. As we get closer to opening weekend we’ll gain a better handle on whether this movie earns the buzz.

Hell or High Water  Release Date: August 12, 2016   “Really Like” Probability: 45%

This western, which premiered at Cannes this year, is very promising. Director David MacKenzie was nominated at Cannes for his work on the film. The screenplay was written by Taylor Sheridan, who made an impressive screenwriting debut last year for the hit Sicario. And, Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers who rob banks to save their farm while trying to avoid the dogged pursuit of a Texas Ranger, played by Jeff Bridges. Based on 15 reviews, Hell or High Water is already 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. With 200 votes on IMDB, it has an early average rating of 7.6.

Florence Foster Jenkins  Release Date: August 12, 2016  “Really Like” Probability: 40%

Meryl Streep is renowned for her ability to assume the accents of the many characters she has played in her distinguished career. In Florence Foster Jenkins, Streep, an accomplished singer, has to assume the singing voice of a woman who can’t sing a lick. This movie has already been released internationally and so we already have more feedback on it than is typical before a U.S. release. With 49 reviews in, it is 92% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s average rating on IMDB is a 7.1, but is 7.4 for voters over 45. Even without the positive feedback, though, any movie with Meryl Streep qualifies as a prospect. You can throw in Hugh Grant as the husband of Florence Foster Jenkins if you need more convincing.

Southside with You  Release Date: August 26, 2016  “Really Like” Probability: 35%

I’m a big fan of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy. The dialogue driven movies have an authenticity that are unusual in the Romance genre. Director and screenwriter Richard Tanne modeled his approach to the romance portrayed in Southside with You on Linklater’s work. That has me intrigued. The fact that the movie portrays the first date of Barack and Michelle Obama is an added dimension. Because this movie has taken the movie festival route including an opening at Sundance, there has been some feedback from critics, receiving an 88% fresh so far from 24 critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Given that we are in the middle of a heated political season, don’t be surprised if some political passions seep into the IMDB voting.

Little Men  Release Date: August 5, 2016     “Really Like” Probability” 30%

This is not  an adaptation of the Luisa May Alcott novel, but it is similar in its coming of age themes. Two young men, growing up in Brooklyn, develop a friendship while their parents feud. I’m kind of a sucker for good coming of age flix. This one opened in January at Sundance and has been shown domestically and internationally at a number of additional festivals since then. It has been favorably reviewed so far. Rotten Tomatoes is at 94% fresh based on 16 reviews. It is the kind of small movie that can do well in August.

For a month that isn’t favorable for good movies, there seems to be enough “really like” movies to look forward to if you stick mainly to small packages.

 

 

After the First Weekend, Think Small For August “Really Like” Movies

Easily the most anticipated movie release this August is the DC Comics movie Suicide Squad. Tracking numbers suggest that this could be the first August release to ever do $100,000,000+ at the box office in its opening weekend. The key piece of information in the last sentence isn’t that this high budget blockbuster movie is expected to do well. The key piece of information is that it could be the “first” August release to be a $100 million movie on opening weekend. August hasn’t historically been a good movie box office month

Easily the most anticipated movie release this August is the DC Comics movie Suicide Squad. Tracking numbers suggest that this could be the first August release to ever do $100,000,000+ at the box office in its opening weekend. The key piece of information in the last sentence isn’t that this high budget blockbuster movie is expected to do well. The key piece of information is that it could be the “first” August release to be a $100 million movie on opening weekend. August hasn’t historically been a good movie box office month. From 2011 to 2015, monthly box office sales averaged about $890 million a month. Over the same time frame, the August average box office was around $767 million, a below average month. It hasn’t typically been a month that is kind to blockbusters. In 2014, Disney struck gold with the August 1 release of the Marvel product, Guardians of the Galaxy  with a total gross sales of over $333 million against a $170 million budget. The following year Twentieth Century Fox tried to copy Guardians’ success by releasing the reboot of the Marvel comic creation Fantastic Four. It bombed, taking in a little over $56 million in total box office against a $120 million budget. Suicide Squad may very well determine the future of the first weekend in August as a launching pad for blockbusters.

You can find “really like” movies in every month. August is no different. Here are my top “really like” movies released in August:

Budget
Rear Window  $           1,000,000
In the Heat of the Night  $           2,000,000
Fugitive, The  $         44,000,000
Searching for Bobby Fischer  Not available
Sixth Sense, The  $         40,000,000

While all of these movies are excellent movies, August hasn’t been a particularly good month for “really like” movies. There is only a 41.9% probability that a movie released in August will be a “really like” movie for me.

Of the top 100 movies on IMDB’s Top Rated Movies list, only 4 were released in August, and all 4 were released over 35 years ago. Since the year 2000, there have been 106 Best Picture nominees. Only 4 were released in August:

Budget
The Help  $         25,000,000
District 9  $         30,000,000
Inglorious Basterds  $         75,000,000
Boyhood  $           4,000,000

The movies of quality released in August, prior to Guardians of the Galaxy, were typically low to modestly high budget movies. This makes sense when the month averages a below average box office.

Last year’s top August movies in terms of box office were:

Gross (000000) Budget (000000)
Straight Outta Compton $161.20  $                     28.00
War Room $67.80  $                       3.00
Fantastic Four $56.10  $                   120.00
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. $45.40  $                     75.00
The Gift $43.80  $                       5.00

The high budget movies bombed. The low budget movies succeeded.

You’ll need to come back on Thursday to see whether I think the Suicide Squad gamble will produce a “really like” movie. Beyond that I’ll be looking for modestly budgeted movies for my potential “really like” gems.