When it comes to box office results, Birds of Prey or otherwise, everybody is an expert — especially when there’s blood in the water.
Of course, if anybody had cracked the secret to box-office-record-breaking success, they wouldn’t be writing about it on the internet. They’d have a job at a studio of their choice. Warner Bros. wouldn’t have started investing heavily in computer algorithms to help spot box office winners, and Disney wouldn’t have been miles ahead of competitors last year while looking at a leaner haul this year.
There’s always a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking when it comes to perceived box office disappointments. This weekend, attention was focused on Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, which opened with “only” $33.2M at the American box office and another $48M internationally. Pundits weighed in quickly on this “troubling” box office “egg.”
As ever, the framing of this result is more about narratives than about numbers. After all, Birds of Prey already grossed back most of its $97.1M budget. Even allowing for the question of the marketing budget, it will make back its budget and change. Birds of Prey won’t make a loss at cinemas and is certainly worlds apart from Cats’ $100M loss or Blade Runner 2049’s $80M write-off.
It’s notable that Birds of Prey earned more than Ford v. Ferrari in its opening weekend, despite costing less. However, the Monday morning reports cited Ford v. Ferrari “crushing” the weekend and leaving “its competitors in the dust.” It’s largely about perception, and Birds of Prey was undercut by bullish projections of a $52M opening weekend, which were then revised down to $45M.
When these sorts of things happen, there is speculation. However, much like the assessment of the results themselves, this speculation is more often than not rooted in an attempt to narrativize the failure, to create a story that explains the result that inevitably conforms to the observer’s world view. These narratives often say more about the person speculating than the film speculated upon.
Any attempt to construct a narrative to account for these sorts of results inevitably runs aground. There are always counter-examples that do not fit the story that the prognosticator is trying to tell. Consider the “go woke, go broke” talking point, which would be a sound theory if Captain Marvel and Black Panther hadn’t both grossed over $1 billion worldwide.
The more committed people are to these narratives, the more elaboration occurs. Captain Marvel and Black Panther might be exceptional cases due to the momentum of Infinity War and Endgame, they argue, even if that glosses over how severely each outgrossed Ant Man and the Wasp. It also doesn’t account for the success of Halloween (2018), Wonder Woman, or Mad Max: Fury Road.
These assessments are easily disproved by even a cursory look at the actual evidence. However, some box office prognoses are by design incontrovertible because to disprove them would require a looking glass into an alternate dimension for point of comparison.
These versions often hinge on imagined alternate versions of the film, involving shifting goalposts and idle speculation. In response to the disappointing box office for Birds of Prey, lots of commentators wondered whether the film “needed” an R-rating that might exclude the target audience. Ignoring the fact that the R-rating is fundamentally baked into the identity of Birds of Prey, the logic isn’t entirely convincing.
After all, why stop at PG-13? Why not PG? When the PG-13 Power Rangers failed, director Dean Israelite insisted that a PG version would have performed better. Others have argued that PG-13 films would have performed better with more mature ratings, with Nicolas Cage convinced that Ghost Rider should feature “a scary superhero with an R-rating.”
Of course, there’s no way to actually know. That’s part of the appeal of such speculation. There’s no way to know what an R-rated Ghost Rider or a PG-13 Birds of Prey would look like, so these pundits are measuring a version of the film that exists in the real world against one in their imagination. It’s appealing for the same reason Colin Trevorrow’s version of The Rise of Skywalker is appealing.
When all else fails, it makes sense to blame the marketing team. This is the most obvious point of failure. After all, even terrible movies can succeed with the right marketing, to the point that Suicide Squad was famously recut by the team responsible for its trailer. Hollywood histories like The Men Who Would Be King are full of executives and creatives blaming PR people for embarrassing flops.
Publicity is designed to sell a product to the audience. Failure to sell that product to an audience is failure of publicity. Of course, this doesn’t account for the success of projects steeped in toxic publicity — like Bohemian Rhapsody. It also doesn’t account for the under-performance of films that are sold clearly — everybody knew what to expect from Hobbs & Shaw, but it still underperformed.
So, accepting that box office prognostication is akin to technological astrology and that trying to discern the motivations of large crowds of movie-goers is a dark art at the best of times, why do we do it? Partly, it’s fun. It’s nice to speculate about such things. It allows us to play the part of Benoit Blanc in a low-stakes game of Knives Out. It sparks conversations about films, and everybody loves to talk about films.
It may also be an effort to impose order on chaos. The fates of those blockbusters have far-reaching implications. Paramount was once known as “the mountain” for its steadiness and reliability. Recently, a string of disappointments in the fourth quarter of 2016 cost them $180M and led to the ouster of CEO Brad Grey. Now the studio’s future hinges on the Mission: Impossible franchise.
In such a volatile climate, it’s tempting to believe that the whims of audiences are not so arbitrary as to be completely unpredictable. Box office speculation discounts factors like luck and chance in scheduling and releasing, attempting to distill the success or failure of a given film down to something approaching a fine art or science. In an era where studios are built on high-budget, high-stakes tentpoles that could collapse out from under them like dominoes, this belief is reassuring.
More than that, this sort of speculation often comes with an argument to authority. These sorts of box office musings tend to come with a strong subtext: “Hollywood should listen to my opinion. My taste is absolute. I know how things should work.” This is particularly common on the internet, where people are frequently highly invested in things like intellectual property and cinema.
“I think Birds of Prey would have been better if they had listened to me,” doesn’t quite carry the weight and gravitas of, “Birds of Prey would have made a lot more money if they had listened to me.” Never mind that “listening to the internet” is a strategy with mixed results at best, as the sad story of Snakes on a Plane and the disappointment of Cowboys vs. Aliens demonstrate. The internet tends to amplify the loudest voices, not those most reflective.
To listen to the internet, everybody has a theory about why Birds of Prey performed the way that it did. I have a couple myself, mostly related to the fickle nature of the “dump months,” where — despite studios’ best efforts to expand blockbuster season — you’re as likely to end up with an underwhelming result like Watchmen as a record-breaker like 300. A February release is a dice roll.
It might also be possible to argue that, while a single bad film doesn’t always scare audiences away from a franchise, it might take a toll. The Transformers films performed well in the face of bad reviews, though returns are declining. Birds of Prey followed on from Suicide Squad and Justice League, and perhaps the quality of those films caught up with it. This assumes audiences can distinguish between the branding on Justice League and Aquaman, between the hated Suicide Squad and the well-liked Shazam! It may well be overthinking it.
But, hey. It’s just a theory.