How important is the opening week to a movie’s total box office?

I was contacted by a reader who asked about the importance of the opening weekend as a percentage of the total amount a movie will gross.  Specifically, they asked about Black Panther, a movie which has stayed in cinemas for longer than most and for which the high point of press attention seemed to come a few weeks after its initial release.  “Does this mean that it made more money in weeks three and four than week one?” they asked. The significance of the opening week’s gross is a great topic to study, so I took a look.  I built a database of all movies released domestically (i.e. in American and Canadian cinemas) in the twenty years between 1998 and 2017, inclusive.  I then looked at the weekly box office gross (i.e. the money the cinema collected, before any deductions such as tax or the cinema cut).

Is week one often a weak one?

Across all 10,719 movies I studied, just under half had their highest grossing week in the first week of release. To some readers, this may seem strange.  We often hear about the opening week or weekend being key in the performance of a movie and yet the data below may not show as a strong an effect as some expected.  The reason for this apparent disconnect is that not all films have the same experience.  The big Hollywood studio tentpole movies only really get one week in which they can monopolise the media and cinema screens. If we narrow our focus to only the top 50 grossing films of each year, this pattern is clear.  Nine out of ten had their highest grossing week in their first week.

How much smaller is week two compared with week one?

Across all movies which were on release for at least two weeks, the average week two gross was half the gross of week one.  Only 27% of movies made more in week two than they did in week one.

Fast burning vs slow release

As we have seen, most movies perform best in their first week.  However, this does not mean that the subsequent weeks are not important to their overall total gross. Below are three movies which stayed on release for a long time and followed the typical pattern of earning most of their money in the first few weeks.  Gladiator reached half of its eventual domestic gross in week 3 of release, despite still being in cinemas for over a year.  Likewise, Moulin Rouge reached its midpoint in week 4 and Get Out in week 2. Below are three more movies with long cinema lives, but which fit a different recoupment pattern.  These three have a ‘long tail’, meaning that the later weeks were relatively more lucrative than is typical for movies.  It took Searching For Sugarman 13 weeks to reach half of its eventual total gross. Silver Linings Playbook took 11 weeks and The Piano Teacher took 9.

Black Panther

The original question was about the progress of Black Panther.  The movie was released in the States on 16th February and has grossed just under $700 million domestically so far.  It reached half that figure in its second week, and week two’s gross was 49% of that of week one.  This means that it fits the more typical model for a studio tentpole rather than a ‘long tail’ release, slowly picking up steam.

Notes

The data for today’s research came from Box Office Mojo, The Numbers and IMDb.

Further reading

If you want to know more about how the box office income is distributed then you may enjoy reading the following articles: