If a movie was released in theaters, you can find its box office reported. “The Wizard of Oz” made $969,000 internationally when it came out in 1939. Type a title into Box Office Mojo and see what comes up.
This is useful information for a few reasons. Here’s a compelling one: A couple years ago a study looked at global box office between 2014-2017 and found that female-led films outperformed male-led films at all budget levels. There’s a transparency to the data — studios, for example, can’t greenlight a slate of movies featuring almost all-male leads and pretend it’s smart business.
Box office performance doesn’t just influence what movies get made, it can also help shape how we think about any given movie.
“It’s rare that you’ll have a conversation about a movie without somehow, some way, the box office or the performance of a movie being brought up,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore, which compiles box office data.
Would the idea of cult hit even exist if we didn’t know that it flopped when it first opened only to be rediscovered at some later point when people found it on TV or at midnight screenings?
But what about movies that are released by streaming services, which as a whole rarely provide any data? How do we talk about those movies when we know next to nothing to about how well they did?
“This is an issue that wouldn’t have even existed five years ago,” said Dergarabedian. “It’s analogous to sports — what if suddenly there were no stats in sports? The whole thing would fall apart. But if you want to be a disrupter, I guess you change the rules on how we perceive what success means. And I think that’s what streaming services are doing here.”
But what if we could point to a number, like box office, and get some idea of whether a streaming release is “successful” or not?
--Let’s look at one Oscar contender: Can Martin Scorsese’s crime film “The Irishman” make money for Netflix?
Blogging anonymously under the name Entertainment Strategy Guy, one Hollywood analyst has given this question considerable thought. And he’s created some mathematical models to come up with an answer.
He says “The Irishman” would have to be Netflix’s biggest hit to date — “crossing 110 million subscribers watching globally” (Netflix has nearly 160 million subscribers in total) — in order to make money for the streaming service. And by his calculations, the movie actually lost $280 million and he’ll explain how he got to that number below.
He talks about his methods in depth in four separate blog posts where he walks readers through his thought process, which draws on his experience working at a major streaming service in business development and strategy. He prefers to stay anonymous should he ever decide to return to work in the industry again. (The Tribune agreed to use his nom de plume and has confirmed his identity.)
He’s writing about an aspect of streaming that most journalists aren’t tackling. “I think that’s because it’s just early,” said Comscore’s Dergarabedian. “We’re in the infancy of this and everyone’s trying to figure it out. But I think more and more journalists are going to be looking at this question. And in looking at this gentleman’s analysis, it’s as good as any.”
Entertainment Strategy Guy acknowledges that he doesn’t have access to Netflix internal data, so he’s making some assumptions that may not always be right. Sometimes he’s rounding numbers. But taking all that into account, it’s a worthy thought experiment.
--What do we know about who saw “The Irishman”?
Starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, the movie is the (possibly embellished) story of a real-life mob hit man who worked with Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa and was supposedly responsible for his death. The film became available to subscribers in late November.
Shortly after, Netflix announced it was forecasting that 40 million accounts will have watched at least 70% of the movie in its first month online. Here’s Entertainment Strategy Guy’s response to that: “If you want the good interpretation, getting 40 million people to watch anything is a win.”
Because Netflix doesn’t release data about all of its offerings, we can’t know what that 40 million number means compared to other films on the site.
What if we take that 40 million and multiply it by the average ticket price ($9): Does that give us a starting point to make some comparisons with a theoretical box office of $360 million?
Entertainment Strategy Guy says no: 40 million accounts is not equivalent to 40 million people buying tickets. Why? Because you can’t assume the same people who streamed the movie online would automatically pay to see it in theaters if that were the only option. Price and convenience are real factors when people make these kinds of choices.
For some context: 43 million people in the U.S. went to see “Spider-Man: Far From Home” in theaters, which was the fifth highest grossing movie of 2019. What are the chances “The Irishman” could match that? Probably nonexistent.
Instead, Entertainment Strategy Guy looked at other films in the same genre.
“I wanted to get an idea of, had this been released only in theaters, what was the potential upside for theatrical run if this was a hit?” The highest grossing equivalent was “American Hustle,” which made $150 million domestically. Scorsese’s highest grossing mob film was “The Departed,” which made $132 million domestically.
In other words, Netflix might have left money on the table. Entertainment Strategy Guy isn’t alone in thinking that.
Doug Stone is president of Box Office Analyst, and he consults with theater owners, studios and financial analysts about box office numbers. He thinks if the “The Irishman” had been given a wide release in theaters like Scorsese’s previous films, it potentially could have brought in anywhere from $80-$115 million: “It would have been very substantial box office. The fact is, Scorsese has a track record of doing well.