Serenity B.O. Forecast / Crowd Report
Serenity poster
By Lee Tistaert     Published September 30, 2005
This is one of those rare movies in which my predictions are all over the map; I?m not confidently locked on $4.5, 6 - 7, or 8 million for opening day (I?m ready for anything).
Serenity is a movie that I?ve been curious about ever since I saw the flick back in late-April. My initial response was that very few people would probably see this in theaters. On the other hand, there were moments in the movie that reminded me of other successful movies. As I stated in my review, the introduction reminded me of The Chronicles of Riddick, which was also Universal ? but that starred Vin Diesel, who is inarguably a bigger presence than anyone onboard Serenity on a mainstream front. There was even a scene nearing the end that for some reason made me think of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. And I also compared parts of the movie to Pluto Nash (which many people didn?t appreciate). After doing some research, I realized that Universal rarely bombs to that level; but the same can be said about Warner Bros.

Serenity is one of the biggest wildcards I?ve ever had to face at the box office. It could so easily tank and deliver Pluto Nash figures ($2.2 million weekend; $942 per-screen average), but there is a chance of a surprise following ? and the question is, just how much of a surprise? After I posted my review, I was viciously attacked by writer/director Joss Whedon?s faithful audience from Firefly (the show that Serenity is an adaptation of). These people had been referred to the review off word of mouth; my review was circulating online gossip boards and creating destruction in its path. Having gotten 15,000 hits for this review since April (the most viewed article we?ve ever had), it was very obvious that there was not only a cult audience ready to eat me alive, but there was also a sizable group of people who might allow Serenity to open well.

But with these kinds of movies, it?s very difficult to figure out who in fact is going to show up. Cult crowds are iffy because they can be a small piece of the pie in the scheme of things. I remember when there was some special thing online dealing with the opening of American Psycho, onliners were buzzing about the strong box office potential. Fan-boys a-buzzing happens all the time, but there was something exclusive going on with this film (the details of which I don?t remember). American Psycho then debuted to $5.0 million in 1,217 theaters. It was clear that just because you see a message board flooded with fans in anticipation doesn?t mean that normal moviegoers (whose attendance is usually required for a general hit) are going to join their excitement.

But with Serenity it?s more than just a message board or two in that regard. I apparently attended one of the first screenings for the movie, and eventually there were at least 70 pre-screenings (and considering that the average theater probably held 400 people, that?s 28,000 people). Movies do not generally get this type of pre-release exposure; studios try to keep the movie hush-hush. They want a certain amount of people to see their movies early to get a gage on reactions and marketing, but I had never seen this type of platform go into effect. That leads me to wonder: is Serenity really a blockbuster (or a general hit), or was this just a generous gift to Firefly fans? A gift to Firefly fans could mean that upon its official release, its audience could be even more limited.

And most of these pre-screenings required you to pay for admission (mine was free), and some people even trekked 400 mile roundtrips to get in. Word has it that every screening sold out to ecstatic Firefly fans who cheered when the characters came on screen ? and every screening concluded to massive applause, with many commenting that they didn?t want the experience to end. This sounds like Star Wars-like fare when you hear about it, but then you ask regular moviegoers and most either have no idea what Serenity is or don?t want to see it.

Quentin Tarantino has a cult audience that will kill for more material, but he also attracts a general audience as well, which allowed both Kill Bills to reach about $65 million domestically. I have considered Kill Bill: Volume 2 as a possible scenario for Serenity?s box office following (per-screen wise): its opening day gross was $10.6 million in 2,971 theaters, averaging $3,551/screen. The first Kill Bill opened to $8.0 million in 3,102 theaters and averaged $2,523/screen. It was clear that between the two installments, Tarantino had packed in additional fans wanting to take the ride. However odd as it may sound, you could view Volume 1 as Firefly (when it was on the air and on DVD ? its sales were explosive) and Volume 2 as Serenity. But Serenity is only getting 2,188 theaters, which means that Universal doesn?t have a lot of confidence; and for such a large-scaled sci-fi adventure, it would likely get at least 3,000 theaters if it weren?t so based in ?cult? territory.

However, Serenity?s producer, Barry Mendel, was also behind The Sixth Sense, which debuted in just 2,161 theaters and opened to $8.0 million and $3,704/screen in its first day. That was a surprise hit at the box office, but M. Night Shyamalan didn?t have a cult audience before Sixth Sense; no one knew who he was before that film?s ending made him an icon.

Then, of course, there are the Star Trek entries. The most recent one, Nemesis, opened in 2,711 theaters and grossed $7.7 million on its opening day, averaging $2,852/screen. It fell 15% in its second day due to diehard fans having rushed out; in comparison, Kill Bill: Volume 2 slid 20% in its second day. It?s hard not to consider this kind of a box office figure for Serenity, but you also have to realize that Star Trek had a big, loyal audience for twenty-two years by this time; Nemesis was the tenth installment?and Serenity is the first attempt.

Star Trek: Insurrection had opened to $9.0 million in 2,620 theaters and averaged $3,443/screen. The next day it dropped 18%, which was similar to the decline of Volume 2. Second day drops north of 20% are rare, but they?ve happened. The re-release of Grease had slipped 32% in its second day after opening to $6.1 million in 2,064 theaters, and it finished the weekend with $12.7 million. And Lords of Dogtown fell 30% from its $2.6 million Friday debut. Serenity?s the kind of movie that could challenge such a second-day-drop record, if not just rank up there (whether it?s 20 or 30%). Whatever the movie opens to, its Friday-to-Friday drop is likely to be disastrous, and could possibly reach 80%. Nemesis saw an 84% Fri-Fri decline while Insurrection fell 75%. First Contact slipped just 17% from its first weekend to the second, but it debuted at Thanksgiving (its third-week drop was 74%).

Another comparison is the big-screen adaptation of Jackass. That had a loyal cult audience from the show and it opened to $9.7 million in its first day, averaging $3,873/screen in 2,509 theaters. Jackass had the benefit of being backed by Paramount and MTV Films, which has proven to be a powerful combination; but looking at Universal?s track record you?ll notice they usually don?t need the help of MTV. For huge opening weekends? sake, 8 Mile debuted to $51.2 million in just 2,470 theaters, Bruce Almighty $67.9 million, The Hulk $62.1 million, Van Helsing $51.7 million, The Fast and the Furious $40.1 million, and other strong openings include The Scorpion King at $36.1 million, Dawn of the Dead $26.7 million, and Chronicles of Riddick $24.3 million.

Other openings have included 40-Year-Old-Virgin at $21.4 million, The Rundown $18.5 million, The Skeleton Key $16.1 million, Blue Crush $14.2 million, Undercover Brother $12.0 million, and Johnny English $9.1 million. The lowest of the low have included Thunderbirds at $2.8 million in 2,057 theaters for a $1,345 average, Screwed $3.3 million in 1,760 theaters for a $1,975 average, and Fear & Loathing $3.4 million in 1,125 theaters.

I wanted to see Serenity again before I made my final weekend prediction to see if I could get a box office hint (from the movie itself, not the crowd), and so I went to a midnight show on Thursday night (the only one offered in LA). I also wanted to see how the movie held up from my first reaction; after the heat I got for five months, seeing it again seemed mandatory. A friend and I tried to get tickets at 6:30 that night on a free pass we have, but had to come back later since there?s a three-hours-early limit on this card for getting tickets. The movie wasn?t sold out yet. Arriving back at 10:15, we got tickets without a problem, and there was a line of maybe 40 people waiting to get in. Since there was no reason to stand in a line with 40 people when it?s a 400-seat theater, we left.

At 11:20, the line had been let in, and the theater was about half filled (it was eventually 85 - 90% filled). Looking at the crowd, they were exactly the types of people you?d expect to be here at a midnight. For a moment I thought I had stumbled into a comic book convention: chatter was very loud, and guys had their iPods and cell phones out, and I saw at least one guy on a laptop.

The lights dimmed and the crowd cheered, and it was like a total Star Wars experience (and this theater is not known for enthusiastic, vocal audiences at all). Almost every trailer got a reaction. Harry Potter was the first one and it tore the room apart. Doom followed, and most of the crowd knew what it was from the start; and once the POV of the gun showed up, the crowd went wild. The Legend of Zorro played silently until the end when a light applause sounded off; it was the first time I had seen an audience actually respond to this ad. Jarhead and Stay played to silence. The Ice Harvest got a few laughs, and it was the first time this trailer hadn?t played to a deadpan audience. Chronicles of Narnia was the last trailer, and it got a mild applause afterwards. There was also a fake trailer for an animated movie that?s actually an AMC cell phone presentation. This thing had the crowd in hysterics: they couldn?t believe this was an actual movie, and people were extremely disappointed when they found out it was fake ? to them, this was a classic bad trailer. The Feature Presentation tag then came up, and predictably enough, the excitement peaked.

The audience ate this movie up like candy (in comparison, my first audience seemed to be split 50/50 between Firefly fans and people like me who didn?t even know what Firefly was ? and half of that crowd seemed just as bored as I was). Just about every one-liner induced a large round of laughter, and the crowd burst into cheers and applause at a climactic moment at the finale. The crowd was ecstatic when the movie finished, and two people even gave it a standing ovation. To say that I wasn't on the same page as this crowd would be a whopping under-statement, but I won?t go there ? I?ve already pissed off enough people? I will say that my reaction to Serenity hasn?t changed a bit.

The crowd status (and reaction) reminded me of Batman Begins at midnight, but considering there was only one midnight show in LA for Serenity, that?s not a great sign. Batman grossed $15.1 million on its first day (Wednesday) and averaged $4,053/screen in 3,718 theaters. It?s very doubtful that Serenity has as big of an audience (there?s only one theater in LA that has it booked on two screens, which is not a great sign either), but given its modest theater count, a strong opening day average could still result. My final prediction for Serenity is roughly $6.0 million on Friday with a Star Trek: Nemesis-like second-day drop, but I still haven?t excluded $8.0 million as a possibility (which was my initial forecast). This is one of those rare movies in which my predictions are all over the map; I?m not confidently locked on $4.5, 6 - 7, or 8 million (I?m ready for anything). Universal?s track record makes me want to put Serenity at number one for the weekend, but they?re up against Disney, the studio that is known for skillful marketing, which could allow Flightplan to remain at the top. Whatever Serenity opens to, though, I can safely say that it?s going to be an interesting weekend (followed by an even more interesting second week).
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'Serenity' Articles
  • Serenity Fails at the Box Office
    October 12, 2005    Most cult movies and TV shows don?t last long or do very well at the box office. Mainstream audiences don?t want ?niche? programming; all they desire are paintings in very broad strokes. -- Scott Sycamore
  • Scott's Serenity review D+
    October 3, 2005    Non-fans {of Firefly} are not going to be captivated at all by this lame and lightweight tripe. -- Scott Sycamore
  • Friday Box Office Analysis (9/30)
    October 1, 2005    It seems {Serenity} mostly attracted the diehards of the series, which doesn?t boast well for its durability; its Saturday holdup will say quite a bit about its appeal. -- Lee Tistaert
  • Not so Serene: The Review That Burst a Beehive
    September 29, 2005    After the review was posted, links to his review started showing up all over the internet, and Lee was bombarded with hate mail, most of which was so vulgar and confused that it was hard to take seriously. -- Stephen Lucas
  • Lee's Serenity review D+
    April 25, 2005    If you took the sci-fi element of Pluto Nash, mixed it with the outrageousness of Steel, and added in the really bad dialogue from Paycheck, Serenity would be the result. -- Lee Tistaert